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The Emperor's Embraceby Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
Chapter One: The Emperor's Embrace
Could it be that there is a politics of knowledge when it comes to animal behavior? We hear about infanticidal lions but rarely of heroic penguin fathers. Benito Mussolini, the Italian fascist dictator, once said: "It is better to live one day as a lion than a hundred years as a sheep." This remarkable statement manages to combine macho bravura with sheer ignorance (the male lion spends most of the day asleep). In any event, why should the life of a sheep be seen as any less inherently valuable than the life of a lion? To whom is the life of a vegetarian species less interesting than the life of a carnivore? Sheep would no doubt see it otherwise. So too would people who actually study wild sheep. In bighorn sheep, the leader of the herd is simply the oldest ewe, not the most dominant but the one with the most offspring, and even the biggest ram will follow her lead when in the flock. Perhaps this female leadership was another reason for Mussolini to scorn sheep. Dictators might mock penguins, too, but penguins have a great deal to teach us when it comes to parenthood.
Until very recent times, men have played little role throughout pregnancy and the birth of their children. This has often been justified on purely biological grounds. No male animal concerns himself with these issues, we were told; they are of purely female concern. But these comments were made in ignorance.
For anyone interested in the true range of fatherly contributions to pregnancy and birth, few animals can hold such fascination as the emperor penguin. The discovery of penguin behavior is a story remarkable in its own right, and one that is still evolving, since we know far less about the life of penguins in the sea, which is where they spend most of their time, than we do of their life on land. Actually, "land" is used metaphorically here. In fact, emperor penguins never step on shore, even to breed; when not at sea, they live in rookeries on sea ice.
The emperor penguin, Aptenodytes forsteri (Aptenodytes means "wingless diver"), was named after the two German naturalists, G. and J. R. Forster, father and son, who accompanied James Cook on his second voyage around the world in 1772-75. The bird they actually saw was the king penguin, but G. R. Gray, who first described the emperor penguin in 1844 in the Annual Magazine of Natural History, using specimens brought back by James Clark Ross's 1839-43 expedition, thought their sketches were of the emperor penguin. The first emperor penguin specimen was caught by Thaddeus von Bellingshausen in 1820.
It is an interesting coincidence that the Antarctic was later discovered only because explorers were looking for the breeding colony of this amazing bird, whose hold on the world's imagination has never slackened. Robert Falcon Scott set out to the Antarctic seas in 1901 on board the S.S. Discovery to find the eggs of the emperor penguin. He did so because scientists at the time were convinced that the penguin was the most primitive bird on earth (actually not true), and that in order to understand the origin of feathers, an embryo was needed. (There was a powerful but mistaken notion that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" — that is, the embryo recapitulates the evolutionary history of the species — so that examining the embryo of the penguin egg would reveal the development of birds in general.) Little did Scott know that the egg would hold an even more remarkable story — that of nearly unimaginable paternal heroism.
Edward A. Wilson was the zoologist on board, an artist and a surgeon. In 1911 this intrepid investigator set out in late June from Scott's base at Cape Evans for a thirty-six-day round trip. He took with him two brave explorers, Henry Robertson ("Birdie") Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who later wrote an account of the passage that has been called the greatest travel book of all time, The Worst Journey in the World. Wilson and Bowers never made it back to England. After their winter expedition, they joined Scott on the summer race for the South Pole and died with him of exposure and starvation on that tragic journey — but not before Wilson published a significant, long article on his findings, one difficult to find but well worth the effort. In what follows I paraphrase parts of that account.
The trip was made on foot, Wilson reported, hauling sledges in the darkness of the polar winter night, in some of the worst storms ever recorded, and at temperatures that reached 77 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The men who made it traveled in the Ross Sea area, across the sixty-five miles from Cape Evans to Cape Crozier and back. The account of their attempts to find the emperor penguin rookery is terrifying. When they finally found it, they camped as near the rookery as possible for three weeks, experiencing a ten-day blizzard, which kept them confined to their completely sodden sleeping bags for seven days under the dark eye of Mount Terror, the windiest spot on earth. When they emerged from their tents, they were on an outlying cone of the mountain about thirteen thousand feet above the sea. Below them lay the emperor penguin rookery on the bay ice; and the Ross Sea, completely frozen over, was a plain of firm white ice to the horizon. The emperors were unsettled, for they knew another terrific storm was brewing. The sky was black and threatening, the barometer began to fall, and before long snowflakes were drifting onto the mountain's upper heights. Wilson realized that these warnings were easily readable to the emperor penguins, and although the ice had not yet started moving the penguins had; he could see a long line of them filing out from the bay to where a pack of some one or two hundred had already collected about two miles out at the edge of the ice.
