Penguins are, without a doubt, the icon of the Antarctic. They are the most common, though not the only, breeding birds in the Antarctic. Of the 17 species of penguins that exist worldwide, however, only 4 of them live and nest on the Antarctic continent (i.e. not including subantarctic islands): the Adélie, the Emperor, the Chinstrap, and the Gentoo penguins. Here in the McMurdo Sound and Ross Island area we commonly see only two of those species: Adélie (scientific name: Pygoscelis adeliae) and Emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri). Though both species of penguins are commonly seen our immediate surroundings, I have only had the opportunity to see Adélie penguins up close and personal, with the occasional sighting of a few Emperor penguins in the distance. In this post, therefore, I will mainly focus on Adélie penguins.
Both Adélies and Emperors breed in the Ross Sea area. However, their choices of breeding sites, and as a result their breeding seasons, are dramatically different. Emperor Penguins breed on the sea ice at locations where the ice is locked in place by either grounded icebergs or islands. The sea ice (called fast ice in these locations because it remains “fast in place”) must remain stable for the duration of the entire breeding season, so as a result Emperor penguins breed during the Antarctic winter, from about April until the end of December. In contrast, Adélie Penguins need ice-free land with a supply of small bite-sized rocks with which to build their nests. They start their breeding cycle in the Antarctic spring (October), when the snow and ice cover on rocky coastlines begins to disappear, and raise their chicks through the end of summer (February).
Adélie penguins are the most widely distributed, and at roughly 30 inches tall (for adults) also the smallest, penguins in the Antarctic. They were first scientifically described in 1840 by French explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville. Their name comes from Adélie Land, the part of the Antarctic continent where Dumont d’Urville first encountered them (he named the land in honor of his wife, Adéle). They are particularly abundant on Ross Island, where three major colonies are located: Cape Royds has a population of ~2,000 penguin pairs, Cape Bird has ~50,000 breeding pairs, and Cape Crozier has a staggering ~280,000 penguin pairs (the biggest penguin colony in the world!). It is no surprise, then, that Adélies are the most commonly seen penguins around McMurdo Station. Earlier this season, I was lucky enough to cross paths with three playful little Adélies out on the sea ice while I was leading a group of folks on a recreation trip to visit the Terra Nova Hut in Cape Evans. They were a curious trio, to say the least. We first spotted them when they were about 100 yards away, but by then they had already caught sight of our bright orange vehicle (a Foremost Delta passenger vehicle — see picture below) and were waddling at full sprint in our direction. They came to a stop when they reached our group, by then all huddled down on the sea ice behind the Delta vehicle, and joined us for a while, investigating every bright red puffy thing they came across. Below are some of the best pictures I got, and some that others in my group have shared, from this really amazing encounter!
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