tropical penguins -- 6/27/24

Today's encore selection -- from The Truth About Animals by Lucy Cooke. Tropical penguins:

"Evolution has done a splendid job of equipping the penguin for a life chasing fish in the frigid sea, but bird biology requires they return to dry land to lay eggs, raise chicks and roost. To accommodate life on sea ice, where we generally picture them, penguins are built like a Thermos. But not all penguins spend their lives skidding around on the ice; half of the existing species inhabit far cozier climes as far north as the equator. For those penguins that inhabit more tropical locations, waddling around in a thick-feathered wetsuit can be a per­ilous sport.

"These birds have evolved creative strategies to avoid getting over­cooked. Some species stand around panting like dogs, others are forced to seek out shade. Yellow-eyed penguins trek over half a mile inland (quite a marathon for those little legs) to raise their chicks in the cool of the New Zealand rainforest. Galápagos penguins avoid the brutal equatorial sun by nesting in uncomfortable-looking cracks of coastal lava rock. Humboldt penguins arguably have it even worse. Living on the barren coast of Peru they are forced to improvise shade by carving castles of crap from piles of their own mature manure. Fairy penguins solved the problem by shunning the sun altogether and becoming nocturnal.

Galápagos penguin

"My first encounter with Antarctica's most famous resident was on a balmy golden sand beach, just a short drive from Melbourne. The southern coast of Australia is home to several colonies of fairy pen­guins. Standing at almost twelve inches tall, they are the planet's lit­tlest penguins, with the biggest following. Tourists have been flocking to Phillip Island to watch the petite penguins since the 1920s. I joined several hundred ardent fans, some clutching freshly purchased plush penguins several times larger than the real thing, to wait for the arrival of the island's famous penguin parade, a nightly carnival in which the tiny, shiny blue birds totter up the beach from the surf to their sandy burrows as soon as the sun goes down.

"The penguin parade was billed with great pride by the local tourist board as 'a waddle on the wild side.' The diminutive birds did not disappoint. As the warm Australian sun dipped below the horizon, the ocean surf began spluttering out dozens of pint-sized penguins. As they shuffled up the beach, it was impossible not to watch them and smile.

"The penguins' farcical walk is quite deceptive. Those stiff feet, so ill at ease on land, act as a rudder underwater, allowing penguins to make hairpin turns at speeds of over thirty miles per hour. They are the fastest maneuverers and deepest divers of any bird; emperor penguins can reach depths of over sixteen hundred feet. These seabirds spend 80 percent of their lives as slick predators, but we only get to see the 20 percent spent staggering around on land like Charlie Chaplin.

" 'Our perception of animals is based on where we are able to ob­serve them,' Dr. Rory Wilson explained. He's the genius who has fitted hundreds of penguins with speed-o-meters, beak-o-meters and even bum-a-meters in an attempt to uncover their underwater life. 'Seeing penguins stumble around being failures on land is like seeing the world's greatest athletes stumble around in the dark and never re­alizing what they are capable of,' he told me. 'It's impossible to swim like a penguin and run like a cheetah on land.'

"The muscles that control penguins' feet have to stay warm to func­tion, so they're hidden under feathers way up in a penguin's leg. They maneuver their extremities by a remote 'pulley' system that's about as efficient as operating a Muppet and that gives the penguin its dis­tinctive wobble. This quirky act of pathos has blinded us to the pen­guin's true story."


Lucy Cooke


The Truth About Animals


Basic Books


Copyright 2018 by Lucy Cooke


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