Episode 265: Penguins!

Thanks to Page for suggesting we talk about penguins this week!

A big birthday shout-out to EllieHorseLover this week too!

Further reading:

March of the penguins (in Norway)

Rare Yellow Penguin Bewilders Scientists

Giant Waikato penguin: school kids discover new species

An ordinary king penguin with the rare “yellow” king penguin spotted in early 2021 (photo by Yves Adams, taken from article linked above):

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

I was looking over the ideas list recently and noticed that Page had suggested we cover a specific bird way back in 2020! It’s about time we get to it, so thanks to Page we’re going to learn about penguins this week, including a penguin mystery.

But first, we have a birthday shout-out! Happy birthday to EllieHorseLover, whose birthday comes right before next week’s episode comes out. Have a fantastic birthday, Ellie, and I agree with you about horses. They are awesome and so are you.

Also, a quick correction from last week’s episode about Dolly the dinosaur. If you listened to episode 264 the day it came out, you heard the incorrect version, but I was able to correct it and upload the new version late that day. Many thanks to Llewelly, who pointed out that Dolly hasn’t actually been identified as a Diplodocus, just as a sauropod in the family Diplodocidae. Paleontologists are still studying the fossil and probably will be for some time. Also, I said that sauropods aren’t related to birds but that’s not the case. Sauropods share a common ancestor with birds and that’s why they both have the same kind of unusual respiratory system.

So, speaking of birds, it’s time to learn about penguins! We’ve talked about penguins twice before, but not recently at all. It’s about time we really dug into the topic.

Penguins live in the southern hemisphere, including Antarctica. The only exception is the Galapagos penguin, which we talked about in episode 99, which lives just north of the equator. Penguins are considered aquatic birds because they’re so well adapted to swimming and they spend most of their time in the ocean finding food. Instead of wings, their front limbs are flippers that they use to maneuver in the water. They’re incredibly streamlined too, with a smooth, dense coat of feathers to help keep them warm in cold water without slowing them down.

One of the ways a penguin keeps from freezing in the bitterly cold winters of Antarctica and in cold water is by a trick of anatomy that most other animals don’t have. The artery that supplies blood to the flippers crosses over the veins that return blood from the flippers deeper into the body. The arterial blood is warm since it’s been through the body’s core, but the blood that has just traveled through the flippers has lost a lot of heat. Because the veins and the arteries cross several times, the cold venal blood is warmed by the warm arterial blood where the blood vessels touch, which means the blood returning into the body’s core is warm enough that it doesn’t chill the body.

Penguins groom their feathers carefully to keep them clean and spread oil over them. The oil and the feathers’ nanostructures keep them from icing over when a penguin gets out of the water in sub-zero temperatures. The feathers are not only super-hydrophobic, meaning they repel water, their structure acts as an anti-adhesive. That means ice can’t stick to the feathers no matter how cold it is. In 2016 researchers created a nanofiber membrane that repels water and ice with the same nanostructures found in penguin feathers. It could eventually be used to ice-proof electrical wires and airplane wings.

Penguin feathers also trap a thin layer of air, which helps the penguin stay buoyant in the water and helps keep its skin warm and dry.

While a penguin is awkward on land, it’s fast and agile in the water. It mostly eats small fish, squid and other cephalopods, krill and other crustaceans, and other small animals, and it can dive deeply to find food. The emperor penguin is the deepest diver, with the deepest recorded dive being over 1,800 feet, or 565 meters. The gentoo penguin has been recorded swimming 22 mph underwater, or 36 km/hour.

Penguins are famous for being mostly black and white, but in 2010, a study of an extinct early penguin revealed that it looked much different. The fossil was found in Peru and is incredibly detailed. The flipper shape is clear, proving that even 36 million years ago penguins were already fully aquatic. Even some of the feathers are preserved, allowing researchers to reconstruct the bird’s coloration from melanosomes in the fossilized feathers. They show that instead of black and white, the extinct penguin was reddish-brown and gray. The bird was also one of the biggest penguins known, up to five feet long, or 1.5 meters.

