Q. Polar bears get a lot of attention from concerns about global climate change, especially the unprecedented melting of ice sheets and glaciers at the North Pole, Greenland and other parts of the Arctic where polar bears occur. What about penguins? Shouldn’t they also be touted as a potential loss from global warming? What is the ecology of penguins? Shouldn’t we be concerned about what’s happening to them at the South Pole?

A. We absolutely should be concerned about what’s happening to penguins at the South Pole, as well as polar bears in the Arctic. The only solid white bears and one of the few predators to view humans as simply another food item, they’ve received a lot of attention, deservedly so. Depending on subzero conditions for survival, they easily landed the role of poster child for adverse effects of global warming. Polar bears are awesome creatures inhabiting an otherworldly habitat, but they should share the spotlight with penguins. Living in the equally cold Antarctic, penguins deserve their own poster. Iconic species at the other end of the Earth, penguins are one of the losses we might expect from the impacts of global warming. The melting of polar ice could be fatal. A terrestrial habitat covered for the most part by snow and ice is critical to the survival of some penguins.

Ecologically, the quintessential penguin is a cold-natured creature that lives in frigid saltwater habitats. Penguins waddle about on the southern continent, plunging into icy cold waters daily while avoiding leopard seals, killer whales and predatory birds. About a dozen and a half different species of these appealing birds exist, almost half living in Antarctica. Others are found on the southern ends of Australia, Africa and South America. These live on land in burrows at night but take daily excursions into the ocean to forage. Their primary natural predators on land are sea gulls. The northernmost penguins live on the Galapagos Islands around the equator. Among the smallest, they reach a standing height of less than 20 inches.

The delicate fairy penguins of southern Australia and New Zealand are even smaller, about the size of a bowling pin. When full grown, many weigh less than a house cat. They eat squid, octopus and krill, tiny shrimplike crustaceans consumed by blue whales. Two kinds of large penguins — emperor and king — lay one egg at a time and build no nest, whereas most of the rest lay two or even three eggs. The male emperor penguin, the largest species, weighing up to 90 pounds, incubates the egg, balancing it on his feet for months while fasting during an Antarctic winter. Both sexes of the other penguin species are involved in the incubation of the eggs, mostly in association with nests.

No penguin living in the southern hemisphere ever gives a thought to the possibility of being eaten by a polar bear. Sadly, fairy penguins must now contend with a whole new suite of predators. Foxes, dogs, possibly even rats, cats and ferrets have been introduced to the terrestrial habitats where the penguins spend their evening hours. If some of the major penguin habitats in Antarctica become permanently ice-free, a truly terrestrial predator that was introduced and was able to persist would have access to a supply of flightless birds with no natural defenses against such an invader. Terrestrial predators would pose a perpetual hazard for these fat, delectable birds. In such an apocalyptic scenario of global warming, Antarctic penguins might soon be doomed.

Penguins, like all animals, have specific environmental needs. Major alterations in their icy habitat could be a death knell. As the dominant species on Earth, humans have a responsibility to protect the natural habitats and well-being of the other creatures that share the planet with us. Let’s hope our legacy of penguins and polar bears for today’s children will not be only old movies and photos on the internet.


Whit Gibbons, professor emeritus of ecology, University of Georgia, grew up in Tuscaloosa. He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Alabama and his Ph.D. from Michigan State University. Send environmental questions to ecoviews@gmail.com.