When Wilson and his team awoke the next day, the gale and smother of snow and drift prevented any of them from leaving camp at all. This continued without intermission all day and night. The following morning, the weather cleared sufficiently to allow the team to reach the edge of the cliff overlooking the rookery. The Ross Sea was open water for nearly thirty miles; a long line of white pack ice was just visible on the horizon from where they stood, some eight to nine hundred feet above the sea. Large sheets of ice were still going out and drifting to the north, and the migration of the emperors was in full swing. Wilson and his colleagues had been in a whiteout, and now they were suddenly confronted for the first time in history with the overwhelming vision of a large colony of penguins.
When one thinks of the immense difficulties of this early encounter with emperor penguins, it is truly a miracle that we learned anything at all about this fascinating animal. Cherry-Garrard, at the end of the second volume of his two-volume "travel" book, speaks of "the darkness, accompanied it may be almost continually by howling blizzards which prevent you seeing your hand before your face," and then finishes his great work with these ringing words: "There are many reasons which send men to the Poles, and the Intellectual Force uses them all. But the desire for knowledge for its own sake is the one which really counts...If you march your Winter Journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin's egg."
The three men took some eggs, got lost on the cliff, were nearly killed several times by falling into crevasses, and broke all the eggs but two. That night there was a hurricane and their tent blew away. But the almost unimaginable difficulties and bravery of Wilson and his sailors were for naught. Human arrogance had interfered with objectivity. The embryos Wilson sought so assiduously would not bring the desired knowledge, but a far more momentous secret was encased within the egg — the secret of its father's embrace. The truly remarkable thing about the emperor penguin was not that it was a primitive creature but something that Wilson had missed entirely; what needed to be told was that the emperor was a highly evolved bird with extraordinary paternal behavior. The story he missed was that male penguins are uniquely committed fathers, staying with their eggs through the all but unbearable winter, fasting, balancing the precious egg on their feet, barely moving, hardly sleeping until their mate returned from her time at sea. Perhaps had Wilson been content to simply observe, he might have noticed it, though he would probably not have believed his own eyes. He was simply unprepared for such a heroic feat from a bird, and even less from a father bird.
Most of our myths about animals involve some kind of cruelty, some particularly selfish act, something "beastly." These myths rarely correspond to reality. One such myth about penguins is that when they gather by the open sea they push one resisting penguin into the water and then peer down to watch the result. Then, supposedly, should a leopard seal, with its great speed in the water, devour the hapless bird, his "friends" stay on shore; but if he bobs back up to the surface and begins playing happily in the water, they join him. It is true that the leopard seal, which reaches more than ten feet in length and weighs more than a thousand pounds, is a voracious predator and, along with the orca, is practically the only enemy of emperor penguins, who are powerful enough to protect themselves against other less ferocious predators. There is in fact safety in numbers, and a single penguin in the water has a far greater chance of being taken by a predator than does a whole gathering of penguins. But what really happens when emperors reach the sea involves no pushing; eventually one jumps in, and since penguins seem unable to resist following a lead, the rest dive into the freezing waters as well.
One reason that so many of us are fascinated by penguins is that they resemble us. They walk upright, the way we do, and, like us, they are notoriously curious creatures. Penguins in the wild walk right up to people, touch them, and look as if they were preparing to study them. Diane Ackerman points out that "there is, ordinarily, a no-man's-land between us and wild animals. They fear us and shy away. But penguins are among the very few animals on earth that cross that divide. They seem to regard us as penguins, too, perhaps of a freakish species. After all, we stand upright, travel in groups, talk all the time, sort of waddle." Bernard Stonehouse, the world's leading authority on penguins, believes that they think a human is a penguin who is "different, less predictable, occasionally violent, but tolerable company when he sits still and minds his own business."
Because penguins live only south of the equator, they have no experience of land predators from northern icy climes like the polar bear. The fact that they have no natural enemies on land helps explain their seeming fearlessness. In this way they are like the birds and mammals of the Galápagos Islands, who were, before humans came, without fear. Penguins are also more or less without aggression. They have enormous power in their pectoral muscles, but they use it only for movement, whether in the water or on land, and have never developed it for fighting or even defensive purposes.
