by Whit Gibbons

May 28, 2006

Here's a twist on an old joke: What's black and white and stars in movies? The answer, of course, is a penguin, a flightless creature, that walks like Charlie Chaplin in a tuxedo with shirt showing and no hat. With the recent movies, videos, and advertisements involving these comical creatures, some young people may think that in their natural habitat penguins move in synchrony to snappy music, seek out cameras to peer at, and do whatever else is necessary to look appealing.

I don't know what has been presented about penguin ecology in the Hollywood hype, but I assume some of the following will be new to most people. Everyone pretty much knows that the quintessential penguin is a cold-natured creature that lives in frigid saltwater habitats. These icons waddle about on Antarctic ice floes, avoiding leopard seals, killer whales, and predatory birds that will eat a penguin as fast as a penguin will eat calamari. But a dozen and half species of these charming birds exist. And not all live in cold climates; not all thrive on squid; and not all have to worry about fearsome sea predators.

When full grown, some weigh less than 10 sticks of butter. Some eat krill, tiny shrimplike crustaceans that are also eaten by whales. Two kinds of penguins--emperor and king--lay one egg at a time and build no nest, whereas most of the rest lay two or even three eggs. The male emperor penguin, the largest species, weighing up to 90 pounds, incubates the egg, balancing it on its feet for months while fasting during an Antarctic winter. Both sexes of the other penguin species are involved in the incubation of the eggs, mostly in association with nests. Penguins are found on the southern ends of Australia, Africa, and South America, and live on land in burrows at night. They take daily excursions into the ocean to forage. Their primary natural predators on land are sea gulls.

The reason penguins never worry about being eaten by polar bears is of course that polar bears live at the North Pole and penguins have only made it as far north as the Galapagos Islands, which are on the equator. The Galapagos penguins are not only the northernmost ones but are among the smallest, reaching a length (or would you say, height?) of less than 20 inches. But these are brutes compared to the delicate little blue, or fairy, penguins of southern Australia and New Zealand, which are only 14 inches tall, being not much bigger than a half-gallon milk container. Fairy penguins differ from the Antarctic penguins in being exposed in recent centuries or even decades to a new suite of predators--foxes, dogs, and possibly even cats and ferrets--that have been introduced to the terrestrial habitats where the penguins spend their evening hours.

Despite their newfound fame as Hollywood stars, each penguin is a member of a species that has a native region where it lives and a natural environment that must exist for it to survive. Neither zoos nor Sunset Boulevard is the penguin's natural habitat. Most of us probably take their ecological well being for granted. But maybe we shouldn’t. If global climate change is as serious a threat as many scientists say and is caused by carbon dioxide emissions resulting from human overconsumption that could be regulated by the ruling industrial nations, then we could be responsible for the melting of polar icecaps and warming of the cool temperate regions where penguins live. This will severely affect their ecology, and some will disappear, forever. If some nation began to view penguin oil, meat, or eggs as lucrative commodities, as did whalers and seal hunters of the 19th century, entire penguin species could be wiped out in months or years.

Being cute is always a plus, but it may not be enough to save the penguins, which have specific environmental needs. As do all species. As the dominant species on earth, we have a responsibility to protect the habitats and well-being of the other creatures that share the planet with us. If we don't, a century from now, the march of the penguins will be only a celluloid memory.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)