Antarctica: The Penguins

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Penguins

Situated at the South Pole, Antarctica covers an area of around 5.5 million square miles, making it the fifth largest of the world’s seven continents. Roughly a circular shape, it has a long “arm”, the Antarctic Peninsula, which stretches towards South America, which is the nearest land mass at 600 miles away.

Its size and land mass increase – a phenomenon caused by ice forming around the coasts.  As the coldest continent on the planet, the lowest temperature ever recorded was -89.2°C at the Russian Vostok base, at the Southern Geomagnetic Pole, on 21st July 1983.

Despite its inhospitable climate, Antarctica is home to various wildlife, including several species of penguin. The emperor and Adélie penguins have made the Antarctic continent their home, while the macaroni, gentoo and chinstrap penguins breed on the less harsh northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.

There are an estimated 20 million breeding pairs of penguins in the Antarctic region, that are mainly concentrated in the coastal regions.

 

Why do penguins live in colonies?

Penguins live in colonies called rookeries. They can be enormous, sometimes containing up to one million nesting pairs. Although they are very sociable creatures, penguins live in colonies for safety too. Living in a large group increases the chances of survival for the adults and their young.

It’s easier to protect themselves from predators as a group, because they will issue warning calls and defend their nests when under threat. It lets them collaborate to find food, and makes it easier to find a partner.

Unlike many species, there isn’t a dominant male in the colony. Penguins mate for life and remain in pairs in the group, sometimes with their offspring until the young penguins mature and find a mate themselves.

Remaining monogamous until one of them dies, they normally breed on rocks or tussock grass. Penguins produce eggs, which hatch into chicks.

 

What do penguins eat?

Penguins’ staple diet is fish, although they will also eat krill, squid and crustaceans. Their beak has a hook shape at the end that is useful for grabbing their prey.

Their mouth and tongue have stiff spines pointing backwards that prevent fish that have been caught from swimming out again. Swimming under the ice to catch their prey, they grab the fish one at a time in their bill to swallow them whole – and live.

They are able to drink salt water, as a gland in their body filters it so it’s safe for them to drink – glands under their eyes secrete the excess salt from their body.

 

Exciting discovery

Scientists were stunned to find a massive colony of around 1.5 million Adélie penguins in Antarctica. They were recently discovered in the remote Danger Islands, allaying fears that their numbers were seriously depleted as a result of climate change.

The group was described as a “supercolony” when it was discovered on the nine rocky islands at the Antarctic Peninsula’s tip. Researchers from the US-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution led the team which discovered the colony, according to an article in the journal Scientific Reports.

The Danger Islands hadn’t been a noted penguin habitat prior to this. They are a remote location, surrounded by thick sea ice and difficult waters. It took satellite images from NASA to suggest there was an unusually large number of penguins in the region.

A team of researchers arrived at the site and took drone footage to estimate the number of penguins, taking photographs once every second to gain an accurate picture of the true numbers.

The massive colony is good news, because studies have revealed that the eastern Antarctic Peninsula has been less affected by climate change than the western Antarctic Peninsula so far. The study reveals that the large population of Adélie penguins is likely to remain in the region for some time, as long as it remains a suitable climate for them.

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