Penguins do resemble humans, and no doubt this accounts for our fondness for cartoon images of penguins dressed up at crowded parties, but as fathers, penguins are our superiors. It is the balancing act undertaken by the male emperor penguin, the incubation of that single precious sphere throughout the blackest and coldest winter possible, that captivates our imagination. There is something about the image of male penguins nestling together in the middle of winter on the Antarctic fast ice that makes it lodge in our minds. This is one of the least hospitable spots on earth, with temperatures plunging to minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit and winds howling at more than one hundred miles an hour, where "daylight" consists of less than four hours a day and where the other twenty hours are pitch dark. The penguins huddle there, withstanding terrifying blizzards, many miles from the nearest source of food, cradling their eggs on their feet without eating anything at all for up to four and a half months, while their mates are far away, nourishing themselves at sea. For beginning in March, as the Antarctic days become shorter and with the perpetual night of winter looming, these large birds travel sixty miles from open water to a traditional rookery site (the exact same site is used year after year by the same animals) at the base of the great seaward wall of one of the major ice shelves.
Yes, this is a heroic image, and seems almost impossible. Yet what is so appealing about it is that every detail is true. Unlike mammals, male birds can experience pregnancy as an intimate matter, with the father in many species helping to sit (brood) the egg. After all, a male can brood an egg as well as a female can. But in no other species does it reach this extreme.
Emperor Penguin Society
Let us bear in mind what large birds emperor penguins are. They can be three feet tall, and weigh up to ninety pounds, the size of a large dog. When the males brood they fast, and can lose up to half of their body weight. What do they do all day while they fast and incubate the eggs? They do nothing. Or, more precisely, they do very little. In that cold, in those winds, any activity is exhausting and ill-conceived. The important thing is to conserve energy.
Emperor penguins have evolved an exquisitely polite society. Nobody bothers anyone else. And yet they are not isolated. On the contrary, the extreme conditions of the weather make it imperative that they join together or freeze separately. The number of males assembled in the rookeries is sometimes enormous, up to ten thousand birds. They form what the French call a tortue (a turtle — in English it is sometimes called a scrum), which is a throng of very densely packed penguins. There is generally only a single tortue, containing all the penguins in the colony. When the storms come, which is most of the time, they move in close to one another, shoulder to shoulder, and form a circle. The middle of the tortue is unusually warm and one would think that every penguin fights to be at the epicenter of warmth. But emperor etiquette requires that no penguin seek to advance himself at the expense of another, and in that way every emperor will benefit. It is all very democratic. For in fact what looks like an immobile mass is really a very slowly revolving spiral. The constantly shifting formation is such that every penguin, all the while balancing that single precious egg on his feet, eventually winds up in the middle of the turtle, only to find himself later at the periphery. There are no complaints, just compliance with a remarkable life-saving adaptation to freezing temperatures. Only one-sixth of the body surface of the emperor is exposed when he is in turtle formation, and the birds are also capable of lowering their body metabolism while huddling to save energy.
How do penguins find their mates? Little was known until the close observations of Jean Prévost's French expeditions into Antarctica in the 1950s, which he recounted in his 1961 book (see Suggested Reading). It has not yet been determined whether the birds who form a pair have already paired the previous year. But they do form pairs for the duration of the breeding cycle. They come from the open sea in single file, one behind the other. When they arrive at their destination, they begin the search for a partner. All birds, of whatever sex (which is very difficult for humans to determine), behave identically as soon as they arrive: They rub the sides of their heads with the tops of their wings, first on the right, then on the left. They only do this when they first arrive. It is not entirely clear what function this serves, but it probably has something to do with clearing the ears, since sound will play such a large part in the ensuing couplings. Maybe, too, it serves an obscure function in the mating ritual. King and emperor penguins have vivid auricular patches, golden orange or yellow orange, that are used for courtship. If, in an experiment, one of these patches in a male is painted black, no female penguin will deign to look at the poor male who has been thus disfigured. Perhaps, as in birds in general, these colors say something about parasites (though there are almost none at these temperatures) or physical health in general. Or maybe female penguins just admire color in the all-white environment of the Antarctic.
In any case, one bird, male or female, approaches the other and slowly lowers his or her head with a loud sigh. This is followed by a short song, while the courting penguin keeps its beak pointing vertically down. The other penguin's head is lifted and the bird listens intently. They face each other and are completely still for thirty to forty seconds. Suddenly one of the birds will slowly incline his or her head and begin to sing again, which causes the other to follow suit. That is it: Either they separate and continue the same ritual with another penguin, or they follow one another, a deal having been struck. If they walk off together, they puff up their necks and do an exaggerated swagger. Finding a partner can take anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days.
