Winged Wednesday – A New Tuxedo for Penguins

Everyone is familiar with the typical penguins with their black feathers with predominantly black beaks; however, recently, a penguin has been spotted with whitish-yellow feathers with a white beak. In 2019, Photographer Yves Adams went on a two-month expedition to the islands of South Georgia in order to take photos of wildlife. While he saw 120,000 king penguins in this island, one stood out prominently with its yellow feathers.

Image from Yves Adams (Used by permission)

After taking the photos and sharing them with the world, many have speculated on how this happened. From the first source, National Geographic, penguin expert P. Dee Boersma guessed that the “yellow-maned bird” is due to leucism, “a genetic mutation in which an animal is mostly white but can produce some pigment.”

How does this occur? For birds that have leucism, their plumage lacks melanin pigment due to the cells responsible for melanin production being absent. This results in a white feathers, unless the normal plumage colour also comprises carotenoids, which can give off a yellow coloring. Although leucism is inherited, because it is recessive, the severity and where the white coloration is different compared to adults and their offspring. In this case, the penguin had a dark border around the yellow and white feathers, showing evidence that the bird is producing some melanin of brown or black pigment.This is especially true as if the bird was albino, it would produce no pigment at all. Others such as Kevin McGraw, an integrative behavioral ecologist, believe that the penguin has albinism as it does lack pigment and the yellow or dark brown coloring could be a non-melanin pigment. Needless to say, scientists still need to test the feathers for biochemical testing to truly see if the melanin is there.

Image from Yves Adams (Used by permission)

Penguins use their feathers and its colors for multiple situations, including “mate selection, camouflage or protection from the sun” (LiveScience). Now the bigger question arrives: will this rare yellow penguin be able to pass down its genes to his/her offsprings? As of right now, we cannot determine the gender of the penguin. Nevertheless, we know that with males, there will be a huge problem to attract the female penguins with the unique colored feathers; however, if it were a female, “there’s about three males to every female,” so there would be no worries in seeing this unique gene down to its offspring. However, if this unique plumage were to be passed down, there are some hazardous effects: “lighter plumage may rob the birds of protective camouflage,” making them more vulnerable to predators, and melanin itself is an “important structural component of feathers,” so the yellow-penguins could have weaker feathers, making them wear out quicker (theSpruce). This could mean that they are unable to swim swiftly in the ocean, exposing them to being caught by predators like sea lions, bigger birds, seals, and polar bears. Also, this means that it could eliminate some of the bird’s insulation against harsh weather, which is horrendously crucial as penguins live in temperatures as cold as -20 degrees celsius. Even so, I have a suspicion that this mutation could potentially be an important factor for the penguins to survive in the future. As our world is getting warmer due to global warming, these white feathers would actually reflect heat more efficiently, maintaining the proper internal temperature they need. All-in-all, with the constantly changing world, this unique penguin could perhaps lead a new path for the sustainability of king penguins.

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Biology Teacher

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