Origins ANTARCTICA, Scientific Journeys from McMurdo to the Pole
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Visiting the Penguin Ranch.

Penguin Ranch

Emperor penguins on and under the ice.
by Mary K. Miller

December 15, 2001

Because cats and dogs are banned from Antarctica, the closest thing to pets or official mascots around here are the penguins. The scientists—they’re called “beakers” in McMurdo language—might call them the “charismatic megafauna” of the Antarctic, but that doesn’t begin to explain their appeal. They are very curious birds and will walk right up to people to check them out, giving them a seemingly friendly demeanor that is rare in the animal world.

Or perhaps they’re endearing for their beautiful black-and-white plumage and the comical way they walk around on the ice. Our McMurdo friend Karen Joyce describes the regal Emperor penguin as the British bankers of the bird world, waddling around with their big bellies in front of them. The Adelies are more like little children scampering around with their pants around their ankles.

Scientists studying animal locomotion have found that the gait of a penguin is actually quite efficient for moving around on the ice and jumping over obstacles. But when they really want to go fast, penguins will flop on their bellies and toboggan over the ice.

Penguins are also remarkable for the ways in which they’ve adapted to the extreme climate of Antarctica. The Emperor penguins are the only birds that stay here on the continent all year, exposed to the harshest winter conditions in the world. In the complete darkness of the polar winter, air temperatures can drop to below -40 degrees C (-104 degrees F). It’s the job of the male Emperor penguins to incubate and hatch the eggs in the winter while the females take to the sea to feed.

For three months, the males do not eat, but they still manage to feed the newly hatched chicks with an oily secretion they produce for that purpose. Fasting, incubating eggs, and feeding chicks during the coldest part of the Antarctic winter is an incredible physiological feat that is only possible because these birds live and feed in one of the most abundant marine ecosystems on earth.

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