We have to remember that these penguins, preparing to mate, are fasting, since they are far away from the ocean and therefore there is nothing for them to eat. Emperors breeding in the Bay of Whales in the Ross Sea have been found with recognizable pebbles in the stomach that could only have come from sites more than 340 miles away, and the rookery itself can be as much as 100 miles from the sea. It is so cold that the penguins will spend many hours of the day and night (which are practically identical in terms of light) gathered in the large groups, the tortues. Often the pair will become separated during the movement of the turtle, but they invariably find each other again, often without any vocalization. Scientists found this out only when they were able to mark individual penguins, for otherwise humans find it difficult to tell them apart. The birds themselves clearly do not have any such problem.
The emperors usually wait for good weather to copulate, any time between April 10 and June 6. They separate themselves somewhat from the rest of the colony and face each other, remaining still for a time. Then the male bends his head, contracts his abdomen, and shows the female the spot on his belly where he has a flap of skin that serves as a kind of pouch for the egg and the baby chick. Unlike the pouch of a marsupial, this is a pouch only in a loose manner of speaking. In reality, it is a fold of loose abdominal skin, a bare (the lack of feathers facilitates the flow of heat) brooding patch, which wraps over the egg to form a warm brood cavity. This stimulates the female to do the same. Their heads touch, and the male bends his head down to touch the female's pouch. Both begin to tremble visibly. Then the female lies face down on the ice, partially spreads her wings and opens her legs. The male climbs onto her back and they mate for ten to thirty seconds.
They stay together afterward constantly, leaning against one another when they are standing up, or if they lie down, the female will glide her head under that of her mate. About a month later, between May 1 and June 12, the female lays a single greenish-white egg. French researchers noted that the annual dates on which the colony's first egg was laid varied by only eight days in sixteen years of observation. Weighing almost a pound, and measuring up to 131 millimeters long and 86 millimeters wide, this is one of the largest eggs of any bird. The male stays by the female's side, his eyes fixed on her pouch. As soon as he sees the egg, he sings, a variation of what has been called the "ecstatic" display by early observers (a male penguin uses this call with his head raised and wings extended to indicate that he has a nest but no partner), and she too takes up the melody. She catches the egg with her wings before it touches the ice and places it on her feet. Both penguins then sing in unison, staring at the egg for up to an hour. The female then slowly walks around the male, who gently touches the egg on her feet with his beak, making soft groans, his whole body trembling. He shows the female his pouch. Gently she puts the egg down on the ice and just as gently he rolls it with his beak between his large, black, powerfully clawed feathered feet, and then, with great difficulty, hoists the egg onto the surface of his feet. He rests back on his heels so that his feet make the least contact with the ice. The transfer of the egg is a delicate operation. If it falls on the ice and rolls away, it can freeze in minutes or it might even be stolen. If it is snatched away by a female penguin who failed to find a mate, its chances of survival are slight because the intruder will eventually abandon the egg, since she has no mate to relieve her.
With the egg transfer successfully completed, the happy couple both sing. The male parades about in front of the female, showing her his pouch with the egg inside. This thick fold, densely feathered on the outside and bare inside, now completely covers the egg and keeps it at about 95 degrees Fahrenheit, even when the temperature falls to 95 degrees below zero. The female begins to back away, each time a little farther. He tries to follow her, but it is hard, since he is balancing the egg. Suddenly she is gone, moving purposefully toward the open sea. She is joined by the other females in the colony, who, by the end of May or June, have all left for the ocean. The females have fasted for nearly a month and a half, and have lost anywhere between 17 to 30 percent of their total weight. They are in urgent need of food.
The female must renew her strength and vitality so that she can return with food for her chick. Going to the sea, she takes the shortest route to reach a polynya (open water surrounded by ice). Penguins appear to be able to navigate by the reflection of the clouds on the water, using what has been called a "water sky."
