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Concept: Emperor Penguin


Returning to the shore after a feeding sojourn at sea, king penguins often undertake a relatively long terrestrial journey to the breeding colony carrying a heavy, mostly frontal, accumulation of fat along with food in the stomach for chick-provisioning. There they must survive a fasting period of up to a month in duration, during which their complete reliance on endogenous energy stores results in a dramatic loss in body mass. Our aim was to determine if the king penguin’s walking gait changes with variations in body mass. We investigated this by walking king penguins on a treadmill while instrumented with an acceleration data logger. The stride frequency, dynamic body acceleration (DBA) and posture of fat (pre-fasting; 13.2 kg) and slim (post fasting; 11 kg) king penguins were assessed while they walked at the same speed (1.4km/h) on a treadmill. Paired statistical tests indicated no evidence for a difference in dynamic body acceleration or stride frequency between the two body masses however there was substantially less variability in both leaning angle and the leaning amplitude of the body when the birds were slimmer. Furthermore, there was some evidence that the slimmer birds exhibited a decrease in waddling amplitude. We suggest the increase in variability of both leaning angle and amplitude, as well as a possibly greater variability in the waddling amplitude, is likely to result from the frontal fat accumulation when the birds are heavier, which may move the centre of mass anteriorly, resulting in a less stable upright posture. This study is the first to use accelerometry to better understand the gait of a species within a specific ecological context: the considerable body mass change exhibited by king penguins.

Concepts: Mass, Bird, Classical mechanics, Penguin, Emperor Penguin, King Penguin, Walking, Penguins


We describe a new breeding behaviour discovered in emperor penguins; utilizing satellite and aerial-survey observations four emperor penguin breeding colonies have been recorded as existing on ice-shelves. Emperors have previously been considered as a sea-ice obligate species, with 44 of the 46 colonies located on sea-ice (the other two small colonies are on land). Of the colonies found on ice-shelves, two are newly discovered, and these have been recorded on shelves every season that they have been observed, the other two have been recorded both on ice-shelves and sea-ice in different breeding seasons. We conduct two analyses; the first using synthetic aperture radar data to assess why the largest of the four colonies, for which we have most data, locates sometimes on the shelf and sometimes on the sea-ice, and find that in years where the sea-ice forms late, the colony relocates onto the ice-shelf. The second analysis uses a number of environmental variables to test the habitat marginality of all emperor penguin breeding sites. We find that three of the four colonies reported in this study are in the most northerly, warmest conditions where sea-ice is often sub-optimal. The emperor penguin’s reliance on sea-ice as a breeding platform coupled with recent concerns over changed sea-ice patterns consequent on regional warming, has led to their designation as “near threatened” in the IUCN red list. Current climate models predict that future loss of sea-ice around the Antarctic coastline will negatively impact emperor numbers; recent estimates suggest a halving of the population by 2052. The discovery of this new breeding behaviour at marginal sites could mitigate some of the consequences of sea-ice loss; potential benefits and whether these are permanent or temporary need to be considered and understood before further attempts are made to predict the population trajectory of this iconic species.

Concepts: Bird, Penguin, Emperor Penguin, King Penguin, Antarctica, IUCN Red List, Antarctic Peninsula, March of the Penguins


During the cold austral winter, king penguin chicks are infrequently fed by their parents and thus experience severe nutritional deprivation under harsh environmental conditions. These energetic constraints lead to a range of energy sparing mechanisms balanced by the maintenance of efficient thermogenic processes. The present work investigated whether the high thermogenic capacities exhibited by winter-acclimatized king penguin chicks could be related to an increase in lipid substrate supply and oxidation in skeletal muscle, the main site of thermogenesis in birds. To test this hypothesis, we examined i) the effect of an experimental rise in plasma triglyceride on the whole metabolic rate in winter-acclimatized (WA) and de-acclimatized king penguin chicks kept at thermoneutrality (TN), and ii) investigated the fuel preference of muscle mitochondria. In vivo, a perfusion of a lipid emulsion induced a small 10% increase of metabolic rate in WA chicks but not in TN group. In vitro, the oxidation rate of muscle mitochondria respiring on lipid-derived substrate was +40% higher in WA chicks than in TN, while no differences were found between groups when mitochondria oxidized carbohydrate-derived substrate or succinate. Despite an enhanced fuel selection towards lipid oxidation in skeletal muscle, a rise of circulating lipids per se was not sufficient to fully unravel the thermogenic capacity of winter-acclimatized king penguin chicks.

