Emperor Penguins Facts and Their Astounding Dive Capabilities

Emperor penguins are some of the most fascinating creatures in the animal kingdom. With their chubby looks and their waddle, emperor penguins have captured the hearts of onlookers for centuries. But how much do we really know about these wonderful animals? In this article, you will discover 10 interesting facts about emperor penguins.

Emperor penguins
Scientific name: Aptenodytes forsteri
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Sphenisciformes
Genus: Aptenodytes
Family: Spheniscidae

1. Emperor penguins are the largest penguins in the world

Among the 18 penguin species, the emperor penguin is the largest. The average size of the species is approximately 120cm in height and weighs around 40 kilograms. When compared to a human, it is as tall as a six-year-old child. Its weight can change substantially over the year.

Despite the huge size, the emperor penguin is nothing when compared to the now-extinct colossus penguin (Palaeeudyptes klekowskii), which roamed Antarctica about 40 million years ago. According to remains, this biggest ancient bird measured 2m tall and weighed up to 115 kg.

An emperor penguin family

The Emperor penguin has some intriguing characteristics. They have a big head, a thick neck, and a short tail with a V shape. The form of their little wings resembles flippers.

They have sleek plumage made of glossy, water-proof feathers. Their strong feet are webbed and feature enormous, gripping claws, helping them swim and walk across the ice easier.   

Their head is blackish-blue, which is coated with big white and yellow patterns on the ears. The upper portions are blue-grey, whereas the underparts are white with a pale yellow color in the upper-breast part. There is no difference between the two genders.

Emperor penguins are not dangerous or aggressive to humans or other animals unless they are attacked or provoked. However, they are also not friendly as some of you wish!

2. King penguin vs emperor penguin

Many people often mistake emperor penguins for king penguins. These two well-known bird species have many things in common. They have similar looks, from colors, and markings, to sizes. They both belong to the Aptenodytes genus and live in Antarctica.

So, how do you tell the difference between an emperor penguin and a king penguin? If you look closer, you’ll see several distinctive characteristics that identify them apart.

King penguinsEmperor penguins

  • average height of 24 – 35 in (31 – 89 cm)
  • weight 24 – 35 lbs (11 – 16 kg)

  • average height of 39 – 47 in (99 – 119 cm)
  • weight 49 – 100 lbs (22 – 45 kg)
BeakLonger orange beakMore curved yellow-orange beak
DietLantern fish and squidAntarctic silverfish, squid, and krill 
Mating seasonOctober to DecemberMarch to April
HabitatSub-antarctic islandsin Antarctica
Conservation statusLeast concernedNear threatened

3. They live in big groups

Emperor penguins are the only species that are found in Antarctica’s open ice throughout the year, including in the winter. The animals have to deal with wind chills of -76°F (-60°C) and heavy snowstorms of 124 mph (200 km/h).

These penguins inhabit fast ice, which is ice linked to land or ice shelf. They nearly always breed on the solid pack ice that is close to the coastline and offshore up to 11 miles (18 kilometers).

Emperor penguins cannot live in warm weather. They can be overheated by their adaptions to the cold in Antarctica.

The bird can be active both at night and day. They cuddle together when it becomes too cold. They are very social birds that hunt and nest in groups which are called colonies.  

Each colony can have 5,000 or more members at any given moment. With around 25,000 members, Coulman Island’s colony is said to be the largest in the world.

The colonies of Emperor penguins are so large that they can be seen and counted from space. There are now approximately 54 distinct emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica.

4. They have unusual ways to move

When speaking of diving ability, there are no other bird species that can surpass the emperor penguins. They are the king of all.

They can dive so deep, up to 1,850 feet (564 meters) below the surface. That’s nearly double the height of Europe’s tallest structure, the Shard. And not only that, but they can remain underwater for more than 20 minutes. The world-recorded dive lasted nearly 28 minutes!

Due to the special hemoglobin and the ability to ‘turn off’ non-essential organs, these arctic penguins can survive in low-oxygen environments. Their solid bones let them tolerate pressures up to 40 times that of the surface. In the water, these cute emperor penguins can swim 6 – 9 kph.

Though emperor penguins are good swimmers, they are poor walkers on land. They just walk with a waddle or use a “tobogganing” method to move around. Tobogganing refers to how penguins travel across the ice by resting on their tummies and driving themselves ahead with their legs.

The emperor penguins are tobogganing

All penguins, including the world’s tallest penguin, can do this. To get on the ice after a dive, they may also jump out of the water and land on their belly. Then they propel themselves off with their feet and slide as far as they can before standing up and walking.

They simply drop onto their tummies and slide back into the water when they want to. This helps them to swim twice as fast as usual and push themselves back onto the ice.

5. Diet

Emperor penguins are carnivores that mostly eat Antarctic silverfish, krill, and squid. An adult consumes roughly 2-3 kilograms of food each day. However, they can eat twice than that. Much of their energy received from food is used to build up a thick fatty layer in order to keep them warm or to feed their offspring.

While emperor penguins are skilled hunters, they are also prey to a few Antarctic predators. Only one-third of juvenile penguins survive through the first year. They are usually eaten by seabirds like skuas or giant petrels. Orcas and leopard seals consume both juveniles and adults.

Like other penguins, emperor penguins take brief naps during the day and evening instead of sleeping for long periods at night. Interestingly, they can do this when swimming, diving, or standing.

