Excerpt from the Crystal Desert: Penguins (3)

I had the pleasure of spending time with David G Campbell during a cruise to the Antarctic. I love his book and will be posting excerpts from it from time to time.

The book is called “The Crystal Desert:  Summers in Antarctica” and is published by the Houghton Mifflin Company.

“A superior personal account of place, a remarkable evocation of a land at the bottom of the world (Boston Globe)


The origin of penguins have long been debated by ornithologists. At the turn of the last century, developmental biologists mistook flightlessness for primitiveness and concluded that penguins were a missing link between dinosaurs and birds. The proof of this hypothesis, it was thought, lay in the anatomy not of the adult but of the embryo, since ontogeny was believed to recapitulate the evolutionary stages of the penguin ancestors. For this reason penguin eggs were sought by ornithologists; the egg of the emperor penguin, which breeds during the Antarctic winter, was the most elusive prize of all. The adventure that lead to the recovery of the first emperor eggs, by Edward Wilson, “Birdie” Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard, is one of the great sagas of exploration. On June 27, 1911, the three departed from Robert Falcon Scott’s hut at Cape Evans on a trek to the emperor penguin rookery at Cape Crozier, 105 kilometers east, on the opposite side of Ross Island. They traveled on skis, hauling their equipment in sleds. It was the dead middle of the austral winter, and on some days temperatures dropped as low as -54 degrees C. The wind was just as remorseless. On one occasion it ripped the team’s only tent from its moorings and carried it 300 meters away; fortunately the explorers were bivouacking in a nearby igloo. Dysentery, frozen sweats, hypothermia, and incessant uncertainty plagued the explorers. Toward the end, they were so delirious from exhaustion and exposure that they repeatedly had to nudge each other awake. “This I know,” wrote Cherry-Garrard, ” we on this journey were already beginning to think of death as a friend.” On July 20 the explorers reached the penguin rookery on the fast ice in front of the looming sixteen-meter-high face of the Ross Ice Shelf.

We saw the Emperors standing all together huddled under the Barrier cliff some hundreds of yard away …..After indescribable effort and hardship we were witnessing a marvel of the natural world, and we were the first and only men who had ever done so; we had within our grasp material which might prove of the utmost importance to science, we were turning theories into facts with every observation we made, and we had but a moment to give.

Emperor Penguin Colony (photo: wikipedia)

Emperor Penguin Colony (photo: wikipedia)

Thirty-six days later the team staggered into the hut at Cape Evans with three emperor eggs, which were later dissected at the University of Edinburgh. But the embryos did not provide the proof that the explorers were seeking; penguins were in fact very modern birds. The following summer Wilson and Bowers both froze to death on the Ross Ice Shelf, while returning from the pole with Scott.

We know now that penguins are very much creatures of Gondwana. Their origin is documented by abundant fossils, including the remains of a giant penguin that stood nearly two meters tall, from Seymour Island. Hardly primitive, penguins are recent descendants of flighted birds, probably coast-dwelling relatives of petrels that took to the sea about 40 million years ago, after Antarctica had split from the northern continents and become isolated in the Southern Ocean. As Antarctica slowly drifted south and became ice-locked, its resident penguins adapted to the increasingly hostile conditions. The penguins invaded a niche – the open and highly productive sea to a depth of several hundred meters – that was out of reach of all other birds. The evolution from flight to swimming involved a striking reversal of several adaptations that characterize flighted birds. Penguins lost their hollow, air-filled bones and evolved solid, ballasted ones. The wing bones, which in flighted birds are so adroitly and flexibly articulated, are in the aquatic penguin fused into a stiff flipper, a rudder-wing that is rigid enough to push through the heavy medium of water. In contrast to all other birds, their wings are designed to push down, not up; when they stop beating their wings, penguins bob upward and crash on the surface. Indeed, to say that penguins are “flightless” is misleading, for penguins do fly on their modified wings, only their medium is water, not air.


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