Tuesday, October 29, 2013

What do you do if you find a penguin in the road?

  • Posted: Sunday, October 27, 2013

Penguins! People love them, whether they are in nature documentaries, magazines, animated feature films, or zoos. A new book, “Penguins: The Animal Answer Guide” by Gerald L. Kooyman and Wayne Lynch (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), answers myriad questions about these absurdly cute flightless birds. Some are commonplace: how many kinds of penguins are there? Others are less so: what should I do if I find a penguin crossing a road?

“Penguins” is in the standard format for this outstanding series of books in which answers are given to 100 questions about a particular group of animals. Also in keeping with the other animal answer guide books, the authors are highly qualified. Kooyman is “the world's foremost expert on emperor penguins,” the ones featured in the films “March of the Penguins” and “Happy Feet.” Lynch's photographs are superb, as anyone familiar with this world-class wildlife photographer would expect.
Only 17 species of penguins exist today and all live in the Southern Hemisphere. Why are there no penguins in the Northern Hemisphere? A variety of reasons can be given, some of which are based on speculation. According to the scientific evidence, “Penguins evolved in the tropical and subtropical waters” but “present-day penguins are all a product of cold weather origins.” Competition with sea lions and fur seals is given as one explanation for penguins not expanding their range into certain regions. Terrestrial predators also posed a perpetual hazard for fat little flightless birds that nested on land, although some have managed to do so successfully on the southernmost continents. The authors indicate that the complete answer for why penguins did not go north and today are restricted to the Southern Hemisphere remains a mystery. But one supposition is that the colder regions toward Antarctica with fewer large marine mammals were more suitable.

The emperor penguin of Antarctica is the largest living species, with both males and females being up to four feet tall and commonly reaching body weights of more than 55 pounds. Some of the largest fossil penguins were gigantic, with estimated heights of up to five and a half feet and weights of almost 300 pounds! The tiniest penguin is the little blue penguin. Belonging to a species in Australia known as the fairy penguin, a full-grown adult is a bit over a foot tall and weighs less than three pounds.

Like parrots and albatrosses, penguins live much longer than most of our backyard birds, in the wild and in captivity. Most if not all of the living species probably live more than 20 years. One investigator in the Antarctic estimated that emperor penguins have an average longevity of 20 years and some probably attain ages of more than 50. An African penguin that was banded and released is the oldest known-age individual that has been studied in the wild, reportedly having lived for 27 years. Two Humboldt penguins from the southern tip of South America are the oldest penguins whose ages have been documented in captivity, one at 42 years old (Sea World) and another at 43 (Brookfield Zoo). Clearly, penguins are potentially long-lived animals.

The book answers many more questions about these appealing birds, such as do they have teeth, do they sleep, do they molt. One question that most of us are unlikely to ask or to hear someone else ask is what to do if you find a penguin crossing a road. This might, however, be a legitimate query for folks who live near penguin colonies in parts of New Zealand and the southern regions of Australia, South America, and Africa. As is true for most wildlife anywhere, the first advice is to leave it alone. If the penguin is entering a hazardous area, the authors' advice is to “catch the penguin and return it to the seashore. Otherwise, just act as a crossing guard until is it safely across the road.” I'll keep that in mind, as should you.

Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.

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