October 27, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

Emperor Penguins Get More Respect

A handsomely-dressed emperor penguin made the cover of Science News this week.  Gerald Kooyman of Scripps Institute is gratified over the success of the documentary March of the Penguins; “I’ve been telling people they’re remarkable for years,” he said.  In the article, Susan Milius brought out several additional amazing facts not mentioned in the film.

  • Diving Champs:  Emperor penguins can dive as deep as 500m for up to 20 minutes, without getting the bends or excess free radicals in their blood.  This is enabled by several adaptations: the ability to lower their heart rate during dives from 200 to 60 beats per minute, storage of extra myoglobin in their tissues, and storing more blood per body weight than humans.  Their stiff bodies and flexible flippers also reduce drag, making them better designed hydrodynamically than most mammals, the article claims.  “They can keep swimming even when their bodies’ oxygen stores have been depleted beyond levels that would knock out a human diver,” a photo caption states; specifically, 20mm of mercury, compared to a human’s lower limit is 25mm.  Scientists still do not understand how the birds can avoid damage from the rush of blood as they surface rapidly and catapult onto the ice.
  • Marching Champs:  The birds make their long marches in complete silence.  Some colonies have a few hundred breeding pairs; others can have 10,000.  There are about 40 colonies known.  In midwinter, there is only three hours of dim light per day sandwiched between 21 hours of darkness under aurora-spectacled skies.
  • Huddle Champs:  The conditions during storms look miserable to us, but the male birds huddle to conserve body heat, and actually get “toasty” at 20° C in groups.  A male could only survive alone only down to -10° C; in groups, they can lower their metabolic rate by 40%.  They seem to actually have to go outside once in awhile to cool off; at all times, however, the safety of the precious eggs must be the highest priority.  Inside the huddle, their heads on flexible necks can be seen sticking up like periscopes once in awhile, with little puffs of warm air indicating things are OK.  In springtime, the young learn to huddle early.  Both parents go off to forage as soon as they can, leaving the young in playgroups to learn on their own.
  • Diet Champs:  The males incubating the eggs all winter actually starve themselves with their bellies full, the article says.  They are able to block their digestion and maintain enough store to feed the growing chick with reserves till the female returns.
  • Travel Champs:  Radio-collared penguins have been found to forage as far as 1,900 km at sea.
  • Fashion Champs:  Those tuxedos have to come off once a year.  In the summertime, the birds fast again for a month, standing on ice floes to molt.  All the old feathers come out and the new fluffy ones come in underneath.  The undercoat of down provides an insulating layer of air, and the oiled outer feathers provide a “waterproof dive suit” that compresses underwater, keeping the downy feathers dry and preventing the chilly water from reaching the skin.

The new suit comes in just in time for the birds to forage and begin the next long march.  “How can emperor penguins live like that?” Milius titled her article.  The answer is in their exquisite physical adaptations.  Working together, these adaptations, from cell chemistry to finished coat, give them a life they seem to enjoy in one of the harshest environments on the planet.


1Susan Milius, “How can emperor penguins live like that?”, Science News, Week of Oct. 22, 2005; Vol. 168, No. 17 , p. 26.

Fortunately, Susan Milius did not try to speculate on how the emperor penguin evolved.  If you tried to count how many lucky mutations would be needed to evolve from a dinosaur to an early bird to an emperor penguin, what number would you come up with?  Hundreds?  Thousands?  Tens of thousands?  It’s a total remake.  The biochemistry of the cell, the oxygen handling capabilities, the pressure protection and scuba gear, the dive suit, the lungs, the bones, the dietary adaptations, core body heat, timing of the molt, ability to waddle upright, the stiff body and flippers, the incubating patch and tough feet, eyes adapted to deep underwater vision, navigating ability over vast distances on ice and in the sea – and these are just some of the physical changes that the ambitious dinosaur would need.
    Then there are the behavioral adaptations.  How did the penguins learn to transfer the egg from the female to the male without breaking it, and when did the male decide to forego eating for months, holding the egg on its feet?  How did the males overcome their usual territoriality instinct and decide to pack in tightly together, 10 birds per square meter?  How did the females figure out when the eggs would hatch, and learn to forage only long enough to get back in time to feed them and give hubby a well-deserved break?  How did they find their way back to the correct nesting site?  What made them regurgitate their own food for the sake of a chick they had never seen before?  How do they find their mates when everyone looks alike?  How do the feathers know when to molt all at once (unlike on air birds, who molt continuously), so that the reupholstering job minimizes time out of the water?  Where did they learn those rocket jumps out onto the ice?  How do the young catch on to all this so fast?
    Evolutionists provide only empty speculations for these things, arguing from ignorance that “if these mutations had not occurred, the penguins would not be there.”  That only assumes their materialistic view without explaining the observations.  Creationists may not be able to explain everything about why God would create emperor penguins to live like this, but they surely need far less faith than an evolutionist.  If this were the only example of a creature possessing dozens of tight-knit adaptations needing to function together simultaneously or not at all, it would be challenging enough for evolutionary theory.  Now let’s talk about giraffes, bats, water striders, cheetahs, geckos, kangaroos, hummingbirds, humans….

(Visited 10 times, 1 visits today)
Categories: Birds

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.