Friday, 7 August 2009

P-P-P-Pick Up a P-P-P-Penguin!

  • “It’s practically impossible to look at a penguin and feel angry.” - Joe Moore.

Now, I have no idea who Joe Moore is, but he does have a point. I have my own version:

  • “You can never look at a penguin without smiling.”

Go on, look at this little guy and tell me that a smile did not materialise on your face.

So, I have a plan for making the world a happier, smilier place. Everyone needs a penguin. Just think of all those situations that make you angry, make you mad, make you want to punch someone in the face or poke them in the eye with a sharp stick. Now imagine that situation with a penguin. For example, I hate bad drivers. You know the ones that I am talking about. The ones that cut in front of you, that don’t signal, that sit in the overtaking lane, not overtaking. Now, in a normal situation, I might get a little flustered. I might even get a little annoyed and a few colourful words might escape my lips. But, if there were a penguin in the car, perhaps sticking his head out of the window, feeling the wind blowing through his feathers, well, all I would do then is smile and perhaps wave at the offending driver, in a happy, carefree way rather than in a one-fingered, offensive way. See, penguins could be the cure for road rage. They could work in any situation. Imagine traffic wardens if they walked around with penguins. We would all look forward to meeting one. What if we all had a penguin in our shopping carts? What fun shopping would be and we wouldn’t care if we had to wait at the checkout or if some old geezer cut in front of you with a trolley that obviously contained more than 15 items. So what, he has a penguin. Oh, and nobody likes a politician, right? What if there were a penguin party and each candidate campaigned with a penguin. I know where my vote would go. It might also work on a smaller scale too. Think of those bland, infuriating tax forms that you have to fill out every year. Wouldn’t that task be just a little less taxing if there were pictures of penguins strategically placed throughout the document? The possibilities are endless. Just think of your least favourite person, your most annoying chore or your most hated activity and now imagine it with a penguin. There, isn’t that better?

Magellanic penguins on Martillo Island, Argentina

So, just in case you haven’t got it yet, I love penguins and I am not talking about the chocolate biscuit variety. I was one very happy camper once we hit Southern Patagonia. We visited two penguin colonies, one in Chile (the Seno Otway Penguin Colony on the Strait of Magellan) and one in Argentina (Martillo Island in the Beagle Channel). The Seno Otway colony was exclusively magellanic penguins, while at Martillo Island we were also entertained by a small number of gentoo penguins. So, what is it about penguins that I find so endearing? Well, you just have to look at them - their cheeky little faces with their inquisitive expressions, the way that they cock their heads to one side to get a better look at you. I love their roundness and their simplicity. Penguins appear to be down-to-earth, uncomplicated animals. They stand around, surveying their surroundings with a little smirk on their faces as if they know something that you don’t. If they want to lie down, well, they just fall over where they are standing. If there happens to be another penguin there already, oh well, that just makes for a softer landing.

What you can’t see from still photos is the way they move around and their oh-so-endearing behaviour. On land, they are clumsy, ungainly and awkward. They waddle around, looking lost and forlorn, desperately seeking the company of other penguins. They really don’t like being left on their own, preferring to travel in little gaggles or groups – a waddle of penguins? If one decides to waddle off, the whole group has to follow. If one decides to stop, so do the rest. If one gets left behind, you can almost see the panic in its face as it hurries along, desperately trying to catch up, in a hoppy, jumpy sort of run.

When they know that they are being watched, you can almost see them trying to be graceful and poised. This invariably ends up with the penguin face-planting in the grass, picking itself up, shaking down its ruffled feathers and waddling off with its head held high, hoping that no one noticed its awkward clumsiness. Then there was the magellanic penguin that found itself in amongst the gentoos. I can just imagine the thoughts racing through its tiny little mind:

“Oh guano! These are the wrong penguins! OK, stay calm, take a deep breath, pretend nothing is wrong, all is well, no problems here, just strolling through, don’t mind me..............waddle away, waddle away!!!!!!”

His little head shot up, he looked worriedly from side to side, and he waddled as fast as a penguin can waddle. Not that the gentoos appeared to be any threat. In fact, they completely ignored the wayward intruder, too busy incubating their eggs to worry about a panicking penguin.

Now, me being a biologist and all, this post would not be complete without a few interesting little penguin facts. Did you know that............