The male penguin, who has also been fasting, is now left with the egg balanced on his feet. The first egg was laid on the first of May; a chick will emerge in August. Since the seasons are reversed south of the equator, full winter has arrived, with many violent blizzards and the lowest temperatures of the year. Emperor penguins are well adapted to the almost unimaginable cold of these twenty-hour Antarctic nights: Their plumage is waterproof, windproof, flexible, and renewed annually. They may not need tents, but as soon as the bad weather starts, generally in June, the males need some protection from the bitter cold, and nearly all of them find it by forming their tortues. What early French explorers like J. Cendron in the 1950s and, later, others noticed during the long (two to three months) incubation period is an almost preternatural calm among the males. This is no doubt necessitated by the long fast that is ahead of them. Many of them have already fasted, like the females, for two months or more, and must now face another two months of fasting. Moving about with an egg balanced on one's feet is difficult at the best of times.
Nonetheless, there is always a small minority of restless males who insist on making small sorties into the frozen countryside. Sometimes up to nine males with eggs will leave the colony together and be found some four miles away. Cendron observed fourteen males with their eggs more than a mile from the colony, who by evening had managed to return through thick snow, their eggs precariously balanced. When it is snowing very hard, it is the rare hardy soul who ventures out. But there are always a few who do so. They no longer walk, but lie on their bellies and, using their wings, toboggan themselves forward, keeping the egg pressed against the incubating pouch with their feet. Even an injured bird will continue to protect his egg: One penguin had a bad wound on his foot that did not permit him to stand up. He kept apart from the other birds and managed to keep his egg balanced on his single good foot even without standing. Was he also doomed to remain outside the tortue? The report does not say. But whatever happens, the first concern of the male emperor is for his egg. As Bernard Stonehouse put it: "Birds have been known to fall over small precipices, roll down snowy slopes, trip over rocks, tumble heavily on slippery bare ice, or navigate their way among very rough sastrugi [ridges of hard snow] without releasing their grip on the eggs."
The only time a father will abandon an egg is if he has reached the maximum limit of his physiological ability to fast, and would die if he did not seek food. Not a small number of eggs are left for this reason, and it would seem that in each case the female is late in returning.
Nobody knows whether the emperor father "speaks" to the chicks inside the egg. I think it is possible, as do ornithologists I spoke to about it. Konrad Lorenz, in his beautiful book The Year of the Greylag Goose, noted that the mother goose communicates with her goslings before they hatch from their eggs by making very soft contact calls to them. They in turn are capable of making a number of different calls, which allow the mother to know whether they are developing normally. When they produce a plaintive call, known as "lost piping" (the same sound they will make later in life when they are separated from the family), the mother will respond with comforting contact calls, the equivalent of "I am here." The gander, a good father to his young, takes up a position by the nest and is on high alert as soon as he hears any sounds from within the egg. A number of different birds (domestic chicks, Peking and mallard ducklings) call from within the egg, and it would be worthwhile attempting to discover whether the emperor penguin chicks are among them, and what response is forthcoming from their devoted fathers.
In July or August, after being gone for almost three months, the female emperor returns from the sea, singing as she penetrates various groups of birds, searching for her mate and her chick or egg. The males do not move, but make small peeping noises. When she finds her husband, she sings, she makes little dance steps, then she goes quiet and both birds can remain immobile for up to ten minutes. Then they begin to move around one another. Prévost describes how the female then fixes her eyes on the incubatory pouch of her partner, while her excitement grows visibly. Finally, if it is the right bird, the male allows the egg to fall gently to the ice, whereupon the female takes it and then turns her back to the male, to whom, after a final duet, she becomes completely indifferent. The male becomes increasingly irritated, stares at his empty pouch, pecks at it with his beak, lifts up his head, groans, and then pecks the female. She shows no further interest in him and eventually he leaves for the open sea, to break his long fast. The whole affair has lasted about eighty minutes.
How difficult it is for us to understand the emotions involved in these events. Yet it is hard to resist the anthropomorphic urge. Obviously the male emperor is aware of the loss of what has, after all, been almost a part of his body for two to three months. Is he disappointed, bewildered, relieved, or are his feelings so remote from our own (not inferior, mind you, just different) that we cannot imagine them? We would groan, too, under such circumstances, but the meaning of a penguin's groan is still opaque to us. Yet we, too, are fathers and mothers with babies to protect and comfort, negotiating meals and absences and other obligations, just like our Antarctic cousins. Sometimes, when we are overwhelmed by an emotion, we are hard-pressed to express ourselves. If penguin fathers could speak about this moment in their lives, perhaps they would be at a similar loss for words. Perhaps the songs and groans of the male penguin are all the expression they need.
