At the bottom of the world lies the coldest, driest and windiest continent on Earth. It is the only continent without a native human population – the frozen and barren land known as Antarctica.
Antarctica is actually considered a desert due to the little amount of rain or snow that falls there.
In the Antarctic winter there is very little or no light, the air temperature may be -75° F and wind speeds may reach 125 mph. In summer, the sun shines 24 hours a day, the warmest it gets is 50° F on the coast but it is usually much colder, especially inland, where it gets around -20° F.
Despite being too harsh for humans to live there permanently, some of the animal kingdom’s most beloved creatures thrive there – penguins!
There are 18 species of these charismatic seabirds, all found in the Southern Hemisphere. While many species of penguins are found on sub-Antarctic Islands, only four live on the continent of Antarctica. One of those is the emperor penguin.
Emperor penguins are the largest and perhaps the most well known of all penguins. They can measure nearly 4 feet tall and weigh up to 90 pounds.
Males and females look alike. Adults have a black head and beak, soft pale yellow color on the chest that blends into a white or cream belly, an orange or pink stripe on its beak and yellow patches on its cheeks that fade into the dark grey to black body.
Emperor penguins are rather awkward on land. They waddle slowly, with a maximum walking speed of less than 2 mph. Emperor penguins are known to slide across the ice on their bellies by propelling themselves forward with their feet – a behavior known as “tobogganing.”
While penguins may be flightless and unable to soar through the air, they can truly “fly” through the water! Soaring under the water’s surface up to 9 mph, they swim by flapping flippers which are modified wings. Emperor penguins and are the deepest diving bird in the world.
Emperor penguins eat a variety of fish as well as krill and squid by performing deep dives into the cold waters that surround Antarctica. Most Emperor penguin dives are around 300-600 feet below the surface, but the deepest dive on record was 1,800 feet deep. Dives usually last 3-6 minutes, but some have lasted for more than 20 minutes.
Due to a special gland under the eye that rids the body of excess salt, penguins can actually drink seawater.
Like other penguins, emperors are very social. However, unlike other penguins, emperors are not territorial. In order to stay warm they will huddle close together. Huddling may decrease heat loss by 50% and the temperature inside the huddle may be 75° F. The birds often rotate positions from standing on the colder outer edge to the warmer interior.
Emperor penguins may have an inch thick layer of fat at times and overlapping almost scale-like feathers that is nearly impenetrable to wind and water to help keep warm.
Emperor penguins breed during the winter, possibly so chicks become mature when conditions are better during the summer. They migrate to breeding grounds to find a mate. Female Emperor penguins will sometimes contend with one another over a desirable mate. The breeding pairs are monogamous couples each breeding season; they may pair up with the same individual each season, however, this doesn’t always happen.
Females will lay one egg that is placed on the male’s feet and under a fold of skin called the “brood patch.” Eggs measure up to 5 inches long and weigh up to 18 ounces. The single egg is incubated by the male for 60 – 65 days, during this time the female goes out to sea to find food.
The male goes without eating from the time he arrives at the breeding grounds until the chick hatches and may lose up to 45% of his body weight. The female usually returns just before the egg hatches so she can regurgitate some of the fish she has caught to feed the chick.
If the chick hatches before the female returns, the male, despite his fasting, can produce a curd-like substance from his esophagus to feed the hatchling for up to 10 days.
Chicks are covered in fuzzy down feathers. Their body is light grey, their head and beak is black and have white patches around the cheeks and eyes.
Once the chick has hatched and the female returns, parents take turns brooding and foraging. Young emperor penguins are often gathered into large groups of chicks, known as a creches, for protection from possible predators and the harsh but they each continue to be fed by their own parents.
Chicks may be preyed upon by predatory seabirds like skuas (skyoo-uhz) and petrels. Adults penguins are hunted by leopard seals and killer whales which are common in the Southern Ocean waters surrounding Antarctica.
Once juveniles have replaced their down feathers with waterproof adult feathers at about 5 months old, their parents abandon them. They become independent and go out to sea to forage for their own food.
