Emperor Penguin

The Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) is the largest of all penguins and is the only penguin that breeds at the height of winter in Antarctica. Emperor Penguins eat mainly crustaceans (such as krill) but will also occasionally indulge in small fish and squid. In the wild, Emperor Penguins typically live for 20 years, but some records indicate a maximum lifespan of around 40 years. (The Emperor Penguin should not be confused with the King Penguin or the Royal Penguin.)


Emperor penguins are social animals, known to forage and nest in groups. In severe weather the penguins will even huddle together for protection and warmth. They can be active day or night. Reproducing adults travel throughout most of the year between the nesting area and foraging areas in the ocean. From January to March, emperor penguins take to the oceans, traveling and foraging in groups.

To find food, these penguins need to dive 490-820 feet (150 to 250 meters) into the Southern Ocean. The penguins can venture deeper, the deepest diving on record being 1870 ft (565 m). The longest they can hold their breath when underwater is 20 minutes. Their swimming speed is 4-6 mph (6 km to 9 km per hour), but they can achieve up to 12 mph (19 km per hour) in shorter bursts.

On land they move with a wobbling gait or by propelling themselves along the ground by pushing with their feet and sliding on their bellies. During the beginning of the Antarctic winter, in March and April, all mature Emperor penguins travel to their nesting areas, sometimes even as far as 50 to 120 km from the edge of the pack ice.

In response to the extreme cold, emperor penguins will stand in a compact huddle, in groups of ten or as many as hundreds of birds, each leaning forward on a neighbor. Those on the outside tend to face inward and push slowly forward. This produces a slow churning action, giving each bird a turn on the inside.

Physical characteristics

Adults average about 3 ft 9 in (1.1 m) and weigh 75 lb 30 (kg) or more. The head and wings are black, the abdomen white, the back bluish grey, and the bill purplish pink. Additionally, there are two golden circular stripes on the sides of the neck.

Just like their King Penguin counterpart, a male Emperor Penguin has an abdominal fold, called the “brood pouch”, between its legs and lower abdomen.

Emperor penguin chicks are born covered with a thick layer of light gray down, not shiny like the plumage of the adults but opaque and wooly. This covering aids the chicks in retaining as much heat as possible. This is vital at an early stage because they are not capable of maintaining their own body temperature. In addition, the infant emperor penguin’s orbital area is covered in white downy feathers, unlike the all-black feathered head of the adult.

One distinguishing characteristic between males and females is their call.

Reproduction and breeding

Emperor Penguins are ready to breed at around five years of age. They travel about 90 km inland to reach their breeding site and in March or April, the penguins begin their courtship courtship. During this time the temperature can be as low as -40°F (-40 degrees C). In May or June, the female penguin lays one 1 pound (450-gram) egg, but at this point her nutritional reserves are exhausted and she must immediately return to the sea to feed. Very carefully, she transfers the egg to the male penguin. He then incubates the egg in his brood pouch for about 65 days. During this time the male will go without food by surviving on his fat reserves and spend the majority of the time sleeping to conserve energy. To survive the cold and wind (up to 200 km per hour, or 120 mph), the males huddle together and take turns in the middle of the huddle. If the chick hatches before the mother’s return, the father sits the chick on his feet and covers it with his pouch, feeding it a white milky substance produced by a gland in his esophagus.

After about 2 months the female returns. She finds her mate among the hundreds of fathers via his call and takes over caring for the chick, feeding it by regurgitating the food that she has stored in her stomach. The male then departs to take his turn at sea. After another few weeks, the male returns and both parents tend to the chick by keeping it off the ice and feeding it food from their stomachs. About two months after hatching, the chicks huddle in a crèche for warmth and protection, still fed by their parents.


  • Emperor penguins are monogamous and have only one mate each year. They keep faithful to that one partner, but will always choose a new mate at the onset of each breeding season..
  • Penguins were hunted for their fat in the early and mid-20th century.
  • In the wild, Penguin predators include Antarctic giant petrels, (Macronectes giganteus), Leopard seals, orca, skua, and sharks. Abandoned sled dogs and their progeny formerly preyed upon penguins before the removal of dogs from Antarctica.
  • The Emperor penguin was featured in the documentary film March of the Penguins in 2005.
  • Estimates of the Emperor penguin population range from 150,000 – 200,000 breeding pairs. Although threats such as global warming are a concern with all Arctic and Antarctic animals, this species is considered stable.
  • The Emperor Penguin is also the species of penguin represented by the popular Canadian character Pondus, an image found on various paraphernalia in many retail stores throughout the country. While the precise meaning of Pondus has to yet to be determined, the character has received cult worship both for being without purpose and being an emperor penguin.