How is it, one wonders, that the female emperor penguin is able to return just in time for the birth of her chick? As Alexander Skutch notes in his wonderful book, The Minds of Birds, it is improbable that she has consciously counted the sixty-three days or whatever the exact number is between the laying of her egg and the hatching of her chick. "Only a most exceptional human could accurately time such long intervals without a calendar, notching a tally-stick or some such device. Some subconscious process, physiological or mental, was evidently summing the days to prompt the birds to start homeward when the proper number had elapsed."
If the egg has hatched and the male already has a chick between his legs, the female is even more excited to hear it peep, and quickly removes it from the male. She immediately regurgitates food to the chick. If she is late in coming (the miracle is that the mothers usually return on the day their chicks hatch), the male, in spite of his near starvation, has a final resource: He regurgitates into the beak of his peeping newborn a substance known as penguin milk, similar to pigeon's milk, or crop milk, which is secreted from the lining of his esophagus. The secretion is remarkably rich, containing essential amino acids, much like the milk of marine mammals such as seals and whales. It contains 29 percent fat and 59 percent protein (cow's milk contains just 4 percent fat and 3 percent protein). These feedings allow the young birds to survive for up to two weeks after hatching. Many of these males have now fasted for four and a half months, and have lost up to half of their body weight. It is a sight to see the well-nourished, sleek, brilliantly feathered, healthy-looking females arrive, and the emaciated, dirty, tired males leave.
Bernard Stonehouse, one of the first scientists to research the life of penguins, wrote an influential article in 1953 about the emperor's breeding habits. But he did not know that females returned to the same male. He thought they took anyone, and wrote that "there was no indication in the rookery that any female returned to a specific male, or took charge of any particular chick; there is no family life." He was wrong on this point. As the eminent French explorer J. Prévost noted in 1963, it really makes no sense that the females are searching frantically unless they are searching for somebody specific. No matter how long it takes her, the female eventually finds her partner and therefore her own egg or chick. She does this through sound, through vision, and through memory.
The females have brought enough undigested food to feed the chicks every hour at first, then, once the chicks are bigger, two or three times a day. Penguin parents suspend digestion when bringing food home to their chicks by secreting a wall of protective mucus around the crop content. If prevented from feeding their chicks, penguins may discard the food rather than digest it themselves. (An emperor in captivity starved to death by feeding all his rations — about six pounds of fish daily — to an importunate chick.) Between twenty and thirty-four days later, the father returns, well nourished also, and now the two of them can take turns returning to the sea to feed. The chicks remain on the feet of their parents for about forty to fifty days from the time they hatch.
By September or October, the chicks have grown enough to run free. They then form what are known as crèches, penguin nurseries, consisting exclusively of chicks, with no adults present to guard or take care of them in any way. Why these nurseries form is not clear (for company?), but when the weather turns ugly, the crèches are quickly transformed into tortues, with the same function for the chicks as for the adults. Whether the ability to form tortues is innate or is the result of observing the adults is hard to say, but it is probably the former. Even when they are in the crèches, the parents still feed them, although more sporadically. On their return to the crèches once every week or two, the adults spend anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days with their chicks, which probably led earlier observers to believe that the crèches were guarded by adults. Why some adults stay longer there than others is not known, and perhaps there is some aspect of guarding to the behavior.
Early authors thought this feeding was communal or random: Any adult penguin would feed any penguin chick (the same mistake was made about bats). This turns out not to be true. What happens is that the parents join up and together approach each crèche in turn and sing. It is a little like human parents setting off to day care to pick up their children. This song may cause no reaction at all until one of the chicks approaches and gives an answering song. There are sometimes five thousand chicks to be examined. It resembles a test, since several chicks will often come forward. Before giving a second song, the mother or father penguins will rub their heads with the top part of their wings, just as they did earlier when they were courting. Then they will make a little dance step that encourages the chick to move away from the crèche, and only then will the adult feed the chick.
Stonehouse describes penguin chicks in their winter crèches when their parents return from the sea to feed them: "The parent stands at the edge of the crèche, which may contain two or three thousand tightly packed, sleeping chicks, and gives its own distinctive call. Immediately one little head shoots up from the mass, one piercing whistle sounds a frenetic reply, and the chick begins to fight its way through apathetic companions to meet its parent for breakfast." In spite of such care, he points out that a quarter to a half of the hatched chicks die, usually from a bird predator (skuas and petrels) or by wandering away and freezing or starving. What an awful feeling it must be for the parents not to find their chicks. We may well reject the notion of a melancholy penguin as human sentiment run wild, but I find the idea impossible to dismiss out of hand. After such care, why should a parent penguin not feel bereft at its loss?