Emperor penguins don’t become sexually mature until they are 5-6 years old. They usually live around 20-25 years.
Emperor penguins are currently listed as near threatened.
In 1980, SeaWorld San Diego made zoological history when the first emperor penguin chick outside of Antarctica was successfully hatched and raised by its parents.
Today, the AZA-acredited SeaWorld San Diego is one of only places outside of Antarctica and the only facility in the Western Hemisphere where you can see emperor penguins in person.
Reindeer are medium-sized deer species that stand 3 to 5 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh up to 600 pounds. These strong and sturdy animals can run up to 50 miles per hour and travel across the frozen ice of the Arctic Ocean. As powerful in the water as on land, reindeer can move across wide, quick-moving rivers and swim at speeds up to 6mph.
Reindeer are also known as caribou. In Europe, they are called reindeer – which was derived from an old Norse word meaning “dear”. In North America, the name reindeer is used when referring to Eurasian populations and the name caribou to refer to local wild populations. The name caribou originated with Mi’kmag indigenous tribes of North America from their word meaning “snow shoveler.” The name reindeer is also used to refer to domesticated individuals, even those in North America.
A highly nomadic species, reindeer are always on the move. Often herds will travel up to 30 miles a day and North American caribou may travel 3,000 miles in a year, the longest documented movements of any land mammal on earth.
Very social animals, reindeer usually travel in large herds and they roam their habitat in search of food – their main diet includes mosses, herbs, ferns, grasses, and the shoots and leaves of shrubs and trees. In the spring time, multiple herds will often come together and join into super-herds of over 100,000 animals.
Antlers are the reindeer’s most memorable characteristic. In comparison to body size, reindeer have the largest and heaviest antlers of all living deer species. Both the males and females grow antlers which is unique among the many deer species. Male reindeer antlers may weigh over 30 pounds, they will shed their antlers during the winter and females shed their smaller, less ornate antlers in the summer.
Reindeer have a two-layer coat to keep them warm in the bitter cold winter – a guard coat made of straight, hollow tubular hairs (similar to that of a Polar Bear) and a wooly undercoat. This specialized coat helps trap warmth to their body and allow them to float in the water.
Reindeer colors vary from brown in the winter to a grayish coat in the summer, northernmost species are much lighter in color than species found further south in their habitat range.
Reindeer hooves expand in summer when the ground is soft and shrink in winter when the ground is hard. When walking, a tendon in the foot slips over a bone producing a clicking sound. This sound may help members of a herd locate and stay with each other even in blinding blizzard conditions. A long dewclaw on each leg serves as an extra hoof to help the animal climb on rugged terrain.
Reindeer have an excellent sense of smell, allowing them to find food, such as grass, lichens and twigs hidden under snow. Reindeer mainly travel into the wind to pick up scents (including those of possible predators) and they are the only deer species to have hair completely covering their nose.
They originally inhabited the tundra and forests of Scandinavia and northern Russia and North America. Though usually thought of as a tundra species, a form of caribou lived in southern Idaho until the 19th century – seen so rarely these southern-most animals are sometimes called the “grey ghosts.”
Unlike many deer species, reindeer calves are born without spots. Born for speed, a reindeer calf can follow its mother within one hour of birth, and can outrun a human after only one day.
In addition to the rich milk provided by its mother, a reindeer calf begins to eat solid food at only a week old and will double its birth weight in the first two week of life.
Predators of reindeer include wolves, bears, mountain lions though healthy adults are usually safe, especially when they remain in large herds – however small calves are often preyed upon by large golden eagles.
Reindeer have been domesticated and herded for centuries by several Arctic and Subarctic people and still remain the only deer species to be widely domesticated. Powerful animals, domestic reindeer can pull a load of up to 300 pounds at an average of eight miles per hour and are used as beasts of burden as well as being farmed for milk, meat, and their hides.
In the Arctic Ocean, hidden among the ice packs and just below the surface – lives the white whale. Not the famed monstrous creature of literature but a smaller, gentle and highly vocal animal found throughout the waters at the top of the world.
