What do they look like?

Emperor Penguins have a streamlined body and wings that are stiffened and flattened to form flippers. They can be 122 cm tall and weigh between 22 kg and 45 kg. Weight varies according to season, as both the male and female lose a considerable amount of weight whilst incubating their egg and raising their hatchling.

Aptenodytes forsteri has dark black feathers on its back, head, chin, throat, tail and the dorsal part of its wings (flippers). Its belly and the under parts of its wings are white. It has a pale yellow breast and bright-yellow ear patches. Their bills are 8 cm long and are black on the top whilst the lower part can be orange, pink or lilac.

Both their flippers and bills are relatively small which helps to conserve heat. Other adaptations which help them to keep warm in the freezing Antarctic conditions, where they face wind chills as cold as -60°C and blizzards of 200 km/h, include a complex feather distribution and large fat reserves. They also have special nasal chambers that minimize the heat normally emitted through exhalation. Because their arteries and veins are situated close together, Emperor Penguins have the ability to recycle their own body heat. Blood is cooled down on the way to the extremities and warmed up on the way back to the heart.

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Male and female differentiation

Males and females are similar in plumage and size, although the male weighs a little more.

Where are they found?

Emperor Penguins live in Antarctica. They are rarely found further north than 65 south. Their breeding colonies are found on fast ice near or on the coast of Antarctica, but can be a considerable distance from the open sea in some cases.

What is their habitat?

The vast majority of Aptenodytes forsteri breeding colonies are located on stable pack ice and only one is known to occur wholly on land. Emperor Penguins feed in the cold waters of the Antarctic.

Emperor Penguins on the ice

Source: Lin Padgham

How do they mate?

Emperor Penguins breed in colonies which can be made up of several thousand individuals. They are monogamous during each breeding season and usually find a different mate each year, although some pairs bond for more than one consecutive year.

Males display to attract females and there is intense competition for mates. The male display involves standing still, lowering his head, inhaling, giving a courtship call and holding his position for a few seconds. When forming a pair bond, a male and female stand face to face. One extends its head and neck up and the other copies the posture, which they hold for several minutes. They then waddle around the colony together. Before mating, one bird bows to its mate, pointing its bill close to the ground and its mate then does the same.

Emperor Penguin couple with a chick

Source: Christopher Michel

The female lays a single egg which she leaves in the care of the father while she heads off to sea to feed. Depending on the extent of the ice, she may have to travel 50 km to 120 km before she reaches the open ocean. The male keeps the egg balanced on his feet and covers it with his brood pouch to keep it warm. For about 65 days, the male stands protecting the egg from the freezing temperatures and storms.

After about 2 months away, the female returns to care for the newly hatched chick. She regurgitates food to feed her offspring. The male Emperor Penguin, meanwhile, takes his turn to go to sea to feed and the parents then take turns to stay with the chick and to go and forage; returning to regurgitate food for the hatchling.

About their offspring

Emperor Penguin chicks weigh about 315 g when they hatch. They are covered with grey down and have black heads and white “masks”. As they get bigger, young Emperor Penguins form groups (or crèches), for protection from the cold and predators, until they are ready to leave the nesting area. During this period their down moults and is replaced by short stiff feathers, which are similar to those of the adult Emperor Penguins. Once the moult is complete, juveniles leave the colony and head to sea to start feeding.

Communication and the senses

Emperor Penguins rely on vocalisations to locate their partner and chick. They use complex calls adopting two frequency bands at the same time; a “two-voice” system. Chicks whistle to beg for food or to contact a parent. Aptenodytes forsteri also uses physical displays to communicate. To avoid aggression in the colony, they use an appeasement posture where they hold their flippers out slightly and raise their bill.

When are they active?

Emperor Penguins are active at any time of day or night. From January to March they travel and forage in groups in the ocean. In March and April mature Penguins travel to nesting areas and begin courtship. Eggs are laid in May or early June and hatch from mid-July to early August. From early November, chicks begin to moult and adults cease feeding them. In December and January all birds return to the sea.

What do they eat?

Emperor Penguins feed on fish, squid and krill. Antarctic Silverfish makes up the main part of their diet. They have different feeding strategies for different prey. Shallow dives are made to feed on krill underneath the sea ice and deeper dives for feeding on fish and squid.

Do they have predators?

The main predators of Emperor Penguins are Leopard Seals and Orcas. Chicks may be taken by birds including the Southern Giant Petrel and, occasionally, the South Polar Skua, although the Skua is more likely to scavenge dead chicks.

How long do they live for?

Average lifespan in the wild: 15 to 20 years.

Emperor Penguin colony

Source: Michael Van Woert

Emperor Penguin chick

Source: Ian Duffy

What is the global population?

In 2009, the global population of Emperor Penguins was estimated at 595,000 in 46 breeding colonies. Since then a further 7 colonies have been found, but the global population estimate has not been updated yet.

How do they behave?

Like all penguin species, Emperor Penguins are flightless birds. They are well adapted for life in the water. They can dive up to 535 m and stay under water more than 20 minutes. They can reach speeds of 3.4 m per second. On land they walk in a shuffling manner or slide along the ground on their bellies pushing themselves with their feet.

Emperor Penguins are sociable animals. They forage and nest in groups. Nesting takes place in large colonies where they huddle together to keep warm and to escape the wind during severe weather. Individuals take turns to move from the middle to the exterior of the group.

Emperor Penguin jumping out of the water

Source: Christopher Michel

Are they endangered?

Threats to Emperor Penguins:

  • Climate change is a serious threat as it impacts sea ice concentration and thickness and weather conditions, which can affect breeding and feeding. Penguin prey species are also likely to be impacted by climate change.
  • Disturbance caused by researchers and tourists.
  • Fisheries which may impact their prey.
  • Oil spills can cause problems at a local level.
Evaluated by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Near Threatened (2018).

Did you know?

  • Emperor Penguins can dive deeper than any other bird (up to 535 m).
  • Whilst protecting his egg and waiting for it to hatch, a male Emperor Penguin eats nothing for 2 months.
  • Emperor and Adélie Penguins are the only 2 penguin species that are true Antarctic residents.
  • Emperor Penguins lay eggs with thick shells and it can take the chick 2 or 3 days to hatch.
  • Male Emperor Penguins can produce “crop milk” which they use to feed their newly-hatched chicks whilst waiting for the female to return from fishing. Pigeons, flamingos and male Emperor penguins are the only birds that feed their young this way.