Concepts: Photosynthesis, Metabolism, Adenosine triphosphate, Energy, Cellular respiration, Lipid, Emperor Penguin, King Penguin


We developed an automated method using depth and one axis of body acceleration data recorded by animal-borne data loggers to identify activities of penguins over long-term deployments. Using this technique, we evaluated the activity time budget of emperor penguins (n = 10) both in water and on sea ice during foraging trips in chick-rearing season. During the foraging trips, emperor penguins alternated dive bouts (4.8±4.5 h) and rest periods on sea ice (2.5±2.3 h). After recorder deployment and release near the colony, the birds spent 17.9±8.4% of their time traveling until they reached the ice edge. Once at the ice edge, they stayed there more than 4 hours before the first dive. After the first dive, the mean proportions of time spent on the ice and in water were 30.8±7.4% and 69.2±7.4%, respectively. When in the water, they spent 67.9±3.1% of time making dives deeper than 5 m. Dive activity had no typical diurnal pattern for individual birds. While in the water between dives, the birds had short resting periods (1.2±1.7 min) and periods of swimming at depths shallower than 5 m (0.25±0.38 min). When the birds were on the ice, they primarily used time for resting (90.3±4.1% of time) and spent only 9.7±4.1% of time traveling. Thus, it appears that, during foraging trips at sea, emperor penguins traveled during dives >5 m depth, and that sea ice was primarily used for resting. Sea ice probably provides refuge from natural predators such as leopard seals. We also suggest that 24 hours of sunlight and the cycling of dive bouts with short rest periods on sea ice allow emperor penguins to dive continuously throughout the day during foraging trips to sea.

Concepts: Time, Water, Climate, Bird, Penguin, Emperor Penguin, Ocean, King Penguin


Antarctic penguins survive some of the harshest conditions on the planet. Emperor penguins breed on the sea ice where temperatures drop below -40°C and forage in -1.8°C waters. Their ability to maintain 38°C body temperature in these conditions is due in large part to their feathered coat. Penguins have been reported to have the highest contour feather density of any bird, and both filoplumes and plumules (downy feathers) are reported absent in penguins. In studies modelling the heat transfer properties and the potential biomimetic applications of penguin plumage design, the insulative properties of penguin plumage have been attributed to the single afterfeather attached to contour feathers. This attribution of the afterfeather as the sole insulation component has been repeated in subsequent studies. Our results demonstrate the presence of both plumules and filoplumes in the penguin body plumage. The downy plumules are four times denser than afterfeathers and play a key, previously overlooked role in penguin survival. Our study also does not support the report that emperor penguins have the highest contour feather density.

Concepts: Temperature, Bird, Heat, Penguin, Emperor Penguin, King Penguin, Feather, Feathers


The relationship between population structure and demographic history is critical to understanding microevolution and for predicting the resilience of species to environmental change. Using mitochondrial DNA from extant colonies and radiocarbon-dated subfossils, we present the first microevolutionary analysis of emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) and show their population trends throughout the last glacial maximum (LGM, 19.5-16 kya) and during the subsequent period of warming and sea ice retreat. We found evidence for three mitochondrial clades within emperor penguins, suggesting that they were isolated within three glacial refugia during the LGM. One of these clades has remained largely isolated within the Ross Sea, while the two other clades have intermixed around the coast of Antarctica from Adélie Land to the Weddell Sea. The differentiation of the Ross Sea population has been preserved despite rapid population growth and opportunities for migration. Low effective population sizes during the LGM, followed by a rapid expansion around the beginning of the Holocene, suggest that an optimum set of sea ice conditions exist for emperor penguins, corresponding to available foraging area.

