WE SEEN ENOUGH PENGUINS?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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