Emperor penguin facts for kids

Kids Encyclopedia Facts
Emperor penguin
Adult and young emperor penguins
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Sphenisciformes
Family: Spheniscidae
Genus: Aptenodytes
Binomial name
Aptenodytes forsteri
(Gray, 1844)

The Emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) is a penguin that lives in Antarctica. It is the tallest and heaviest penguin. They are the only birds that can lay their eggs on ice.


Emperor penguins are about 1.1 m (4 ft) tall, weigh up to 45 kg (99 lb), and have a wingspan of 30 in (76 cm). Emperor Penguins are black and white like all penguins, and the sides of their neck are golden.


Emperor Penguin Manchot empereur
Adult Penguin

They eat mostly crustaceans, such as krill, but also eat fish and squid.

Emperors live in the coldest climate on earth. Temperatures can drop as low as -140 degrees Fahrenheit (-95.6 °C) on the Antarctic ice. They breed at the beginning of the Antarctic winter (March and April), on the ice all around the Antarctic continent. They live in large groups, called colonies, that can have up to 20,000 birds. They huddle close together to keep warm. Emperor penguins live for about 20 years, although some have been known to live for 40 years.

The shape of their body helps them to survive. They have short wings that help them swim and to dive up to 900 ft (274 m) to catch larger fish. The deepest dive recorded is 525 m (1,722 ft). They can swim up to 15 km/h (9 mph) for a short time, which lets them escape their main enemy, the leopard seal. They can stay warm because they have a thick layer of blubber. The layer of downy feathers trap air that keeps the body heat in and cold air and water out. They also have large amounts of body oil that help in keeping them dry in the water.

While they are very fast in the water, on land the birds can only walk very slowly. On ice they can lie on their stomachs and use their wings to slide along, like a toboggan.


Emperor penguin colony

The emperor penguin is a social animal in its nesting and its foraging behaviour; birds hunting together may coordinate their diving and surfacing. Individuals may be active day or night. A mature adult travels throughout most of the year between the nesting area and ocean foraging areas; the species disperses into the oceans from January to March.

The American physiologist Gerry Kooyman revolutionized the study of penguin foraging behaviour in 1971 when he published his results from attaching automatic dive-recording devices to emperor penguins. He found that the species reaches depths of 265 m (869 ft), with dive periods of up to 18 minutes. Later research revealed a small female had dived to a depth of 535 m (1,755 ft) near McMurdo Sound. It is possible that emperor penguins can dive even deeper, as the accuracy of the recording devices is diminished at greater depths. Further study of one bird's diving behaviour revealed regular dives to 150 m (490 ft) in water around 900 m (3,000 ft) deep, and shallow dives of less than 50 m (160 ft), interspersed with deep dives of more than 400 m (1,300 ft) in depths of 450 to 500 m (1,480 to 1,640 ft). This was suggestive of feeding near or at the sea bottom.

Both male and female emperor penguins forage for food up to 500 km (311 mi) from colonies while collecting food to feed chicks, covering 82–1,454 km (51–903 mi) per individual per trip. A male returning to the sea after incubation heads directly out to areas of permanent open water, known as polynyas, around 100 km (62 mi) from the colony.

An efficient swimmer, the emperor penguin exerts pressure with both its upward and downward strokes while swimming. The upward stroke works against buoyancy and helps maintain depth. Its average swimming speed is 6–9 km/h (3.7–5.6 mph). On land, the emperor penguin alternates between walking with a wobbling gait and tobogganing—sliding over the ice on its belly, propelled by its feet and wing-like flippers. Like all penguins, it is flightless. The emperor penguin is a very powerful bird. In one case, a crew of six men, trying to capture a single male penguin for a zoo collection, were repeatedly tossed around and knocked over before all of the men had to collectively tackle the bird, which weighs about half as much as a man.

As a defence against the cold, a colony of emperor penguins forms a compact huddle (also known as the turtle formation) ranging in size from ten to several hundred birds, with each bird leaning forward on a neighbour. As the wind chill is the least severe in the center of the colony, all the juveniles are usually huddled there. Those on the outside upwind tend to shuffle slowly around the edge of the formation and add themselves to its leeward edge, producing a slow churning action, and giving each bird a turn on the inside and on the outside.


The emperor penguin's diet consists mainly of fish, crustaceans and cephalopods, although its composition varies from population to population. Fish are usually the most important food source, and the Antarctic silverfish (Pleuragramma antarcticum) makes up the bulk of the bird's diet. Other prey commonly recorded include other fish of the family Nototheniidae, the glacial squid (Psychroteuthis glacialis), and the hooked squid species Kondakovia longimana, as well as Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba). The emperor penguin searches for prey in the open water of the Southern Ocean, in either ice-free areas of open water or tidal cracks in pack ice. One of its feeding strategies is to dive to around 50 m (164 ft), where it can easily spot sympagic fish like the bald notothen (Pagothenia borchgrevinki) swimming against the bottom surface of the sea-ice; it swims up to the bottom of the ice and catches the fish. It then dives again and repeats the sequence about half a dozen times before surfacing to breathe.