Given penguins' concern for their own children, there are some disturbing observations, one of them made by Prévost. He noticed that giant petrels (the family of seabirds that includes albatrosses) will sometimes choose a small chick on the edge of the colony, open his abdomen with their beaks, and then eat the contents. The chick will only rarely cry out, "and the adults who are standing nearby are generally completely indifferent to his fate." This is one of those times when empathy or sympathy fails, and we cannot, or at least I cannot, imagine how one could be in the penguin's place as an indifferent bystander. Perhaps because the situation is so rare — penguins, as we have seen, have almost no predators on land — they are simply unprepared and therefore literally blind to what is happening in front of their eyes: We cannot see what we do not know. Perhaps the chick, by not singing, is not recognized.
One possible explanation comes from observation of kittiwake gulls. In a classic paper, Esther Cullen described her experiences with these birds over several years in the Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast. These gulls, unlike any other, nest on tiny cliff ledges, about four inches wide. This gives them almost complete protection from predators and they have developed a number of interesting behavioral changes as a result. Since they are so rarely attacked, they did not swoop at Cullen when she climbed among the nests. She watched a herring gull catch a young kittiwake in the air: "Even when it did so only a couple of feet from a nesting cliff the adult birds left their nests merely to hover in a completely silent cloud over the scene without interfering, while the chick was screaming and trying to defend itself against the powerful beak of its attacker." The explanation is that the kittiwake is simply not prepared for such events and does not know how to respond, since the attack is so far out of its normal experience. I think this same explanation could apply to emperor penguins.
Mysteriously, it has been noted that most birds, including skuas, sworn enemies of penguins, will not attack crèches, even though the babies could do nothing to defend themselves and there are usually no adults nearby to protect them. It is not clear why this should be so. Is there a skua code of honor?
By December, the ice has begun to melt, so that chicks (whose thermal feathers had to grow in) and adults are able to ride out to sea on the ice floes. They might ride on the same iceberg, but it is not clear whether they are still a family. Nobody knows precisely what happens to the emperor chicks when they ride these ice floes with their parents out to sea. I asked Dr. Gerald Kooyman, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, whether the chicks stay with their parents when they are at sea, and he told me that they do not. We know that at least 80 percent of fledglings die in their first year at sea. The survivors will spend four to five years at sea before they return to breed when they are five years old. Since penguins are not sexually mature until they are between five and eight years of age, one wonders what their life consists of during the time before they take partners. Whether a pair stays together at sea is not clear.
What do penguins do when they are at sea? These remarkable birds (who seem more fishlike than birdlike) spend most of their time in the Antarctic Ocean fishing. Or so it would seem. We should remember that the sea is the natural habitat for a penguin. Even their feathers are made for water: Their short, slightly curved feathers alternate and overlap like tiles on a roof. The tips are oily enough to repel water and keep the sea out. A mat of downy filaments grows from the shaft of each feather, forming with its neighbors a dense undershirt lying close to the skin. This traps a layer of warm air, and acts as additional waterproofing in case the outer layer of feather tips breaks down. We often think of penguins as clumsy creatures when they are waddling along the ice, but in the water, it is a completely different story, for they are in their element. Adult penguins spend 75 percent of their lives (which, according to at least one report, can be as long as thirty-four years) in the water, where they literally fly through the sea, using their wings in this different habitat. It is as if they surrendered their ability to soar through the air in order to "fly" through the water better, as Edward Hoagland suggested when he saw them on a trip to the Antarctic, which he wrote about in Tigers and Ice
Since the adults do not return to land, or even to the Antarctic ice shelves, for months at a time, one wonders what they drink. At sea, penguins distill their own fresh water, using special nasal glands that lie embedded in the skull immediately above the eyes. Although they make hundreds of dives a day, they only spend about four hours a day diving. Nobody knows for certain what they do the rest of the time. Nothing, many people assume, which makes them seem stupid. Thus Robert Cushman Murphy says in his great 1936 book, Oceanic Birds of South America: "The corpus striatum, rather than the cerebrum, is the seat of their being, and the brain, for all its great expansion, is concerned far more with keen sensory susceptibilities and delicate muscular coordination than with any processes that might properly be termed 'mental.' Why, after all, should a penguin need 'brains' when its fundamental and inherited behavior pattern takes care of it through the seasonal cycle and the generations?" But of course Cushman had no idea that these emperor penguins had such elaborate parenting habits. Nor did anyone know until very recently that they made such deep benthic dives, to the bottom of the sea, another remarkable feature of the emperor. When they move under water, their heart rate drops to five or six beats per minute (one twentieth of the normal rate). Dr. Kooyman tells me that these dives can be up to 500 meters deep, and last for up to twenty minutes. Only elephant seals can forage at such depths, certainly no other bird. Kooyman believes the function of these dives may be to provide their chicks with the gastric stones both male and females feed them back at the rookery, probably for digestive purposes.
