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Wildlife Wednesday: Penguin Myths and Facts

Posted by Janet Harriett on Sep.23, 2009

ⓒ Janet Harriett

ⓒ Janet Harriett

Penguins’ popularity in film, cartoons, knicknacks, greeting cards and lawn decor has led to several misconceptions about the cute flightless birds. Penguins are even the centerpieces of several urban legends. Most of the myths around penguins have some basis in facts. Here’s the truth behind several penguin fallacies.

Penguins Live in Antarctica…and Africa, South America and Australia

While penguins are prominently associated with Antarctica, the birds live throughout coastal areas of the southern hemisphere. Three species nest regularly on the Antarctic continent. Others have colonies on islands around Antarctica, and all species south of 60 latitude are protected under the Antarctic Treaty.

Some penguins tolerate warm weather and have colonies along the coasts of Australia, New Zealand, Africa and South America. Galapagos penguins live in Ecuador, on the Galapagos islands that straddle the equator. In South Africa, penguins share popular beaches with humans.

Penguins Do Not Frolic with, Nor Are They Eaten by, Polar Bears

Greeting card companies, toy manufacturers and even Christmas-themed lawn ornament designers frequently get this wrong. In the wild, penguins are found exclusively in the southern hemisphere. Polar bears are found exclusively in the northern hemisphere. The closest the two animals ever get is in zoos.

The main predators for adult penguins are seals, sharks and orcas, along with with dogs and members of the weasel family in more temperate, populated areas. Seabirds like skuas and gulls are a danger to eggs and juvenile penguins. Plenty of animals prey on penguins, but polar bears aren’t one of them.

Penguins are Monogamous…Mostly

Even before March of the Penguins, penguins were held up as a model of monogamy and family values. Many of the species, especially Emperors, Chinstraps and Adelies who nest on Antarctica, go off on their own for part of the year and return to the colony to mate and hatch a chick. Most of the time, these penguins select the same mate they had the previous season. Between 10% and 40% of the time, the female penguin selects a different mate than she had the previous season, usually because the male is late returning to the colony or doesn’t return at all. Penguins are faithful to a mate, but not if that means jeopardizing the short window of opportunity for successful breeding.

Temperate penguins living in South America, Australia and Africa tend to nest year-round. In captivity, these penguins may pair up for several seasons, but they have been observed changing partners occasionally. In the wild, some penguins have been observed with multiple partners during a breeding season, though most remain with one mate.

The whole idea of penguin monogamy is based on a flawed comparison, though. The term “monogamy” describes a type of marriage. Although penguins have elaborate pair bonding displays, they do not get married when they pair off for a mating season, so they can’t be monogamous. Attempts to project human characteristics on penguins–even as innocent as the idea that they “wear tuxedoes”–invites comparisons to human culture that simply aren’t valid among wildlife.

Click here for more information from Sea World on penguin reproduction and family life

Penguins have Daycare

When penguin chicks hatch, the parents initially trade off brooding and hunting duties. One parent keeps the chick warm while the other goes out to get food. Chicks rapidly outgrow one parent’s ability to bring back enough food, and both parents must go out hunting at the same time to keep the chick fed and thriving. While both parents are “at work,” the chicks crowd together in creches. This provides some mutual protection for the chicks, but parents will still only feed their own hatchling.

Penguins Don’t Fall over Watching Airplanes

A popular urban myth suggests that penguins will watch a plane flying overhead, following it with their heads until they tip over backward.  Even some British RAF pilots report having observed the phenomenon. When researchers tried, they could not get the penguins to fall over. However, the penguins, frightened by the noise of the planes, scattered, sometimes leaving nests and eggs exposed.

Click here for Snopes.com’s full analysis of the penguin-airplane legend

Penguins Really Do Need Sweaters After an Oil Spill

One common penguin-related email entreaty asks crafters to knit sweaters for penguins after an oil spill. Several penguin rescue organizations stockpile these to be ready when an ecological disaster affects penguins. The response from knitters worldwide has been overwhelming, allowing the organizations to stock plenty of sweaters. Once word gets out on the Internet, though, particularly about rescuing cute little penguins, it’s hard to stop. Phillip Island Nature Parks uses the donated sweaters to dress plush toys that it sells to raise funds for other penguin rescue projects.

Why start the penguin sweater drive in the first place? When penguins are rescued from an area affected by an oil spill, they may need to wait to have the oil scrubbed off, either because they are too weak to undergo the stressful cleaning process immediately, or because affected birds are brought in faster than volunteers can wash them. While the penguins are waiting to be washed, their instinct is to preen the foreign matter off their feathers. Sweaters keep the penguins’ beaks away from their feathers so they can’t ingest the petroleum. The sweaters are a more fashionable and less stressful alternative to the Elizabethan, or lampshade, collars used to keep dogs from licking incisions.

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Posted under Living, Nature and Environment.

Article By: Janet Harriett

Janet Harriett

Profile: Janet Harriett, Green Diva Mom's fomer editor, has been a writer and editor for print and online media, specializing in education and environmental issues since 1999. She lives on 2 acres in central Ohio with her husband, a 275-square-foot backyard garden and a home orchard growing 25 varieties of fruit. Janet holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing.

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