February 8, 2011

There is no creature more emblematic of Antarctica than the penguin. Cute and quaint, penguins confound all who regard anthropomorphism as a sin. Speaking for myself, I have entirely given myself over to this terrible vice: to me, penguins wear little tuxedos and waddle around like over-stuffed English gentlemen enjoying the sights.

According to Penguin World, there are five species of penguin living in Antarctica today, but two species in particular appear repeatedly in the accounts of explorers: the Adélie and the Emperor.

Adélie penguin

The Adélie is a relatively small penguin, weighing about 5 kg (11 lbs). Like all penguins, it is sociable and lives in large groups. There are apparently about 5 million Adélie penguins living in the Ross Sea area of Antarctica, which explains why the explorers saw them so often. Despite there being no trees or plants in Antarctica, these penguins still build nests: they make circles of stones on the ground. As with other penguins, they keep their eggs warm not by sitting on them, but by balancing the eggs on their feet and under their bellies.

Antarctic literature abounds with affectionate descriptions of the humorous antics of this little bird. Here, for instance, is David Lewis, in his book Ice Bird, describing a colony of Adélie penguins:

Each adult had accumulated a ring of stones around itself. While it stood gazing contemplatively into the distance, its neighbour in the rear would snatch as many stones as it could get away with. Once the victim came out of its trance and saw what was happening it would squawk and wave its flippers in protest at the raider, only to succumb to temptation, in its turn, once another’s back was turned. The most acquisitive had accumulated great piles, while the least alert had been almost completely despoiled of these treasures.


Emperor penguins (Source: Polar Conservation)

The Emperor penguin is, as its name indicates, the largest and mightiest of the penguins (excluding the long extinct Anthropornis nordenskjoeldi, which, rather horrifyingly, was as large as a man). Emperors can tip the scales at over 30 kg (66 lbs) and stand up to 120 cm (4 ft) high. They have a certain dignity that the smaller Adélie’s lack — though, being penguins, this does not prevent their being ridiculous anyway. We may say that when they stand still, like little evening-wear buddhas, their contemplative air of boundless patience under suffering evokes a kind of reverence; when they walk, however, the reverence yields to mirth.

Emperor penguins are important for Antarctic exploration principally on account of something that happened during Robert Falcon Scott’s final expedition. The expedition had a significant scientific mandate, and certain members wanted to collect Emperor penguin eggs in order to study the bird’s embryology. Unfortunately, Emperor penguins hatch in the Antarctic spring, which means that eggs must be collected in the Antarctic winter, when it is both dark and very cold. The story of the horrendous difficulties and hair-raising dangers the expedition members suffered to collect those eggs is told in Apsley Cherry-Gerrard’s classic adventure book The Worst Journey in the World, which, having been once read, will forever cure one of complaints about the high cost of Emperor penguin omelettes.

I have remarked upon the ludicrous figure cut by penguins on ice. It is well, of course, to remember that a penguin is most at home in the water. Indeed, I may say (dispensing now with even my last shreds of scientific respectability) that a penguin is really more a fish than a bird. We are privileged in our time to have the means of viewing these fish underwater, where they are transformed from awkward to awe-inspiring.

7 Responses to “Penguins”

  1. Christina A. Says:

    Big smile over here 😀

    You must also know about the children’s tv series “Pingu”? It’s really delightful and available on YouTube. It’s the only show that Baby is allowed to watch (and still only on rare occasion!).

  2. cburrell Says:

    Never heard of it, but I’ll check it out. In our house we watch BBC penguin clips with the little one. This morning we saw a penguin brutally killed by a sea leopard.

  3. KathyB Says:

    I hope you have seen the documentary “The March of the Penguins” that came out a few years ago. It was very good! And as I recall, suitable for a general audience.

  4. Janet Says:


    I have had a really rough day and pretty much feel like I’ve been brutally savaged by a sea leopard, but you have made my day. I really needed a good laugh, and I think that Apsley Cherry-Gerrard is the most delightful name I have ever encountered. I’m sure he must know Bertie Wooster.

    And I love the way the head of the third Emperor from the right fits almost perfectly under the head of the second Emperor from the right.

    I’m a bit worried, though, that I might have a dream about a Anthropornis nordenskjoeldi.


  5. cburrell Says:

    I have seen that film, Kathy, and I enjoyed it. The life-cycle of the Emperors is really astonishing. I was amazed that a bird that can only waddle has to waddle such a long distance.

    Janet, you have made my day. Thank you.I hope that you do not have that dream. I have had it, and I can tell you that it is horrible.

  6. Adam Hincks Says:

    I was disappointed not to see the Jackass Penguin listed on the Penguin World map you linked, and then more disappointed to see that it’s been given a much less colourful name.

  7. Janet Says:

    Yes, I heard that the Jackass Defamation League complained.


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