Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Emperors of Endurance

The next time I'm thinking I'm having a "bad day" or a "rough life" I'm going to remember the normal "life cycle" of the Emperor Penguin at the South Pole. We just saw the documentary "March of the Penguins". Now they can truly be called "survivors". It was just an amazing film with spectacular camera shots of the icy landscape. Morgan Freeman's warm, friendly voice narrated the action in this desolate and lonely place.

These are such incredibly fascinating birds. You just sit there spell-bound and in awe of what they accomplish every year in order to mate and have just one little chick. There are so many hazards and things that can go wrong it is just unbelievable that they aren't extinct. In a way they are like the salmon, they have to find their birthplace in order to procreate. It is most likely 70 miles inland where the ice is solid enough to hold them and stay that way through the whole gestation period. They start their march toward that remote local in March or later as the fall sun is fading and winter (our summer) is setting in. They navigate through all kinds of weather and over challenging terrain (avoiding crevasses). Mainly they walk their little waddle but when they are tired they slide on their fat bellies. They take turns leading/getting lost until they find the spot. It is some internal compass influenced by the sun or magnetic pole since the land masses are constantly changing.

Once there, the mating rituals begin and this too is mostly a mystery. How one bird recognizes another is beyond me. They mainly get to know each other's call or squawk and it is used much later again and again to find each other out of a mass of thousands of males first, then females. I'm thinking they are probably also looking for mates with sturdy, egg-supporting feet who are not clumsy and won't drop the egg. They both have to cradle it off the ice for weeks. The females, after laying the egg are the first to leave and walk all the way back literally starving to death if they get lost or don't make it. Once at the ocean again they swim/fly like the birds they are in their native element. I'm thinking that they have to remember where the ice holes are for breathing. They can stay under water for up to 15 mins. at a time and the holes are constantly freezing over. Then there is the constant threat of hungry seals who are happy to see them returning. Some moms don't make it back and the seal has killed her chick too since she would have brought back the rich, regurgitated food for its first full meal. Dad has only some left-over snacks.

Dad too has to be wary of eggs rolling out, and later, chicks being left enough alone to be attacked by hungry sea gulls. (giant ones) They don't seem to do anything to fight them off. Their only real defense on land is to huddle together for warmth. Dad has to make it through the teeth of the winter, almost 4 month without food and endure 100+ mph winds with chill factors in the 100- below zero. They take turns being on the outside of the massed circle, huddled with beaks in and down.

Mom comes back and finds them miraculously and feeds just the chick. Dad then takes off, following the leader to go and feed. His trip over land is not quite as long because the ice is thawing. He then must avoid being "dinner", I would assume sharks too are interested. Fortunately the sea down there is still rich and abundant with krill and small fish which are a rich diet. He then has to come back to feed baby and then you'd think that they would, together, go back to the sea; but no. Baby chicks are left to fend for themselves near the shore. They are not taught how to swim but just seem to do the "think system". Many are quick snacks for awaiting seals. If they survive for the next four years they will then, as a group, suddenly get the urge to do it all again...their life cycle.

In the film you do see chick-less parents wandering around the edge of the group and you do see parent-less chicks who are on their last legs. Freezing to death is supposed to be "painless". They do show a scene of a mother who is trying to steal another mother chick but the group won't let her. There was an article in today's paper about Surrogate-mother Otters living in captivity that have gotten the idea of raising mother-less pups. It is not just the mother's milk/food but, grooming, protecting it etc. Penguins haven't been able to do that yet I guess.
Maybe they wouldn't have been doing this for such a long time because it truly is "Survival of the Fitest". Only a select "few" are fit to be Emperors and Emperesses. Bob


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