Penguins are aquatic, flightless birds that are highly adapted to life in the water, with wing-bones being more like flipper bones and extremely suited to swimming rather than flying.
In the water they are expert swimmers and divers, and some species can reach speeds of up to 15 miles per hour. The penguin’s distinctive colouring—black body with white belly—also helps camouflage the bird in the water as it searches for meals of small shrimp, fish, crabs and squid.
There are 18 penguin species and they occupy a host of habitats, from forests in New Zealand to the volcanic islands of the Galapagos, and from the beaches of southern Africa to far-flung Sub-Antarctic Islands, where they catch their food underwater and raise their young on land.
In many species , the male penguins play a crucial role in the rearing of their chicks and in some species, the males have developed extraordinary behaviours to both ‘woo’ their partner prior to mating, and to showing her that they can provide for her nest building needs.
Male Gentoo Penguins woo females by gifting them with pebbles, they will search through piles of pebbles to find the smoothest, most perfect ones. When a penguin has selected his pebble, he presents it to his intended companion for her to add to the nest.
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Male Adelie penguins are in fact nest builders, with their aim to attract a female by building the biggest and best nest. To do this they use small rocks they collect from the surrounding areas and roll them back with their beaks or - if small enough - pick them up and carry them in their beaks.
As competition for pebbles, and pressure to please their mates is high, males will frequently raid the nests of neighbouring pairs to steal the best pebbles and present these to their own partners.
After successfully finding a mate and filling the nest with shiny pebbles, the females lay their eggs. The penguin parents share the incubation and parenting duties and, when the chicks reach three to four months of age, they are old enough to leave the nest and join a large crèche with the other penguin chicks. Whilst in the crèche the young penguins will learn essential skills such as how to swim and feed for themselves under the watchful eye of experienced adults.
Penguins really are amazing animals
Threats to penguin survival
Of the 18 species of penguin, 10 are listed as either Vulnerable or Endangered on the IUCN Red List, giving them the dubious honour of being the second most threatened group of seabirds, behind only the albatrosses. Like albatrosses, penguins have been experiencing the worst of both worlds. At their land-based breeding sites, predation by introduced species, habitat degradation and disease are driving down numbers.
At sea, oil pollution and the impacts of fisheries – both by depleting prey stocks and through accidental capture in fishing gear – are taking their toll. The spectre of climate change looms over both the terrestrial and marine environments: habitat loss, more frequent intense storms, and disruption to the marine food web are all issues causing further problems for penguin populations.
Climate change is a growing concern for penguins that live in Antarctica—the emperor penguin and the Adelie penguin. These species depend on sea ice for access to food and for places to breed. But the sea ice has been disappearing, and penguin populations along with it. A 2008 WWF study estimated that 50% of the emperor penguins and 75% of the Adelie penguins will likely decline or disappear if global average temperatures rise above pre-industrial levels by just 2 degrees C—a scenario that could be reached in less than 40 years.
There are many organisations dedicated to the protected of penguins and their habitats. For details see:
Fiordland Penguin – Tawaki Project
African Penguin Conservation Projects
SANCCOB – African Penguin
Galapagos Penguin Conservation
On a global scale, the world’s largest Marine Protected Area (MPA) (1.5 million square kilometres!) has been established in the Ross Sea, helping protect both Emperor Penguins and Adélie Penguin.
Improved marine protections across Antarctica – and of course in important penguin feeding areas and migratory routes the world over – are a critical piece of the conservation puzzle. Penguins are living indicators of our stewardship of the marine environment, and as such, are telling us that we have more to do.
FIND OUT MORE
Click the links in the article above to find out how you can get involved and do more for Penguin Conservation