Another species of extinct penguin was discovered in 2006 in New Zealand by a group of school children on a field trip. The New Zealand penguin lived between about 28 and 34 million years ago and while it wasn’t as big as the Peru fossil penguin, it had longer legs that made it about 4.5 feet tall, or 1.4 meters. It was described as a new species in September of 2021 and somehow I missed that one when I was researching the 2021 discoveries episode.

The smallest penguin alive today is the fairy penguin, which only grows 16 inches tall at most, or 40 cm. It lives off the southern coasts of Australia and Chile, and all around New Zealand’s coasts. It’s also called the little blue penguin because its head is gray-blue. The largest penguin is the emperor penguin, which lives in Antarctica and can grow over four feet tall, or 130 cm.

The king penguin looks like a slightly smaller version of the emperor penguin, which makes sense because they’re closely related. It can stand over 3 feet tall, or 100 cm. Its numbers are in decline due to climate change that has caused some of the small fish and squid the penguins eat to move away from the penguin’s nesting grounds. Large-scale commercial fishing has also reduced the number of fish available to penguins. As a result, the penguins have a hard time finding enough food for themselves and their babies. King penguins are protected, though, and conservation efforts are in place to stop commercial fishing near their nesting grounds. A ban on commercial fishing around Robben Island in South Africa, where the endangered African penguin nests, increased the survival of chicks by 18%, so hopefully the same will be true for the king penguin.

In early 2021, a Belgian wildlife photographer named Yves Adams was leading a group of photographers on an island where king penguins live. They spotted a group of the penguins swimming nearby when Adams noticed that one of the penguins seemed really pale. It was yellowish-white instead of black and white, although it did have the yellow markings on its head and breast that other king penguins have. It and the other penguins came ashore and Adams got lots of pictures of it. Ornithologists who have studied the pictures aren’t sure what kind of genetic anomaly has caused the penguin’s coloration, but with luck scientists will be able to find it again and take a genetic sample.

The king penguin is also the subject of a small penguin mystery, but the mystery starts with the great auk. As we talked about in episode 78, the name penguin was originally used for a bird also called the great auk or gairfowl, which lived in the northern hemisphere. It was common throughout its range until people decided to start killing them by the thousands for their feathers and meat. By 1844, the last pair of great auks were killed. The great auk was a black and white aquatic bird that looked a lot like a penguin due to convergent evolution.

The story goes that in the late 1930s people started seeing great auks on the Lofoten Islands off the coast of Norway. Since this was 70 years after the great auk officially went extinct, the reports caused a flurry of excitement.

While a small, scattered population of great auks probably did persist for years or even decades after their official extinction, once an expedition investigated the Lofoten Islands they discovered not auks but penguins. Specifically, a small group of king penguins. How did the penguins get there from their natural range in various sub-Antarctic islands on the other side of the world?

Some reports say whalers captured some penguins as pets and later released them, but it actually appears that the introduction of nine king penguins to two islands off the coast of Norway was done by the Nature Protection Society, backed by the Norwegian government, in 1936. The penguins were still there until at least 1944, with the last sighting coming from 1954.

These weren’t the only penguins released in the islands. In 1938 the Norwegian government released around 60 other penguins from various species onto the islands. The goal was to establish penguin breeding colonies in Norwegian waters in a confused attempt to claim the Antarctic for Norwegian whaling. The real mystery is why they thought that would work.

Very occasionally, a stray penguin is found in the northern hemisphere with no idea how it got there. In the past, people assumed the penguin got lost and swam the wrong way or got pushed away from its homeland by storms, but these days biologists think these lost penguins were transported by fishing boats. Sometimes a penguin will get tangled in a fishing net and hauled aboard by accident, and the fishers will untangle it and keep it as a pet for a while before setting it free. It would be better if the penguin was set free immediately so it could return to its home, but it’s better than being killed. Just ask the penguin.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 078: The Great Auk and Penguins

Let’s learn about the great auk this week, along with some lookalike birds, penguins!

A great auk, as painted by Audubon:

A razorbill, the auk’s closest living relative:

A fairy penguin, so tiny:

An emperor penguin, so big:

Tony Signorini wearing his Hoax Shoes:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week’s topic is one I’ve had on my list to cover for some time, and a couple of people whose names I forgot to write down also suggested. It’s the great auk, and while we’re at it we’re going to learn about penguins too.

