By the left, quick march: The Emperor Penguins migration

As Antarctica's sea ice begins to thaw, emperor penguins begin their annual migration to hunt for food. Steve Connor reports


It is that time of year when emperor penguins are on the march. On this occasion, however, the march includes the entire penguin family, including the down-covered chicks about to gain independence from their doting parents. Emperor penguins, which incubate their eggs on sea ice and feed entirely at sea, are probably the only species of bird never to set foot on land. They also have one of the most unusual life-cycles.

As life in the northern hemisphere hunkers down during the shortest days of winter, Antarctica is basking in almost 24-hour sunshine. The sea ice formed last winter is starting to break up and penguin families have begun a long trek to the open sea, where they will feast on fish and squid until the southern winter begins again in March.

There is something endearingly sweet about the emperor's extraordinary life-cycle, which has been honed over thousands of years of evolution by the rigours of the Antarctic seasons and bleak conditions of this most southerly landscape of bitter winds and ice.

If they can, male and female emperor penguins mate for life with courtship beginning after a three-month feeding binge out at sea starting in January. By the end of March, they make the crossing across 60 or 100 miles of sea ice to their frozen rookeries, where the female lays a single egg.

She carefully passes over her valuable egg to her mate, who balances it on his feet before slipping it into the snug warmth of an incubating pouch under his belly. Here he will keep the egg at near body temperature during the worst of the Antarctic winter, when temperature routinely fall to minus 60C and wind speeds reach 100mph.

After laying their eggs, the females immediately return to sea to feed through the winter, while the males huddle together in groups of hundreds or even thousands to keep warm. Those at the edge of the scrum act as a wind-break, providing vital insulation for the rest of the colony, and they are then relieved of their exposed position by those in the middle.

By the time the first eggs begin to hatch in August, the females return to find their mates, who they detect in the crowd by their calls. At this time of year, she can be bigger than him because he has lost up to 40 per cent of body weight by starving over winter. The female emperor penguin relieves her partner of his parental duties, although he somewhat reluctantly hands over the newly-hatched chick before he goes off to sea to feed. In the next few weeks, both parents will take it in turns to feed until the chick is old enough to join others that huddle together in groups to keep warm.

At this point, both parents can feed at the same time, returning to gorge their solitary offspring on a diet rich in marine protein. As a result, the chick piles on weight and grows quickly.

During December, the chicks begin to moult and their woolly grey down is replaced by a more water-proof plumage in readiness for their first journey to the sea. As the sea ice begins to break up, the entire family heads to open water where there is now a rich stock of fish, squid and crustaceans.

It is unusual in the animal kingdom for males to devote so much care to raising their young. Biologists believe the unusual breeding cycle of the emperor penguin, with egg incubation occurring during the coldest time of year, evolved as an adaptation to ensure that chicks enter the sea for the first time to feed when food is most available.

Suggested Topics
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
New Articles
i100... with this review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
footballTim Sherwood: This might be th match to wake up Manchester City
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
New Articles
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Blahnik says: 'I think I understand the English more than they do themselves'
Arts and Entertainment
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
TVInside Downton Abbey series 5
Life and Style
The term 'normcore' was given the oxygen of publicity by New York magazine during the autumn/winter shows in Paris in February
fashionWhen is a trend a non-trend? When it's Normcore, since you ask
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam