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NATURAL HISTORY

EMPEROR PENGUIN } Aptenodytes forsteri
FAMILY: Spheniscidae

DESCRIPTION: The largest of the world’s penguin species, the emperor penguin stands almost four feet tall and weighs 70 to 90 pounds. It has a gray back, white belly, and orange markings behind its eyes and at the top of its chest.

HABITAT: This penguin is the most ice-adapted of any penguin species, inhabiting pack ice and surrounding marine areas.

RANGE: The emperor penguin ranges throughout coastal Antarctica and may be seen up to 56 miles inland during the breeding season. Range Map

MIGRATION: Emperor penguins make yearly travels inland to breeding sites in the early spring. Near the beginning of summer, adult penguins and their chicks return to the sea and spend the rest of the summer feeding there.

BREEDING: Emperor penguins begin courtship in March or April and are serially monogamous, typically taking one mate per year. The female lays one egg in May or June, transfers the egg to the male, and returns to sea to feed while the male incubates the egg in his brood pouch for about 65 days. After the chick hatches, the male sets the chick on his feet and covers it with his pouch, feeding it a white, milky substance produced by a gland in his esophagus. When the female returns from feeding, the male departs the breeding site to take his turn feeding. A few weeks later, he returns and both parents tend the chick by feeding it regurgitated food and keeping it off the ice. Offspring mortality may result from a variety of causes, including dropping the egg during the initial transfer from female to male, insufficient prey availability, and extreme weather.

LIFE CYCLE: The emperor penguin typically lives 15 to 20 years in the wild, but some records indicate a maximum lifespan of 40 years.

FEEDING: Emperor penguins primarily eat crustaceans such as krill, but they will also occasionally take small fish and squid.

THREATS: Emperor penguins are seriously threatened by global warming, which causes profound changes in the Antarctic ecosystem and impacts them in diverse ways, such as reducing populations of prey species and causing ice shelves to collapse and icebergs to calve. These penguins are also threatened by industrial fisheries, which further reduce prey availability, and human disturbance at breeding colonies.

POPULATION TREND: This species has a large global population; therefore, while global population trends have not been quantified, populations generally appear to be stable. However, the emperor colony at Pointe Geologie has declined 70 percent since the 1960s, largely due to warming waters and changing currents resulting in reduced abundance of prey.

 

Photo by Michael Van Woert, NOAA