Picture this bird in your mind. It’s big, close to three feet tall, or 85 cm, black with a white belly and white spots over the eyes during breeding season. It has a big dark bill and eats fish and crustaceans. Its feet are webbed and it’s flightless, because instead of flying, it swims, fast and agile in the water but clumsy on land. It’s social, nesting in big colonies and laying one egg, which both parents incubate. Both parents also help feed the chick when it hatches. Pairs mate for life. And it lives in cold waters of the North Atlantic from eastern Canada to Greenland and Iceland over to the western coast of Europe.

Wait a minute, you say, knowledgeably, because you know a thing or two about penguins. Penguins live in the southern hemisphere. What is going on??

The great auk is going on, my friend. And while the similarities between the great auk and the various species of penguin are striking, they’re not closely related at all. The great auk’s scientific name is Pinguinus impennis, and it was sometimes called a penguin, but the penguin is named after the auk because of the similarities between the two. The most obvious difference between the great auk and the penguin is the bill. Penguins have relatively small, sharp bills, but great auk bills were much larger and heavier, grooved and with a hook at the end.

So is the great auk still around? I sure made it sound like it was still around, didn’t I? Unfortunately, no. The last known great auks were killed on June 3, 1844, with a few sightings in the years after. The last probable sighting of a great auk was in 1852. But it had been a really common bird for a long time. What was it like, and what happened to it?

The great auk lived almost its whole life in the water. It only came out to breed and lay eggs, one egg per couple. Its babies grew fast and took to the sea when only a few weeks old, but the parents continued to feed their baby and care for it in the water. Sometimes a young auk would ride on its parent’s back as it swam.

It was incredibly at home in the water. It could hold its breath for something like 15 minutes, could dive deeply and swim so quickly that it could shoot up out of the water to land on ledges well above the ocean’s surface. Because of its swimming ability and its size, it wasn’t scared of very many animals. Polar bears, orcas, and a few other large predators sometimes ate it, but its main predator was these aggressive apes called humans. Maybe you’ve heard of them.

People killed the great auk for food, for feathers, and to use its skin and bones as decorative items. Its remains have been found at Neandertal campsites too. And because it was a large, plentiful bird, people hunted it and hunted it and hunted it. The great auk was already nearly extinct around Europe by the mid 16th century, since it was killed for its down, which was used to stuff pillows. Auk eggs were also collected for food. And as the bird became rarer, museums decided they had better get specimens while they could. The last great auks were killed so they could be stuffed and mounted.

So if there’s a great auk, is there a lesser auk? There is, and it’s still around! The little auk is only about 8 inches long, or 21 cm, but unlike the great auk it can fly. It eats small fish, crustaceans, and invertebrates. But the razorbill is a much closer relative.

The razorbill has a lot in common with the great auk but it’s much smaller, only up to 17 inches high, or 43 cm. It also flies. It was once hunted for its meat and feathers, but after it was protected in 1917 its numbers rebounded. Its primary problem these days is pollution of its breeding sites.

There was once a group of even bigger auks than the great auk. The Mancallinae were flightless and lived on the western North American coast. The largest species was Miomancalla howardae, which went extinct almost 5 million years ago. It stood more than three feet tall, or 1 meter, but was heavier and bulkier than the great auk.

As for penguins, fortunately, they’re still around although they’re all threatened due to pollution, habitat loss, and climate change. They have no natural fear of humans, probably because they have no land predators in Antarctica. Polar bears and walruses live near the Arctic, which is in the northern hemisphere, and sled dogs aren’t allowed in Antarctica. I did not know that until just now. I mean, I knew the polar bears and walruses part, not the dog part.

The smallest penguin is called the fairy penguin, and it’s only 16 inches tall at most, or 40 cm. It lives off the coast of Australia, New Zealand, and Chile. Its head is blue, which is why it’s also called the little blue penguin. Like other penguin species, it eats fish, cephalopods like squid, and crustaceans such as krill. It especially likes jellyfish.

