In honor of the Kansas City Zoo’s latest exhibit, this blog is about penguins. The tuxedoed critter is more than just an animal of the arctic. There are 18, possibly 19, species of penguin around the world. Livings almost exclusively in the southern hemisphere, penguins inhabit Antarctica, New Zealand, and the southern tips South America and Africa. The exception is the Galápagos penguin, which lives in the northern hemisphere.
These little birds are categorized as threatened to endangered, some are even on the brink of extinction. The major threat to penguins is human encroachment and pollution. Penguins sometimes get caught in fisherman’s nets or attacked by predators brought by humans such as dogs and cats. Oil spills can be devastating for all marine life including the penguin. Climate change also affects the penguins because the warm water decreases the area in which they can breed.
One of the first things that people think of when they hear the word penguin is the male emperor penguin balancing a delicate egg between his legs. Outside of this pouch, a chick would die in a matter of seconds. When the egg hatches, the male feeds it milk created in the esophagus. This is only one species of penguin. For example the Magellanic penguin is named after the explorer Ferdinand Magellan who first recorded them in 1520. They live in the southern tip of South Africa.
To keep themselves warm, penguins have a layer of blubber and water-resistant feathers. Molting for a penguin has three stages. First they fill themselves with fish, because during the molting process, penguins are unable to hunt for fish. During the second stage they will fast, waiting two or three weeks for the new feathers to grow in. They will use up their fat reserves from the previous stage. The last stage is normally for wild penguins only. They will head to the sea to replace the lost body weight.
Their diet consists mainly of krill, fish, and squid. The closer the penguin is to the equator, the more likely they will eat mainly fish. The farther away from the equator, the more likely the penguin will eat krill and squid. Hunting grounds can range from 9 miles for a colony of Adélies to 102 miles for a colony of Emperor penguins in a single foraging trip. Penguins catch their pray and swallow it whole, using their spiny tongue and strong jaws while swimming.
The Macaroni penguin, the one with the bushy yellow eyebrows, has the largest population with approximately 11,654,000 pairs. The endangered Galápagos penguin has the lowest population with about 6,000 to 15,000 individual penguins.
Most penguins are social creatures and this works to the advantage of penguins like the Emperor. At wind chills of -76˚F, Emperor penguins huddle together to conserve warmth and escape the wind. As the penguin heats up, it will travel farther away from the center so others can feel the warmth.
In summary, penguins are not just the black and white birds living on a block of ice. Penguins are a diverse species living from Antarctica to the Galápagos Island, but are all affected by the same thing. Climate change, pollution, and human interference all reduce the population of this adored, flightless bird.