The penguin is the most common species of bird found in the Antarctic. Although there are 17 species of penguin, only four actually breed on the continent of Antarctica. These are Adelie, Emperor, Chinstrap and Gentoo. Most of the others are found in sub Antarctic regions which includes many coastal islands and they can also be seen as far north as the Galapagos Islands.
The Penguin Name
There is no known origin of the word penguin although some believe it could have come from the welsh “pen gwyn” which means white head or the Latin “pinguis” which refers to the fat or blubber of a bird.
The Penguin’s Appearance
All species of penguin have a stricking black and white coat. The distinguishing features and colours are on the head and neck. They vary greatly in size from the little penguin which is about 1.1 kilograms in weight and reaches a height of about 40 centimetres to the emperor penguin which weighs approximately 40 kilograms and stands 115 centimetres tall. Their feathers overlap like roof tiles which provide a waterproof barrier and there is a layer of fluffy feathers underneath for warmth. A thick layer of fat or blubber under the skin provides insulation. Their bones are solid and heavy.
Although these magnificent creatures have wings and feathers just like any other bird, they cannot fly and have evolved as the most efficient swimmers and divers of all birds. Their wings are short and stiff like flippers and their legs, which are set far back in their body, together with their tail, act as an under water rudder. They are excellent divers and can plummet to depths of over 250 metres, although many stay in a depth of up to 10 metres. Even though some penguins spend up to 75% of their time at sea, they are rarely seen under water. On land, they walk awkwardly in a very upright stance due to the positioning of their feet but despite this, they can travel vast distances either on foot or by sliding across the ice on their bellies.
Penguins live in very harsh, very cold conditions in large colonies called “rookeries” Some of these colonies have populations of over 180,000 birds which is larger than some cities. Despite spending much of their time at sea, they always come onto land or sea-ice attached to land to breed. Their breeding cycle is very strict and they hatch their chicks so they can fend for themselves when food is most plentiful. Nests of stone are built and used to incubate one, sometimes two eggs. Both the mother and the father take it in turns to incubate the eggs and to feed the chicks once they are hatched until it is time for them to go it alone.
The penguin’s natural enemies are seals, killer whales and, in the case of the young chicks and eggs, some seabirds. Penguins have no predators on land so they have no natural fear of humans and are, even, sometimes, inquisitive of them.
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