Emperor Penguin Facts

Scientific Name: Aptenodytes forsteri

Male and female emperor penguins look alike.
Male and female emperor penguins look alike.

David Tipling, Getty Images

The emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) is the largest type of penguin. The bird is adapted to living its entire life in the cold of the Antarctic coast. The generic name Aptenodytes means "diver without wings" in Ancient Greek. Like other penguins, the emperor does have wings, but it cannot fly. Its stiff wings act as flippers to help the bird swim gracefully.

Fast Facts: Emperor Penguin

  • Scientific Name: Aptenodytes forsteri
  • Common Name: Emperor penguin
  • Basic Animal Group: Bird
  • Size: 43-51 inches
  • Weight: 50-100 pounds
  • Lifespan: 20 years
  • Diet: Carnivore
  • Habitat: Antarctic coast
  • Population: Fewer than 600,000
  • Conservation Status: Near Threatened


Description

Adult emperor penguins stand between 43 and 51 inches tall and weigh between 50 and 100 pounds. Weight depends on sex and season. Overall, males weigh more than females, but both males and females lose weight when incubating eggs and raising hatchlings. After the breeding seasons, both sexes weigh around 51 pounds. Males enter the season between 84 and 100 pounds, while females average around 65 pounds.

Adults have black dorsal plumage, white feathers under their wings and on their bellies, and yellow ear patches and upper breast feathers. The upper part of the bill is black, while the lower mandible may be orange, pink, or lavender. Adult plumage fades to brown before molting each year in summer. Chicks have black heads, white masks, and gray down.

Emperor penguins have bodies streamlined for swimming, flipper-like wings, and black feet. Their tongues are coated with rear-facing barbs that help prevent prey from escaping.

Penguin bones are solid rather than hollow to help the birds survive the pressure of deep water. Their hemoglobin and myoglobin help them survive at the low blood oxygen levels associated with diving.

On land, emperor penguins either waddle or slide on their bellies.
On land, emperor penguins either waddle or slide on their bellies. Sian Seabrook, Getty Images

Habitat and Distribution

Emperor penguins live along the coast of Antarctica between 66° and 77° south latitudes. Colonies live on land, shelf ice, and sea ice. Breeding occurs on pack ice as far as 11 miles offshore.

Diet

Penguins are carnivores that prey upon fish, crustaceans, and cephalopods. They are social birds that often hunt together. They can dive to 1,500 feet, spend up to 20 minutes underwater, and forage over 300 miles from their colony.

Chicks are hunted by Southern giant petrel and south polar skuas. Adults are only preyed upon by leopard seals and orcas.

Behavior

Penguins live in colonies ranging from 10 to hundreds of birds. When temperatures drop, penguins huddle in a rough circle around juveniles, slowly shuffling around so each adult gets a chance to shelter from the wind and cold.

Emperor penguins use vocal calls to identify each other and communicate. Adults can call at two frequencies simultaneously. Chicks modulate the frequency of their whistle to call parents and indicate hunger.

Reproduction and Offspring

Although sexually mature at three years of age, most emperors don't start breeding until they are four to six years old. In March and April, adults begin courtship and walk 35 to 75 miles inland to nesting areas. The birds take one mate each year. In May or June, the female lays a single greenish-white egg, which weighs about one pound. She passes the egg to male and leaves him for two months to return to the sea to hunt. The male incubates the egg, balancing it on his feet to keep it off the ice. He fasts about 115 days until the egg hatches and his mate returns. For the first week, the male feeds the hatchling crop milk from a special gland in his esophagus. When the female returns, she feeds the chick regurgitated food, while the male leaves to hunt. The parents take turns hunting and feeding the chick. The chicks molt into adult plumage in November. In December and January all of the birds return to the sea to feed.

Less than 20% of chicks survive the first year, as a parent must abandon a chick if its mate doesn't return before the guardian's energy reserves are depleted. The adult survival rate from year to year is about 95%. The average lifespan of an emperor penguin is around 20 years, but a few birds may live as long as 50 years.

Males keep chicks warm by resting them on their feet and snuggling them in an area of feathers called the
Males keep chicks warm by resting them on their feet and snuggling them in an area of feathers called the "brood patch.". Sylvain Cordier, Getty Images

Conservation Status

The IUCN updated the conservation classification status of the emperor penguin from "least concern" to "near threatened" in 2012. A 2009 survey estimated the number of emperor penguins to be about 595,000 individuals. The population trend is unknown, but suspected to be decreasing, with a risk of extinction by the year 2100.

Emperor penguins are highly sensitive to climate change. Adults die when temperatures rise high enough to reduce sea ice coverage, while low temperatures and and too much sea ice increases chick deaths. Melting sea ice from global warming not only affects the penguin habitat, but also the species' food supply. Krill numbers, in particular, fall when sea ice melts.

Emperor Penguins and Humans

Emperor penguins also face threats from humans. Commercial fishing has reduced food availability and tourism disrupts breeding colonies.

Emperor penguins have been kept in captivity since the 1930s, but only successfully bred since the 1980s. In at least one case, an injured emperor penguin was rescued and released back into the wild.

Sources

  • BirdLife International 2018. Aptenodytes forsteri. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T22697752A132600320. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2018-2.RLTS.T22697752A132600320.en
  • Burnie, D. and D.E. Wilson (Eds.). Animal: The Definitive Visual Guide to the World's Wildlife. DK Adult, 2005. ISBN 0-7894-7764-5.
  • Jenouvrier, S.; Caswell, H.; Barbraud, C.; Holland, M.; Str Ve, J.; Weimerskirch, H. "Demographic models and IPCC climate projections predict the decline of an emperor penguin population". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 106 (6): 1844–1847, 2009. doi:10.1073/pnas.0806638106
  • Williams, Tony D. The Penguins. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1995. ISBN 978-0-19-854667-2.
  • Wood, Gerald. The Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats. 1983. ISBN 978-0-85112-235-9.