6. They have a mating ritual

The mating season of emperor penguins occurs in late March or early April. Before that, they will spend 3 months (from January to March) hunting at sea and storing fat for the upcoming winter. After that, they migrate on an approximately 100-kilometer journey in a long line to the breeding grounds.

Emperor penguins are serially monogamous, which means they have a partner every year. Most will find a new match the following year, but some couples choose to resume their relationship and mate for life. Males and females examine each other. They will perform mating rituals that comprise a series of synchronized head swings, motions, chirps, and calls.

When a pair is formed, the partners engage in an elegant ritual of bowing, preening, and calling that confirms the pair’s bond.

7. They can breed up on ice-shelves

Breeding colonies are typically found in places where ice cliffs and icecaps offer a barrier from the wind. All year, breeding adults must frequently migrate between nesting and grazing regions. If the sea ice below collapses, Emperor penguins may climb higher ice cliffs and breed on ice shelves.

In 2013, two emperor penguin colonies on ice shelves are found at Barrier Bay and Larsen C by scientists from the United Kingdom and Australia. There were also 2 temporary colonies on the Nickerson and Shackleton ice shelves.

This could be emperor penguins’ valuable adaptation mechanism because of global warming in Antarctica. However, this couldn’t be useful in the long run if climate change is worsen.

8. Emperor penguins are good parents

Emperor penguins breed in May. The female experiences a 63-day gestation period and typically lays a single egg in June and July. These birds are the only animal reproducing in Antarctica throughout the winter.

Once the egg is deposited, the female gives the egg to the male and goes back to the water to find food. If the female hesitates, her mate will do everything he can to persuade her to leave. He can take his head down to her feet and imitate her calls till she departs.

The females’ trips can range from 80 to 160 kilometers, and they frequently do not come back until the incubation time is complete.

During the long and cold months of the Antarctica winters when temperatures can drop below -50 °C, the male is in charge of incubating the egg. To keep the egg warm, the male put it in his brood pouch which is an abdominal compartment coated with feathered skin. He will keep its baby here for about 9 weeks.

From the moment they arrive at the colony to mate until the egg hatches, male emperor penguins don’t eat anything for 4 months. During this phase, they lose nearly half of their weight. That’s why they need to eat a lot to store fat before the breeding season.

After two months, between July and August, the female returns. She finds her mate among thousand of males by making trumpet-like noises. They are made up of many sounds that are specific to each individual.

She then calls and touches bellies to reinforce the couple’s bond. After that, she takes the egg or feeds the baby emperor penguin called chick the food from her stomach. The male now can leave and eat.

The newborn chick is carried in the mother’s brood pouch to be safe from the freezing Antarctic weather.

When the chicks grow older, they leave the safe brood pouches and form chick groups known as crèches. This enables their parents to go fishing. Following each feeding excursion, chicks and parents engage in a welcoming ritual.

Each emperor penguin has a particular call that distinguishes it from the others. Parents recognize their chicks by calling them repeatedly and only supplying food if the chick reacts correctly.

Those chicks develop quickly. When the ice breaks up in December, the chicks are 150 days old. They leave the nest and make their journey to the sea. The males reach sexual maturity when they are 5 – 6 years old, while the females begin to breed at the age of 5. Emperor penguins’ lifespan is about 20 years.

9. They hug each other to stay warm

Emperor penguins are highly adapted to cold weather. They are covered by a plumage that consists of four thick layers of scale-like feathers. Due to the regular preening and the use of oil from a gland at the bottom of the tail, this coat is water-resistant and windproof.

To decrease heat loss, their beaks and wings are also relatively small. Their unique nasal chambers help to reduce the amount of heat released during exhalation. Their blood veins are structured in such a way that blood is cooled as it travels to the penguins’ limbs and reheated as it returns to the heart.

With the ability to hold a lot of fat, these penguins can protect themselves and have an energy source. Emperor penguins survive in Antarctica not only with physical characteristics but also with their tight relationships with the colony’s members.  

They gather and cuddle together to protect one another from Antarctica’s freezing temperatures and icy conditions. This also helps them share body heat. To be fair, they alternate places so that every member has the opportunity to stand in the center.

This method is so efficient that the center of the huddle can reach 35 degrees Celsius.

10. They molt every year

After the mating season, the adults start their annual molt. Before molting, they will eat to build up body fat since they can’t go fishing at this time due to the lack of water-repellent plumage. And molting is an energy-consuming process. However, this helps to eliminate worn-out feathers that may no longer function properly.

The new coat will be grown in January. These starving giant penguins go to the waters in groups to seek food for the summer.

11. They are endangered

The IUCN Red List classifies emperor penguins as near threatened species. They are now facing several risks as a result of human activities. Global warming will diminish their nesting habitats and overfishing will reduce their food supply.

Historically, some colonies have suffered a 50% reduction in their population during extended warm seasons. Climate change is expected to cause a dramatic fall in their population within the three next generations.

A 2009 study by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution utilized mathematical modeling to anticipate their populations. It predicted that emperor penguins could become extinct by 2100 because of global climate change.



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We are passionate animal enthusiasts with over a decade of experience studying animals. With a degree in zoology and conservation biology, we've contributed to various research and conservation projects. We're excited to bring you engaging content that highlights the wonders of the animal kingdom. We aim to inspire others to appreciate and protect wildlife through informative content grounded in expertise and passion. Join us as we delve into the captivating world of animals and discover the incredible stories they have to tell.

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