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. (Check out a map of the emperor's range.)

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 krill, 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 by causing the early break-up of the sea ice they need for raising their chicks, reducing populations of prey species, and causing ice shelves to collapse and icebergs to calve. Scientists project that 80% of the world’s emperor penguins may disappear by the end of the century without drastic cuts in carbon pollution. These penguins are also threatened by ocean acidification and industrial fisheries, which further reduce prey availability.

POPULATION TREND:  This species has 54 known breeding colonies. Colonies are declining in parts of Antarctica where sea ice is breaking up early due to global warming. The emperor penguin colony at Point Géologie featured in the film March of the Penguins has declined by almost half. The colony at Halley Bay suffered catastrophic breeding failure due to record-low sea ice and early ice breakup. In 2016 more than 10,000 chicks were thought to have drowned when the sea ice broke up before they were ready to swim.

Emperor pengiuin photo by Ian Duffy/Flickr