Emperor Penguins

There are 17 species of penguin in total but only four of these breed on the Antarctic continent. Of these, only one species is synonymous with the coldest place on earth: the Emperor penguin.

Emperor Penguins
Emperor penguin chick

Emperor penguin chick


Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Sphenisciformes
Family: Spheniscidae
Species: Aptenodytes forsteri

Species and Habitat

There are 17 species of penguin) in total but only four of these breed on the Antarctic continent itself. Of these, only one species is synonymous with the coldest place on earth: the emperor penguin.

They withstand average winter temperatures of minus 50 degrees centigrade and winds of up to 112 miles per hour. They are the only penguins of Antarctica to breed during the dark, freezing winter months.

Attenborough on Emperor Penguins


In early April, while most of Antarctica’s wildlife is heading north to warmer climes, the emperor begins its journey south to the breeding grounds. The females lay their eggs in May and leave them in the care of the male colony while they head to the sea to fatten up.

For nine weeks the males huddle together taking turns to hold the warmest positions at the centre of the colony. When the chick hatches, the male produces its first meal by regurgitating food stored in his gullet.

The females return to take over the feeding while the males - near starving, having lost up to one third of their body weight - make the long trek to the sea for feeding. After August, the parents take turns (about two weeks each) to rear the chicks.

The chicks venture out from the warmth and safety of the mother’s pouch at about seven weeks, but it is not until January when the sea ice starts to break that they are able to fend for themselves. In spring, the chicks will take to the sea and not return to the breeding ground for a few years.

Emperor penguin

Emperor penguin


Penguins have a large repertoire of flipper waving, calling, bowing and preening skills, and there is no exception when it comes to emperor penguins. The parents locate chicks by the sound of their individual call even among thousands of other breeding pairs. In any colony there are usually more females than males and while the male is busy attracting a mate by puffing up his chest, waving his flippers and 'braying', the females squabble amongst themselves.


The Emperor penguin can reach speeds of up to 60 kilometres per hour under water and averages six minutes at 100 metres for each dive. On returning to the surface, the Emperors make a series of leaps known as porpoising, which enable them to breathe and can help foil a predator.

Their wings are not useless appendages but highly evolved and sturdy flippers. On land however they are not so adept; their awkward waddling gait is due to their legs being set far down on their bodies. Often, as a break from walking, they will ‘toboggan’ along on their bellies.

Emperor penguin and chick

Emperor penguin and chick


Emperor penguins rarely fall foul to predators on land, although their eggs and vulnerable chicks can fall prey to Skua gulls. Their main water predators are sea lions, killer whales and leopard seals.

However, all three main predators can sometimes be seen chasing the penguins out of the surf or onto the ice, with leopard seals being the biggest undulating threat out of water.

They have little fear of humans, but their breeding grounds can be threatened or destroyed by human interference, as was evidenced by the building of the French airstrip Dumont d’Urville on the Adelie coastline.

Quick Facts

  • Emperor penguins are less faithful than other penguins with over 75% finding new mates each year.
  • During the Antarctic winter, a cup of boiling water thrown into the air will freeze into a cloud of ice crystals before it reaches the ground.
  • The total population of emperor penguins is thought to be about 160,000 breeding pairs.
  • Emperor penguins can weigh up to 33 kg and stand between 1 to 1.3m tall.