Wild Thing: Discovering the hybrid world of penguins

Wild Thing is an occasional series where JHU Press authors write about the flora and fauna of the natural world—from the rarest flower to the most magnificent beast.

Guest post by Gerald L. Kooyman

penguins_1My association with penguins began with a singular encounter of three emperor penguins in the early austral spring of 1961. It was a moment that I continue to remember vividly, and I have told or written about the experience  numerous times. I was on the north shore of Cape Royds, within a snowball’s throw of Ernest Shackleton’s expeditionary hut, which was built in 1907 to serve as his base for launching the second attempt by any party to reach the south pole. The hut seemed as if it were built the year before, in almost new condition, preserved in this continent-sized freezer. I did not pay much attention to these auspicious surroundings because my attention was drawn to a strange and haunting call  two hundred feet offshore. It was the contact call, one that I have heard thousands of times since, but never have I been more aware of it than I was then. The three birds had broken through the thin ice and came sliding and tobogganing to the shore, up the slope and to rest with a few feet from me. It was as if they were taking in the sweeping view of the Victoria Land Mountains as I had been doing before their arrival. Their spell was cast on me, and continues to this day.

Not until 1969 was I able to pursue a simple experiment with the birds. I had discovered an ideal place and moment to determine to what depth the birds were diving while foraging offshore from Cape Crozier. This is another place full of history where members of the Robert F. Scott Discovery Expedition of 1901 to 1904 discovered the first emperor penguin colony in 1902. During that expedition Scott and two companions, one of whom was Ernest Shackleton, made the first attempt ever to trek to the South Pole. The Cape Crozier colony was the seed for Edward Wilson to organize a traverse from McMurdo Sound to the Cape during the winter of 1908 with two companions. One of those companions was Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who wrote the famous book Worst Journey in the World. This took place during Scott’s second expedition from 1910 to 1913. Under the cliffs of Cape Crozier we performed a successful experiment and learned that the birds were diving to at least 265 m (870 ft). That record remained as the world record for diving birds until the mid-1980’s when I was finally able to devote several entire expeditions to the study of king and emperor penguins.

Since then I have led or collaborated on many studies of king and emperor penguins, so my perspective, as I embarked on writing Penguins: The Animal Answer Guide, had a large penguin species orientation. There is not a species of penguin, past or present, that I have not enjoyed reading and writing and learning about. I would not have guessed, for example, that this remarkable group’s beginnings may reach as far back as the dinosaurs. If their success as a group, the Sphenisciformes, is measured in terms of longevity (and consider there are many more extinct penguins than those species that currently exist) and also in terms of the abundance of individual species, then penguins are one of the most successful air-breathing vertebrate groups. They were, that is, until the hand of man placed a heavy burden on them. There are now four endangered species among the seventeen currently described species. Some of the others are sliding down the slippery slope of survival in the face of humankind’s expanding habitat and resource needs. I respond to several related conservation questions in the book.

penguin plunge 4More exciting and uplifting are the numerous answers to questions about how remarkable the penguin is. It courts, breeds, and raises its chicks in a terrestrial world and has adaptations in order to do this well. The group hunts, catches prey, and travels great distances in an aquatic world. This, also, it does well. In fact, some of the diving adaptations and other abilities of penguins are sensational. Many areas of research are dynamic and our knowledge of penguins is growing on a regular basis. We are truly blessed to be able to observe and learn about such a hybrid group that lives at the interface of land and sea.

kooymanGerald L. Kooyman is a professor emeritus at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and is the world’s foremost expert on emperor penguins. Penguins: The Animal Answer Guide is available from JHU Press.