The Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) is probably the most recognizable member of the Spheniscidae family, a group of 18 flightless penguin species that inhabit the oceans of the Southern Hemisphere.
They are also the largest penguin species, measuring about 45 inches tall (114cm) and weighing up to 99 pounds (45 kg). So where do these colossal seabirds live?
Emperor Penguins are endemic to Antarctica, the continent that surrounds the South Pole. Most of these birds spend little time on the land, however, being seabirds that hunt in the water and breed on ice sheets.
There are over 50 known breeding colonies where Emperor penguins gather to raise their chicks each winter. Most of these colonies are located on ice sheets that are attached to the coast, although some are on the ice-covered ground.
Emperor Penguins resting on the sea ice, Cape Washington
Emperor Penguins are perfectly adapted for life in one of the coldest parts of the Earth. Amazingly, these flightless birds can maintain their body temperature (and their eggs and chicks) in a frozen world where the mercury can drop to below -40 °F (-40 °C).
Emperor Penguins are incredibly graceful in the water, capable of diving to depths of over 1600 feet (500 m) and swimming at speeds of over 8 miles per hour (13km/h). They are far less capable on land but still manage to trek long distances over the ice to reach their winter breeding colonies each year.
Read along to learn all the facts about where Emperor Penguins live.
Emperor Penguins on Snow Hill Island
Emperor Penguins live and hunt in the waters and on the pack ice and sea ice that surrounds Antarctica. They do occasionally venture onto terra firma however, but this is usually where the sea ice grades smoothly onto the land.
Emperor Penguins are endemic to Antarctica and its coastal waters. They live all around the continent, between about 66° and 78° South.
Continue reading to learn more about the Emperor Penguin habitat and where to see these amazing birds.
A curious Emperor Penguin looking at the ice
Emperor Penguins are marine birds that hunt and forage in the waters surrounding Antarctica, including the Ross Sea and the Weddell Sea. They breed on sea ice near the shore (sometimes on the shore) at over 50 colonies, scattered around the coastline.
The epipelagic (0 - 650 ft / 0 - 200 m) and mesopelagic (650 - 3300 ft / 200 - 1000 m) depths are their most important foraging grounds. Here they dive for fish, krill, and squid, sometimes reaching depths of over 1600 feet (500 m) and staying down for over 20 minutes!
Emperor Penguins are not the easiest birds to see in the wild, simply because of the remoteness of their Antarctic home. In fact, there is no real guarantee that birdwatchers will spot these special penguins, even if they do make the long journey to see them.
Emperor Penguins, are listed as near threatened because their populations are expected to decline as temperatures rise and breeding sites become more restricted. They still occur in good numbers, however, and visitors to the coast of Antarctica have every chance of seeing these wonderful birds.
Breeding pair of Emperor Penguins
Emperor Penguins are kept in captivity in a few zoos in the United States and Asia, and these are the most accessible places to see these birds.
For the more adventurous penguin-watchers, tourist expeditions to places like Snow Hill Island, Gould Bay, and Atka Bay are your best chance to see these birds out in their natural habitat. The journey is not an easy (or cheap) one, of course, involving days at sea, ice-crushing boats, helicopter flights, and sometimes a fair deal of hiking.
Travel package providers suggest late spring (October/November) as the best time to visit the area as this is the time when conditions are best for accessing the area and also a time when the breeding birds and feathered chicks are visible.
A pair of Emperor Penguin chicks, huddled together
Emperor Penguins are highly mobile, non-territorial birds. During a single summer, these birds may travel over a thousand miles to get to and from their summer molting areas on floating pack ice. In the fall, they gather to breed on landfast sea ice and might need to march as far as 70 miles (112km) across the ice to reach their rookery (breeding site).
This is an impressive journey for a bird that can only walk at about 1.7 miles per hour (2.8km/h)!
After fledging, the young Emperor Penguins move north into the open ocean where they perfect their swimming and hunting techniques.
Once more experienced, these young birds return to the colder waters near the coast to hunt below and between the sea ice. The young birds do not return to the breeding colonies until they reach sexual maturity at 5 to 6 years of age.
Emperor penguins on the sea ice of East Antarctica
Emperor Penguins maintain a core body temperature of 98.4 °F (36.9 °C) - very similar to our own. This can be a challenge in one of the coldest parts of the planet, but fortunately, they are perfectly adapted to survive in this extreme environment.
Emperor Penguins rely on their highly insulating feathers to trap more than 80% of their body heat. Their feathers are also a very effective barrier against the strong, icy winds of the Antarctic winter. These colony nesting birds also understand the importance of body heat and will huddle together for warmth.
Insulating feathers and teamwork aren’t the only tricks that Emperor Penguins use for keeping warm, however. These birds also have the following adaptations:
Emperor Penguins have highly insulating feathers that help them stay warm
Emperor Penguins are most at home in temperatures between 14°F and 68°F (-10 °C to 20°C), although air temperatures in their habitat can reach extremes of -40°F (-40°C).
Summer is the time when juvenile Emperor Penguins fledge and leave the breeding colony to forage out at sea. Adult penguins also disperse widely in the summer, a time of year when they may travel as far as 750 miles (1200 km) to find floating pack ice where they can spend a few weeks molting.
Emperor Penguins jumping out of an ice hole
While some penguin species do live in warm climates, the Emperor is certainly not one of them! Emperor Penguins are highly adapted to cold weather and water. While their natural habitat may be icy cold, the warmth created when large numbers huddle together in the breeding colony can reach dangerous levels.
Amazingly, temperatures of over 70 °F (21°C) can be achieved by huddling, which is why the birds come and go to warm up and cool down. Some individuals even eat snow to cool themselves down if they’ve spent too long snuggled together with their neighbors!
Emperor Penguins do not live in the North Pole. In fact, these impressive seabirds are found on the opposite end of the world, in the waters around the South Pole in Antarctica.
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