Excerpt from The Crystal Desert: Penguins (6)

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)


But the flippers are also the gentle tools of love. While on the nest, each member of a pair of penguins silently bows to the other like a nervous Japanese son-in-law, flippers pacifically plastered to its sides. In his precopulatory display, the male sidles up to his mate, who is coyly sitting on the nest, and wiggles his flippers. The female turns her head upward to meet his, and each fibrillates its bill at the base of the other’s. Now the male climbs on top of her, and keeping her transfixed with flipper wags and bill vibrations, slowly walks down her back, straining his rear to meet hers, until finally the act is consummated by a brief kiss of their cloacas. Like all birds, the male penguin has no penis, and this dabbing with spermatozoa is as intimate as it gets.

Starting at mating time, the juvenile chinstraps run amok through the rookery. Hatched in previous seasons, they are neither physically nor socially equipped to reproduce until they are two to four years old. Regardless, they practice the behaviors that will be useful to them in the breeding seasons ahead: territorial feints, courtship displays, even stone-robbing, and they sow disorder wherever they go. The cost and risk of reproduction are high: mature penguins that do not breed are more likely to survive than those that do. In a year when food is ample, everybody takes a shot at immortality and attempts to breed, including a large number of three – to five – year olds. Despite their physical maturity, these birds lack experience dodging skuas and sheathbills, are easily robbed of their pebbles, have not yet perfected the timing of their cycles of feeding and brooding, have immature social skills, and often fail to breed. But they learn on the job and will be more skilled the following year. During flush years the colony is densely packed and is a chaos of squabbles and bickerings. But in lean years, few but the most experienced penguins risk breeding. During those summers the smallest chicks often die, outbid by their older siblings.

Chinstrap Penguins (photo: flickr)

Chinstrap Penguins (photo: flickr)

After two or three weeks of courtship and mating, during which time each penguin learns to recognize its mate’s voice, the female lays two eggs inside the circle of stones. The timing is crucial. If the eggs are laid too late, then the chicks will not receive enough food and will lack the body mass to tough it out in the bountiful but angry winter sea. With a waddling delicacy, the female places her abdomen over the eggs and ensconces them in her brood pouch, a featherless, highly vascularized cavity that radiates incubating warmth. Because the nest of stones is a poor insulator and much heat bleeds into the ground, penguin eggs incubate at 30 degrees C, rather than at the adult penguin’s body temperature of 39 degrees C.

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