The largest penguin is, of course, the emperor penguin, famous from March of the Penguins. If you haven’t seen that documentary, you’ll learn lots of things about emperor penguins and will also cry. The march in the  title is the migration the penguins take to breeding colonies, where they may walk over the ice up to 75 miles, or 120 km. Penguins are not very good at walking, either. Once they’ve reached the breeding colony, each female lays one small egg, which has a thick shell. The male has a brood pouch to keep the egg warm, basically a fold in his skin above his feet. The egg sits on his feet with the rest of it in the brood pouch. After that, the female leaves to go hunting, because making her egg takes a lot out of her and she needs to replace her body reserves. The male incubates the egg by himself.

It gets really cold in the Antarctic during winter. Seriously, really cold, as cold as -40 degrees. Negative 40 is the same temperature in Celcius and Fahrenheit, which is kind of neat. Emperor penguins choose breeding colonies that are protected from the wind as much as possible, but they still have to deal with wind gusts of 90 mph, or 145 km per hour. To withstand the cold, penguins have dense feathers and a thick layer of blubber. Males huddle together for warmth, with every penguin getting a turn to be on the inside of the crowd where it’s warmer, and spending their fair share of time on the edges of the crowd where it’s colder. During the two months after eggs are laid, males don’t eat anything. When his egg hatches, the male feeds the baby with crop milk, which you may remember from episode 19, about the dodo. Crop milk isn’t milk at all, but a nutritious substance formed from a parent bird’s esophagus. Only male emperor penguins produce crop milk.

A short time after the eggs hatch, female emperor penguins return from hunting. The female takes over care of the chick, feeding it with regurgitated food, so the male can leave to go hunting. Males and females trade off in this way for a couple of months, until the chick is old enough and big enough to be left alone for stretches.

The emperor penguin lives in Antarctica and can grow over four feet tall, or 130 cm, which is just ridiculously large. It can also weigh up to 100 lbs, or 45 kg. In other words, it’s as big as a small person and much bigger even than the great auk was. It’s a strong swimmer and can dive deeply—the deepest recorded dive was well over 1800 feet, or 565 meters, which is whale diving depth.

But the emperor penguin isn’t the biggest penguin that ever lived. Anthropornis went extinct around 33 million years ago, and it was a penguin that was actually the height of a tall human, some six feet tall, or 1.8 meters. It lived off the coast of what is now New Zealand and Antarctica. The New Zealand giant penguin probably lived around the same time as Anthropornis, and was around five feet tall, or 1.6 meters, but probably weighed more. Neither were direct ancestors of modern penguins, but they probably looked and acted very similar. Just, you know, enormous.

A newly discovered giant penguin, also from New Zealand, lived much earlier than the others. It was already almost five feet tall, or 1.5 meters, and well adapted to the water 61 million years ago. Remember that the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event occurred around 66 million years ago. Some researchers hypothesize that penguins had already begun evolving when dinosaurs were still alive, and that they survived the extinction event.

Another extinct penguin, one that was more directly related to modern penguins, lived around South America some 36 million years ago. Icadyptes was almost as tall as the other giant penguins and had a bill that was much longer and pointier than modern penguin bills, more like a heron’s bill. It also lived in much warmer waters than most modern penguins.

Back in the 1920s and 30s, when fossils of giant penguins were first described, they caught the public’s imagination. Giant penguins appeared in science fiction of the day, including Jules Verne and HP Lovecraft. Starting in February of 1948, people in Florida began finding enormous three-toed tracks in sand on a few beaches and along the Suwannee River. The footprints were over a foot long, or 35 cm, and the animal’s stride was measured at between 4 and 6 feet long, or 1.2 to 1.8 meters. Cryptozoologist Ivan T. Sanderson examined the tracks in November of 1948. After weeks of study he reported gravely that they’d been made by a penguin 15 feet tall, or 4.5 meters.

It turns out, though, that it was all a hoax. Two men named Tony Signorini and Al Williams had made gigantic iron feet they could wear as great big shoes, and walked in the sand overnight leaving trails of monstrous tracks ready to be discovered by beachcombers. They actually intended the tracks to be taken for dinosaur or sea monster footprints, but a giant penguin was even better. Each foot weighed about 30 lbs, or 13.5 kg, and Signorini used the weight to swing along in a sort of controlled bound that made his stride remarkably long without too much effort. Williams died in 1969 but Signorini didn’t come clean about the hoax until 1988.

He still has the feet.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!