The black and white colouring of penguins is used for camouflage. The white underbelly is hard to see by underwater predators looking up towards the water surface, while the black backs are hard to see by above water predators looking down on the penguins.

The largest living penguin is the emperor penguin, standing 3’ 7” tall. The smallest penguin is the little blue penguin (aka the fairy penguin), which is only 16” tall. There used to be penguins that were as tall as humans, living 35 million years ago in Peru. I am not so sure that they would be quite so cute..........I wonder what they ate?!

Penguins have the smallest eggs, compared to body weight, of all birds.

The word penguin may have originated from the Latin pinguis, meaning “fat”. Well, you would want a little extra insulation if you lived in such a cold climate, wouldn’t you?

There is a species of penguin called the macaroni penguin. Not an intellectually inspiring fact, I grant you, but the name made me chuckle.

The wings of penguins are very stiff and have evolved for flying underwater rather than in air. The fastest penguin recorded, a gentoo, made a top speed of around 30kph. Just to give you an idea of how fast this is, the Olympic gold medallist Michael Phelps’ top speed is approximately 8kph. Go, penguin, go!

The deepest recorded dive for a penguin, the emperor penguin, is 565m, or 1,870ft! Now that is deep. As a scuba diver, the deepest that I have ever gone is around 50m. My husband, with all his fancy gas mixes, has made it to about 75m. The deepest ever scuba dive was to 318m and the deepest breath hold dive was to 214m. Makes the little old penguin look pretty good, doesn’t it?

Penguins can hold their breath for up to 22 minutes. Don’t try that at home!

You can get an idea of the age of a penguin by looking at their feet. Younger penguins have a blotched pattern on their feet, which fades as they age. A bird over 10 years will usually have all black feet.

This one must be getting on a bit, since his feet are all black.

This one is for EnglishMum - Gentoo penguins have pink poo. This is due to all the krill in their diet.

You have probably all heard about the homosexual penguins of Central Park Zoo. But did you know about the penguin prostitutes of the Antarctic? Apparently, some female penguins will sell sexual favours in return for rocks. Many penguins, such as the gentoos, use rocks to build their nests and these rocks are a precious commodity in penguin society. It appears that these promiscuous penguins do have a life partner, but will turn tricks on the side for extra rocks. The trusting mate appears to be completely ignorant of his partner’s indiscretions. This reminds me of a quote I once read:

“Penguins mate for life. That doesn't surprise me much because they all look alike. It's not like they're going to meet a really new, great looking penguin someday.” Author unknown.

Of course, not all penguins build their nests from rocks. Magellanic penguins nest in burrows or under dense bushes, collecting bedding material, such as dried grass, from the surrounding areas. Strikes me as being a wee bit more comfortable than a pile of rocks, but I guess if your home is the frozen wastes of Antarctica, you do not have a busting lot of choice.

I feel that it would be unfair of me to leave you with the impression that penguins are the bumbling buffoons of the bird world. We tend to only see penguins in our part of the world, the dry land part. It has to be said that penguins are not shining examples of life well adapted to terrestrial living. However, if you were to follow one into the aquatic realm, everything would change. Here, we can see the penguin at its finest, in all its streamlined glory. You would be able to see one torpedo though the water, leaving just a trail of bubbles. If you could keep up, you would witness its skill and grace, how it can fly through the water, changing direction with a flick of a wing and a turn of the head. On land, a penguin is clumsy and ungainly, a little on the chubby side with short stubby legs. But underwater, a penguin is an aquatic work of art. Wings that are useless on land propel the penguin through the water with the agility and grace of a bird of prey on the wing. The sleek, smooth body cuts through the water with effortless ease, whirling and twirling, twisting and turning, so stiff and reserved on land, so free and liberated beneath the waves. It is so easy to forget that the penguin, in its watery element, is a beautiful, elegant and mesmerizing sight when you only ever see them blundering around on land.

Having said all of that, I am going to leave you with a couple of photos of just one of the many penguins that made me laugh while visiting the Martillo Island penguin colony.

“I can fly!” ............................................ “No, I can’t...........”

Is it possible that a penguin might be able to fly?

Well the BBC seem to think so............

By the way, for all you non-British types, the title of the post is based on a now quite old advert for a chocolate biscuit with the unlikely name of a Penguin.