Fish8426 - Flickr - NOAA Photo Library
Emperor penguin attacked by a leopard seal

The emperor penguin's predators include birds and aquatic mammals. Southern giant petrels (Macronectes giganteus) are the predominant land predator of chicks, responsible for up to 34% of chick deaths in some colonies though they often scavenge dead penguins as well. The south polar skua (Stercorarius maccormicki) mainly scavenges for dead chicks, as the live chicks are too large to be attacked by the time of its annual arrival in the colony. Occasionally, a parent may defend their chick from attack, although it may be more passive if the chick is sickly.

The only known predators thought to attack healthy adults, and who attack emperor penguins in the water, are both mammals. The first is the leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx), which takes some adult birds, as well as fledglings soon after they enter the water. Orcas (Orcinus orca), mostly take adult birds, although they will attack penguins of any age in or near water.

Courtship and breeding

Emperor penguins are able to breed at around three years of age, and usually commence breeding around one to three years later. The yearly reproductive cycle begins at the start of the Antarctic winter, in March and April, when all mature emperor penguins travel to colonial nesting areas, often walking 50 to 120 km (31 to 75 mi) inland from the edge of the pack ice. The start of travel appears to be triggered by decreasing day lengths; emperor penguins in captivity have been induced successfully into breeding by using lighting systems mimicking seasonal Antarctic day lengths.

The life-cycle of the emperor penguin

The penguins start courtship in March or April, when the temperature can be as low as −40 °C (−40 °F). A lone male gives an ecstatic display, where it stands still and places its head on its chest before inhaling and giving a courtship call for 1–2 seconds; it then moves around the colony and repeats the call. A male and female then stand face to face, with one extending its head and neck up and the other mirroring it; they both hold this posture for several minutes. Once in pairs, couples waddle around the colony together, with the female usually following the male. Before copulation, one bird bows deeply to its mate, its bill pointed close to the ground, and its mate then does the same.

Emperor penguins are serially monogamous. They have only one mate each year, and stay faithful to that mate. However, fidelity between years is only about 15%. The narrow window of opportunity available for mating appears to be an influence, as there is a priority to mate and breed which often precludes waiting for the appearance of the previous year's partner.

Aptenodytes forsteri MHNT
The egg of the emperor penguin. It is 13.5 × 9.5 cm and vaguely pear-shaped. MHNT

The female penguin lays one 460–470 g (1.01–1.04 lb) egg in May or early June; it is vaguely pear-shaped, pale greenish-white, and measures around 12 cm × 8 cm (4 34 in × 3 14 in). It represents just 2.3% of its mother's body weight, making it one of the smallest eggs relative to the maternal weight in any bird species. 15.7% of the weight of an emperor penguin egg is shell; like those of other penguin species, the shell is relatively thick, which minimizes risk of breakage.

After laying, the mother's nutritional reserves are exhausted and she very carefully transfers the egg to the male, before immediately returning to the sea for two months to feed. The transfer of the egg can be awkward and difficult, and many couples drop the egg in the process. When this happens, the chick inside is quickly lost, as the egg cannot withstand the freezing temperatures on the icy ground. The male spends the dark winter incubating the egg in his brood pouch, balancing it on the tops of his feet, for 64 consecutive days until hatching. The emperor penguin is the only species where this behaviour is observed; in all other penguin species both parents take shifts incubating. By the time the egg hatches, the male will have fasted for around 115 days since arriving at the colony. To survive the cold and winds of up to 200 km/h (120 mph), the males huddle together, taking turns in the middle of the huddle. They have also been observed with their backs to the wind to conserve body heat. In the four months of travel, courtship, and incubation, the male may lose as much as 20 kg (44 lb), from a total mass of 38 to 18 kg (84 to 40 lb).

Hatching may take as long as two or three days to complete, as the shell of the egg is thick. Newly hatched chicks are semi-altricial, covered with only a thin layer of down and entirely dependent on their parents for food and warmth. If the chick hatches before the mother's return, the father feeds it a curd-like substance composed of 59% protein and 28% lipid, which is produced by a gland in his oesophagus. This ability to produce "milk" in birds is only found in pigeons, flamingos and male Emperor penguins. The young chick is brooded in what is called the guard phase, spending time balanced on its parent's feet and sheltered in the brood pouch.

Emperor penguin feeding a chick

The female penguin returns at any time from hatching to ten days afterwards, from mid-July to early August. She finds her mate among the hundreds of fathers by his vocal call and takes over caring for the chick, feeding it by regurgitating the food that she has stored in her stomach. The male then leaves to take his turn at sea, spending around 24 days there before returning. The parents then take turns, one brooding while the other forages at sea. If the incubating parent is not relieved by its partner before its own energy reserves are depleted, then it returns to the sea to re-feed, abandoning its doomed egg or chick at the colony site. Abandoned chicks do not survive.

About 45–50 days after hatching, the chicks form a crèche, huddling together for warmth and protection. During this time, both parents forage at sea and return periodically to feed their chicks. A crèche may comprise up to several thousand birds densely packed together and is essential for surviving the low Antarctic temperatures.

From early November, chicks begin moulting into juvenile plumage, which takes up to two months and is often not completed by the time they leave the colony; adults cease feeding them during this time. All birds make the considerably shorter trek to the sea in December or January and spend the rest of the summer feeding there.

Happy Feet

The Australian movie Happy Feet was based on the story of an emperor penguin who is unable to sing and get a mate because he was left for too long on the ice when still an egg.

Images for kids

Emperor penguin Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.