Concepts: Bird, Penguin, Emperor Penguin, King Penguin, Antarctica, Glaciology, McMurdo Sound, Antarctic Peninsula


Emperor penguins Aptenodytes forsteri are able to survive the harsh Antarctic climate because of specialized anatomical, physiological and behavioural adaptations for minimizing heat loss. Heat transfer theory predicts that metabolic heat loss in this species will mostly depend on radiative and convective cooling. To examine this, thermal imaging of emperor penguins was undertaken at the breeding colony of Pointe Géologie in Terre Adélie (66°40' S 140° 01' E), Antarctica in June 2008. During clear sky conditions, most outer surfaces of the body were colder than surrounding sub-zero air owing to radiative cooling. In these conditions, the feather surface will paradoxically gain heat by convection from surrounding air. However, owing to the low thermal conductivity of plumage any heat transfer to the skin surface will be negligible. Future thermal imaging studies are likely to yield further insights into the adaptations of this species to the Antarctic climate.

Concepts: Temperature, Bird, Heat, Heat transfer, Penguin, Emperor Penguin, King Penguin, Antarctic Peninsula


Defining reliable demographic models is essential to understand the threats of ongoing environmental change. Yet, in the most remote and threatened areas, models are often based on the survey of a single population, assuming stationarity and independence in population responses. This is the case for the Emperor penguin Aptenodytes forsteri, a flagship Antarctic species that may be at high risk continent-wide before 2100. Here, using genome-wide data from the whole Antarctic continent, we reveal that this top-predator is organized as one single global population with a shared demography since the late Quaternary. We refute the view of the local population as a relevant demographic unit, and highlight that (i) robust extinction risk estimations are only possible by including dispersal rates and (ii) colony-scaled population size is rather indicative of local stochastic events, whereas the species' response to global environmental change is likely to follow a shared evolutionary trajectory.

Concepts: Demography, Population, Bird, Penguin, Emperor Penguin, King Penguin, Antarctica, Aptenodytes


Seabird populations of the Southern Ocean have been responding to climate change for the last three decades and demographic models suggest that projected warming will cause dramatic population changes over the next century. Shift in species distribution is likely to be one of the major possible adaptations to changing environmental conditions. Habitat models based on a unique long-term tracking dataset of king penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) breeding on the Crozet Islands (southern Indian Ocean) revealed that despite a significant influence of primary productivity and mesoscale activity, sea surface temperature consistently drove penguins' foraging distribution. According to climate models of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the projected warming of surface waters would lead to a gradual southward shift of the more profitable foraging zones, ranging from 25 km per decade for the B1 IPCC scenario to 40 km per decade for the A1B and A2 scenarios. As a consequence, distances travelled by incubating and brooding birds to reach optimal foraging zones associated with the polar front would double by 2100. Such a shift is far beyond the usual foraging range of king penguins breeding and would negatively affect the Crozet population on the long term, unless penguins develop alternative foraging strategies.

Concepts: Indian Ocean, Penguin, Emperor Penguin, King Penguin, Antarctica, Penguins, Crozet Islands, Aptenodytes


Most studies concerning the foraging ecology of marine vertebrates are limited to breeding adults, although other life history stages might comprise half the total population. For penguins, little is known about juvenile dispersal, a period when individuals may be susceptible to increased mortality given their naïve foraging behaviour. Therefore, we used satellite telemetry to study king penguin fledglings (n = 18) from two sites in the Southwest Atlantic in December 2007. The two sites differed with respect to climate and proximity to the Antarctic Polar Front (APF), a key oceanographic feature generally thought to be important for king penguin foraging success. Accordingly, birds from both sites foraged predominantly in the vicinity of the APF. Eight king penguins were tracked for periods greater than 120 days; seven of these (three from the Falkland Islands and four from South Georgia) migrated into the Pacific. Only one bird from the Falkland Islands moved into the Indian Ocean, visiting the northern limit of the winter pack-ice. Three others from the Falkland Islands migrated to the eastern coast of Tierra del Fuego before travelling south. Derived tracking parameters describing their migratory behaviour showed no significant differences between sites. Nevertheless, generalized linear habitat modelling revealed that juveniles from the Falkland Islands spent more time in comparatively shallow waters with low sea surface temperature, sea surface height and chlorophyll variability. Birds from South Georgia spent more time in deeper waters with low sea surface temperature and sea surface height, but high concentrations of chlorophyll. Our results indicate that inexperienced king penguins, irrespective of the location of their natal site in relation to the position of the APF, develop their foraging skills progressively over time, including specific adaptations to the environment around their prospective breeding site.

Concepts: Atlantic Ocean, Penguin, Emperor Penguin, King Penguin, Argentina, Antarctica, Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands