Happy World Penguin Day! Don't Let Them Bite You

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A penguin almost killed me once.

OK, that’s a slight exaggeration.

OK, calling it a slight exaggeration is a massive understatement.

I was on the rear deck of a ship in the Southern Ocean and was helping to tie down the vessel’s helicopter in anticipation of some incoming inclement weather. The ship was already starting to roll a little, and just as it was rocking in my direction, an ice floe came into view with a solitary Adelie penguin perched upon it.

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“Look!” exclaimed the person next to me. “A penguin!” At which moment she involuntarily let go of the strap she was holding on to, and the helicopter started to slide ominously toward the edge, with me in its path.

The penguin shook itself in a cute penguin-y kind of way. I squawked in a mildly fearful kind of way; within a couple of seconds normal service had been resumed, the helicopter had been secured and the penguin had continued to drift away to tend to its penguin business.

OK, so I way oversold the whole penguin-killing-me thing. But there are only so many ways to grab a reader’s attention, and that one seemed a sure bet because if there’s one thing everyone knows penguins don’t do, it’s kill people. (Well, apart from this one.) They swim, they eat fish and krill, and, in the case of male emperor penguins, they look after the young for weeks on end while Mom is out catching food. Plus, of course, they have this habit of walking bipedally and lugubriously, which makes it really hard not to be anthropomorphic when looking at them. Perhaps that’s why everybody loves penguins. (Well, apart from this guy.) ‘March of the Penguins‘ won an Academy Award. Britons were recently glued to their TVs, watching a BBC up-close-and-personal penguin documentary series called ‘Spy in the Huddle.’ Mr. Popper liked penguins so much he wound up with 10 of them. Then of course there’s Happy Feet. And Opus. And Pingu.

Penguins, of course, are commonly associated with the Antarctic, but in fact only two species – Adelie and emperor – breed on the continent of Antarctica. Gentoo and chinstrap penguins live on the islands of the Antarctic Peninsula and environs, while king, rockhopper, macaroni  and royal penguins are denizens of subantarctic islands such as South Georgia. There are even penguins farther north: South America, New Zealand, South Africa, even the Galapagos. (But only the Southern Hemisphere: there was an attempt to introduce penguins to Norway’s Lofoten Islands in the 1930s, but by 1949 they had all disappeared.)

Although all 17 penguins species are protected, several are threatened to varying degrees by such threats as habitat loss, climate change, and overfishing – with particular concern of late being expressed for the possible impact on Antarctic and subantarctic penguins of a combination of climate change and expanded krill fishing. Though for the Adelie penguins on Beaufort Island at least, climate change may come with some benefits.

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At this point, you’re probably thinking, “What penguins need is a day of their very own. A day to raise awareness of penguin problems and celebrate penguinness.” And guess what? There is one. And it’s today! Yes, April 25 is World Penguin Day – so determined when scientists at McMurdo Station in Antarctica noticed that was the date on which Adelie penguins returned after spending months at sea – and to mark the occasion, the Pew Charitable Trusts invite you to participate in a Twitter chat with penguin experts at 11AM ET.

They’ll talk about penguin biology and behavior as well as penguin conservation, and in particular the push to establish marine reserves in the Ross Sea and East Antarctica; and conservation in particular will also be a big theme of an event in Washington, D.C., on Thursday – free and open to the public – which will include the premiere of a video about an environmental disaster that killed thousands of rockhopper penguins, as well as a panel discussion on penguin conversation. We’ll be there, and blogging the proceedings.

Happy World Penguin Day!

IMAGE: An Adelie Penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) pecks at a camera lens while sitting on a nest in Petermann Island, Antarctica. (Paul Souders/Corbis)

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