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Emperor Penguin Adaptations

Batul Nafisa Baxamusa
Emperor penguin adaptations help it survive the extremely harsh and coldest environment on earth. Learn more about the Emperor penguin adaptations to the environment by going through the interesting story with pictures below.
Did you know that Emperor penguins, also known as Emperors, are one of the largest penguins in the world? These flightless birds stand about 45 inches tall and weigh about 22 to 45 kg. They are similar in appearance to other penguins with their streamlined body, and flattened and stiffened flipper like wings.
They are black in color from head to toe on the dorsal side. They have a white belly with a pale yellow breast and bright yellow ear patches. These large birds live in one of the most harshest climates in the world. They have adapted themselves according to the environment they live in.

Emperor Penguin Adaptability

Emperor penguins live on the Antarctic ice. They are surrounded by frigid waters and thus have to adapt to this cold environment. The temperatures in the Antarctic can reach as low as -76°F (-60°C). Just imagine the cold winds that the Emperors have to survive. Some of the adaptations by Emperor penguins are as follows:

Emperor Penguin Physical Adaptations

The diet of an Emperor penguin generally consists of fish, crustaceans as well as cephalopods. They are built to live and hunt under cold water. There are many physical adaptations that help the bird survive in Antarctica. The hemoglobin of Emperors is unusually structured. This helps it function even under really low oxygen levels.
Their bones have a solid build that helps them reduce the effects of barotrauma. Another useful adaptation of the Emperors includes reduction in metabolism and complete shut down of the all the non-essential organ functions to conserve body energy.
They may look very clumsy on land, but once they enter the water, they turn into acrobats. Their body shape helps impart agility as well as swim like experts under water. These birds are very strong physically and therefore are powerful predators. The body color also helps them get protection from their predators, in turn.
When they are under water, the black plumage on their dorsal side helps disguise them from predators above them. The predator gets confused with the depth of the ocean. Their white chest helps them hide from predators like seals swimming below. The seal gets confused between the penguin and surrounding white ice.
The Emperors have the largest body mass among all penguins. The tail and wings help the bird balance itself when standing upright. Webbed feet act like snow shoes for these penguins. It spreads the body weight along the snow and thus, prevents the bird from sinking. The wings trap air bubbles that helps provide buoyancy under water.
Thus, it can move faster and dive deeper in water. Emperor penguins can remain underwater for about 22 minutes and dive to a depth of about 565 meters. Thus, they are the only penguin species that can dive the deepest for the longest period.

Adaptations to the Extreme Cold Climate.

The average body temperature of Emperors is 39°C. In order to survive environmental temperatures much, much below than their body temperature, these penguins have undergone certain adaptations. The feathers help give the penguin about 80 to 85% insulation from the cold. These feathers are densely packed on the skin surface and very short.
You will find about 15 feathers per square centimeter of skin. Thus, helping them in preventing heat loss. Apart from the feathers, there are downy filaments that help in trapping air between the feathers. So, when the bird is erect on land, it can reduce heat loss as the air around the skin is trapped.
When the bird moves underwater, the same plumage gets flattened. This provides natural waterproofing to the skin and the under layer. During the breeding season, the sub-dermal fat layer of the bird is around 3 cm thick.

Adapting to Really Low Oxygen Levels and Increase in Pressure

Emperor penguins as discussed above are able to dive really deep into the ocean for a really long time.
This is not an easy feat as the penguin is under a really lot of stress. The pressure under water increases about 40 times to what it is present above the surface. This would lead to barotrauma, if the bird has not adapted itself. Emperors have thick bones instead of hollow bones which protects them from mechanical barotrauma.
When the Emperor penguin dives, the amount of oxygen in its body gets reduced. The heart rate starts dropping to about 5 beats/minute. The non-essential organs start shutting down and the penguin is able to dive deeper. Also, the hemoglobin combines with myoglobin. Thus, helping transportation of the low oxygen without the bird losing consciousness.

Adaptation to the Breeding Process

The Emperor penguin has evolved to form a unique social feature. Emperor penguins share their parental duties among themselves. It is very interesting to note that male penguins go through a 115 day ordeal. During this period he will court a female, mate her and then carry the egg for incubation. All this, without having a single meal.
During this time, all males huddle together to keep themselves warm and help conserve heat to incubate the eggs. As far as the females are concerned, they lay their eggs around mid-May. They then leave to spend their winter at sea. The next 65 days the male rests the eggs on his feet.
The egg is enveloped by a patch of naked skin present on the abdomen of the father. This is the incubation chamber of the egg. It is very important that the egg or chick does not touch or gets abandoned on the snow. If it happens, within 2 minutes, the egg will freeze to death.
The females then return mid-July. She will find her mate by his call that she had memorized. When she reaches him, he will quickly within 10 seconds transfer the egg very carefully over her feet. Soon, the egg will hatch on the mother's feet. The males will leave for open water in search of food.
Finally, they will get to eat after about 4 months. These chicks grow really fast as they have only 5 months to learn to save for themselves. The chicks will be fed by both the father and mother. They will take turns to go to see and get back food for the chicks.
As the sea is quite far away from the area where the penguins live, a chick will get only 16 meals in the entire 5 months of nursing period. As summer approaches and the ice begins to break up, making way for the open sea, the young Emperor penguin will dive into the water to hunt on its own.
As you can see, these birds live in harsh conditions and have managed to fit and survive under these conditions. These beautiful birds help prove to us that nothing is impossible, if one has the will to survive.