With their distinct color and shape – including it’s bulging melon at the top of it’s head and the absence of a dorsal fin – they are considered to be one of the most easily distinguishable of all whale species: it is the Beluga Whale.
These small, stocky toothed whales average between 10 and 15 feet long and weigh up to 1500 pounds. Beluga Whales are classified with their Arctic cousins, the Narwhal, in the Monodontidae family of cetaceans. Both Narwhals and Belugas lack true dorsal fins – which may aid in reducing heat loss. In place of this top central fin, Belugas have a bumpy structure beneath their skin known as a dorsal ridge.
This physical characteristic allow them to more easily swim just below ice sheets to locate breathing holes Their white or light grey coloration helps them blend in at the surface among the snow covered ice packs.
Belugas have one of the thickest skins of any toothed whale with blubber that is ten times thicker than a dolphin and 100 times thicker than any land mammal. Beluga skin is the only cetacean skin thick enough to be used as leather – this was once referred to as “porpoise leather.”
The Beluga Whale’s blubber makes up 40 percent of its body weight. This large and thick fat layer aids in keeping the animal warm in the freezing waters of its habitat. With thick folds of blubber especially along the bottom, or ventral, side of their body the Beluga can often seem to be wrinkly in appearance.
A baby beluga, called a calf, has thicker skin at birth to compensate for the lack of a blubber layer. As the calf develops this thick insulating layer, the skin is shed. Belugas, like many cetaceans, experience an annual molt – often rubbing on rocks to help slough off the shedding skin.
The melon is the rounded structure on the top of the Beluga’s head, just in front of the blowhole. Comprised of fatty lipids, the melon can be contracted and made to change shape when the whales produce sound. This may serve a function in creating certain sounds and is key to their ability to echolocate – using sounds and the resulting echos to locate prey.
Belugas have long been known for being extremely vocal, from high pitched chirps to clicks and moans, many of these sounds can be heard above water and through the hull of ships. At least 11 different beluga vocals have been documented. The wide range of sounds they can produce have earned Belugas the nickname – “Canaries of the sea.”
The Beluga – often seen in groups, called pods – can be found in both the deep waters of the Arctic and shallow bays and estuaries where the water may barely cover their body. Despite being a marine mammal, Belugas are also known to swim into freshwater rivers that empty into the ocean. They have been found as far as 1200 miles up the Amur River in Russia and as far inland as 600 miles up North America’s Yukon River in Canada.
Belugas are opportunistic feeders who feed on over 100 species of marine and freshwater fish, mollusks, and crustaceans – the most diverse of any of the smaller whale species. They do not chew their food but rather swallow it whole, their tongue forms a tight seal around fish which allows the beluga to swallow prey without ingesting water.
Belugas are generally slow swimmers, moving between 2 and 6 mph when traveling, however they are one of the few whales that have the ability to swim backwards. Belugas are also unique because they are the only whale with a flexible neck – the seven neck vertebrae are not fused as in most species.
The only natural predators of Beluga are the Killer Whale and Polar Bears. While Killer Whales may hunt the Beluga in the open waters the Polar Bear may catch Beluga that have become trapped in the ever-shifting ice flows of the Arctic region.
Human impact and environmental hazards are the greatest threat to most beluga whale populations including the endangered Alaskan Cook Inlet population which has declined by nearly 75 percent since 1979.
The name Beluga comes from a Russian word meaning “white”, however it is not to be confused with the actual Russian word “beluga” which identifies a type of sturgeon fish species from which caviar is made.
The study of Beluga Whales in accredited zoological parks and aquariums, such as SeaWorld, Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, the Georgia Aquarium and the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, have all helped increase researchers understanding of factors threatening the sustainability of the species in the wild, so that steps can be taken to conserve and protect these stunning and amazing marine mammals.
Special thanks to the following organizations for their education, research and conservation programs that provided information for this episode:
Australia’s Department of Environment and Energy | Australian Antarctic Division
San Diego Zoo
SeaWorld’s Animal Guide
University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web
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