5 Interesting Facts About Emperor Penguins

Emperor penguins have unique ways of living in the extreme conditions of Antarctica. Discover just how they survive the odds!

Oct 20, 2023By Lisa Szymanski
facts emperor penguins

Only the toughest animals can survive the icy conditions of Antarctica, and the emperor penguin is one of them. Every year they brave the harsh elements, from snow storms to melting ice, to successfully raise their chicks. Temperatures can plummet to -56℉, yet these penguins continue to nest, hunt, and live to an average age of 19 years on the glacier.

These extraordinary animals have some fantastic stories to tell, so let’s learn more about them with 5 interesting facts about emperor penguins.

1. Emperor Penguins are Great Divers

emperor penguin diving off an ice shelf
An emperor penguin pushes itself off the ice and into the water.

When you see an emperor penguin gliding through icy water, you would never imagine it could weigh close to 90 lbs. In fact, they are the largest penguins of all, and they can dive to exceptional depths of more than 1800 ft. These beautiful penguins remain at sea for a month at a time when they hunt fish and squid. Emperor penguins swim underwater in search of food for more than 20 minutes at a time, which is impressive for a bird. They eat as much as they can to build their fat reserves in preparation for nesting and to replenish their weight after incubating eggs. They are the only birds to live and nest on ice and barely set foot on land.

2. hey are Adapted to Live in Frost

baby emperor penguin peaking from brood pouch
A baby emperor penguin nesting in a warm pouch.

An emperor penguin can permanently live on ice because they have blubber to keep warm, similar to whales and seals, and a dense waterproof coat. Just below their sleek coat is a layer of soft down feathers that prevents the cold from reaching their skin. The chicks are covered in a light gray down with blackheads to stand out against the pure white ice and snow. Very young chicks have no waterproof feathers and are susceptible to freezing temperatures without the help and protection of their parents. Hatchlings stay inside a fluffy pocket close to the abdomens of adult penguins for over a month until they grow down feathers.

3. Emperor Penguins Nest on Ice

emperor penguins standing on ice with two chicks
Adult and young emperor penguins live on the ice shelf.

One of the only birds to lay eggs in the heart of winter is the emperor penguin. These cold conditions create the perfect ice shelves they need to lay their eggs. In spring and summer, the ice melts, making it impossible to raise chicks. Unlike other birds, such as eagles that use twigs to build their nests, the penguins native to Antarctica build nests on ice. The female produces the egg and then gently passes it to the male using her feet so that it never touches the ice. The males incubate the eggs and rely on solid ice to hold onto the eggs or hatchlings until the females arrive. Interestingly, emperor penguins will stay with a single partner for a year, and they only lay one egg.

4. Male Emperor Penguins are Super Dads

adult emperor penguin and young chick
An adult emperor penguin protecting its chick.

The male emperor penguin is tasked with looking after the eggs when the mom leaves the nest to find food. Females travel with the arrival of winter, entrusting the hatchlings to their partners. During this time, the males play an important role in incubating the eggs against severe cold. These super dads will go without food for over 60 days, living on their fat reserves until the female returns. If the chicks hatch before she returns, the male produces a slurry to feed the chicks, even though he is close to starvation. This form of food only lasts for 14 days, and if the females don’t relieve the males of their hunger, they will leave the chicks in search of food.

5. They Brave Snow Storms by Huddling Together

emperor penguins huddle in ice storm
Huddling in large groups protects them from snow and ice storms.

The weather patterns in Antarctica can be pretty unpredictable, and when icy winds hit landfall, these penguins have a unique way of keeping warm. Before a storm strikes, emperor penguins form large circular groups by huddling together. As the storm intensifies, they place their heads on one another with their backs facing outward. They maintain this position for days, even as icicles form on their coats, as they wait for the bad weather to pass.

Emperor penguins can be standoffish towards one another, but when an ice storm approaches, they put their differences aside and come together for their survival.

A Changing Habitat and an Uncertain Future

group of emperor penguins on the ice

Much like the polar bear, emperor penguins are victims of their changing habitat and are recognized as a threatened species. The rising temperatures in the polar regions have caused ice to rapidly melt and create unstable surfaces for raising chicks. This process increases the risk of large chunks of ice breaking away and chicks drowning when falling into the ocean. The extreme conditions of Antarcticahave hindered the research needed to learn more about these unique animals and move forward with conservation. Despite the odds, these ice-bound birds continue to make the mighty Antarctica their home.

Lisa Szymanski
By Lisa Szymanski

Lisa is a wildlife enthusiast who enjoys hiking and gardening and has four years of experience volunteering at pet shelters. She is the proud mom of two dogs, a Pitbull named Ragnar, a Boerboel named Blueberry, and four feisty chickens, or as she calls them, the "queens of the yard," Goldie, Gray, Peaches, and Brownie.