If they do not stay with their mates, they do for certain meet up with other penguins. Bernard Stonehouse explains that "lone penguins of any kind seem restless, incomplete creatures; unless moulting or dying (when they prefer to be alone) their most pressing aim is to find other penguins, preferably but not necessarily of their own species, with whom they can stand in silent but satisfying communion." The reason, he says, for their conviviality is that "solitary birds are prone to dangers — getting lost, failing to find food when it is scarce or patchy, or being eaten by seals and other predators — which diminish when they travel in company." I think it is possible that they simply enjoy company.
I make no secret of the awe in which I hold the father emperor penguin; some, though, might argue against a heroic element to his parental solicitude. "But that is simply what emperor penguins do, there is nothing heroic in doing what you are programmed to do, whereas you make it sound like the penguin has made an individual choice," someone might object. There is some truth to this, for we tend to reserve the term "heroic" for an act that is chosen over other easier or more convenient ones. Nonetheless, human heroes, too, will often explain that they only did what seemed natural to them, or they had no choice, or they were brought up to behave in this way. So if emperor penguin fathers are simply acting as penguins, it is still impressive to our eyes.
Moreover, we are only beginning to learn of the astonishing paternal feats of emperor penguins. Few people have ever observed their fathering behavior closely for an extended period of time, for obvious reasons: The conditions of their habitat are extremely harsh, even perilous. Captive emperor penguins do not behave in a normal fashion when it comes to procreation and fathering. We might be surprised to learn that there is far more variation in paternal behavior than we assume, ranging from fathers who never abandon an egg or a chick under any circumstance to others who flee at the first sign of a bad storm. Perhaps the high rate of infant mortality (though the figures may not be reliable, based as they are on a relatively small sample) can be accounted for by this variability in paternal competence. Scientists find something disturbing in the notion that a penguin can deliberately choose his behavior. Similarly, the thought that a mother penguin at sea might suddenly think consciously about the birth of her chick, and decide consciously to return to land, is vaguely disturbing. It is easier to believe that some internal clock simply turns on and she finds herself heading for home for no reason that she can understand. But isn't it possible that she is heading back with a vivid image in her mind of her new chick driving her, hurrying her on? Similarly, the male emperor must feel relief when he sees her approaching. His hunger is extreme, his patience has been exemplary. Now it is time for him to head for the open sea as well and replenish his strength. These are the emotions that humans would feel under these circumstances; I can see no good reason to deny them to penguins.
When I visit the playground on a weekend and see all the fathers, many looking bored no doubt, but still there when they could be someplace else, I am struck by how children come into our lives and simply demand that we give them immediate priority — and we respond. There are many pleasures more exciting than sitting in a sandbox with a three year old digging holes, or sitting at the seashore building castles. More exciting, but in some absolute sense, less fulfilling. There is nothing that feels more remarkably right than being with our children, attending to their small pleasures, observing with satisfaction their joy. We may not be emperor penguins, but our embrace of our children is not totally unlike theirs in these moments of parental devotion. We too feel a devotion to our young that makes us forego ordinary pleasures to ensure that they survive and thrive.
One of America's great paleontologists, the late George Gaylord Simpson, was fascinated by penguins. At the end of a book he wrote about them in 1976, Penguins Past and Present, he said, "Finally, the question may be asked, 'What good are penguins?' It may be crass to ask what good a wild animal is, but I do think the question may also be legitimate. That depends on what you mean by good. If you mean 'good to eat,' you are perhaps being stupid. If you mean 'good to hunt,' you are surely being vicious. If you mean 'good as it is good in itself to be a living creature enjoying life,' you are not being crass, stupid or vicious. I agree with you and I am your brother as well as the penguin's." I think we can go even further, and say that it is good to watch the emperor penguin, to learn from the emperor penguin, to lionize the emperor penguin as he proudly embraces the tiny ball of fluff on his feet.
Copyright © 1999 by Jeffery Masson
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