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Balancing Act

The life of an emperor penguin

By Jeffrey Rambo | November 17 , 2006
(Photo: Jérôme Maison. © 2005 Bonne Pioche Productions / Alliance De Production Cinématographique.)
(Photo: Jérôme Maison. © 2005 Bonne Pioche Productions / Alliance De Production Cinématographique.)

Year after year, emperor penguins of Antarctica set out on a journey. They march across the ice as far as 70 miles. Why do emperor penguins travel so far? One of the main reasons the penguins march these great distances is to raise their families.

Before their journey can begin, the penguins first feed on large amounts of fish. Since they will be walking for miles away from water, they will not be able to eat. So, the penguins must store up as much fish as possible.

When the penguins first leave the water after weeks of eating, they are as large as they will ever get. Their bellies full of fish, the penguins hit the ice.

Their long trek begins around late fall or early winter. Temperatures range from minus 4 to minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit. Under their feathers, it can be much warmer--86 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Their feathers are only half an inch thick, but offer a great deal of warmth.

Emperor penguins might march single file for over a week. The penguins hike to find an area of stable ice. The spot they choose must remain solid for long enough—until their chicks hatch and are able to enter the water.

“They are breeding and rearing their young on ice that will melt come summer,” said Paul Ponganis, a scientist at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego.

After laying her single egg, the female travels back to the sea to feed. The male’s challenge on this patch of ice is to protect the egg. He takes care of the egg and keeps it warm through the harsh, frigid winter. The male emperor's movement is limited, as he balances the egg on his feet for two months until it hatches.

(Photo: Frans Lanting/Corbis)
To survive the raging winds and extreme winter temperatures, the male penguins gather in a group huddle. This keeps them from 20 to 30 degrees warmer.

“They’re toasty,” said Barbara Wienecke, a biologist at the Australian Antarctic Division in Kingston, Australia.

The chick is born around the beginning of August, and the mother returns with fish to feed the newborn. After months without food, the male is finally free to go back to the ocean to eat. The pair will take turns feeding the chick for five months.

In the summer, the ocean begins to break apart the ice. The baby chicks discover they must learn to swim and enter the water for the first time. The long march is officially over—until next winter.

March of the Penguins, the 2006 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary, will air on national television for the first time on the Hallmark Channel, Saturday, November 25.

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