Birds – The Spheniscidae

Birds – The Spheniscidae

The Spheniscidae

The Spheniscidae

In this article we will see: “The Spheniscidae, sea birds, masters of the oceanic expanse, soar with grace and dive with precision. From albatrosses to terns, they epitomize adaptability and freedom, their calls echoing over the boundless sea.

Birds – The Spheniscidae

The Spheniscidae, an extraordinary family of flightless seabirds, captivate with their diverse species and unique adaptations to life in the southern hemisphere. From the tiny blue penguins of Australia to the majestic emperor penguins of Antarctica, their habitats span the coastlines of South America, the icy expanses of the Antarctic, and beyond. Renowned for their prowess in the water and endearing clumsiness on land, these charismatic creatures navigate through challenges posed by predators and environmental changes, while their intricate social structures ensure survival in some of the harshest conditions on Earth.

Brief Background

The Spheniscidae represent the only family of the order Sphenisciformes, which in total comprises 17 species. Distributed across various climates but only in the southern hemisphere, they are found along the coasts of South America, the Galápagos Islands where they benefit from the Humboldt Current, on the continent and the Antarctic islands, the coasts of southern Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, and South Africa.

The smallest of the family is the little blue penguin of Australia, measuring 10 cm and weighing 1 kg; the largest being the emperor penguin, which reaches 1.20 m in height and a maximum weight of 40 kg. Spending two-thirds of their lives at sea, they only come ashore during the moulting and breeding period.

Appearance and Behaviour of: The Spheniscidae

Penguins differ from other seabirds in their complete inability to fly. Their wings are transformed into short, slightly curved, and sturdy flippers, providing them with amazing swimming abilities. Moreover, their body shape, resembling that of a chubby cigar, is a perfect model of hydrodynamics. With their beak pointing forward, their head in line with their body and slightly submerged, they cut through the water at a speed of about 20 km/h, leaping out of the water like dolphins. Their legs act as rudders and are used for maneuvering and brief changes in direction. It is during rapid and short accelerations that penguins catch and swallow their prey.

The beak varies according to the species and is adapted to each type of prey. It can be long and slender or short and powerful. Their close and tight plumage perfectly isolates them from the cold and humidity, allowing for prolonged stays in icy waters. On land, they are clumsy and awkward. This is due to their short legs, which are positioned in line with their body.

It is thanks to these characteristic waddling and slow movements that they adopt. Some waddle or hop, while others, in a panic, slide on their bellies, on land or in the snow, using their flippers for support. They settle on coasts, whether rocky, steep, flat, or even on ice like emperor and Adélie penguins.

Food of: The Spheniscidae

They are generally social animals that form very large colonies. The nest is rudimentary or non-existent, as in the case of royal and emperor penguins, which incubate standing up, with the egg resting on their feet. Incubation is long, lasting from 30 to 60 days, forcing the birds to fast for very long periods.

The young are fed by regurgitation and grouped into creches a few days after birth. They then remain under the care of their parents for 7 to 10 weeks. This social lifestyle allows Antarctic penguins to huddle together to withstand very low temperatures and freezing blizzards.

Reproduction of: The Spheniscidae

Penguins do not reproduce until they are 4 years old. Losses affecting eggs and chicks are enormous, as colonies are plagued by numerous predators such as skuas, giant petrels, and the southern caracara from the Cape Horn region. At sea, they have to fear orcas, blue sharks, and leopard seals.

Distribution of: The Spheniscidae

However, until the beginning of the century, humans were the greatest enemies of this trusting and easily approachable family. Hundreds of thousands of penguins were sacrificed solely to recover the fat enveloping their bodies. Fortunately, they are all protected today.

Entire colonies were decimated, and many species owe their survival only to their inaccessible locations on certain islets.

Despite facing historic threats from human exploitation, the Spheniscidae family stands resilient, protected by conservation efforts. Their remarkable ability to adapt to diverse environments and form resilient social colonies speaks to their enduring presence in the natural world. As ambassadors of the southern hemisphere, these beloved seabirds continue to inspire awe and admiration, reminding us of the delicate balance between humanity and the precious ecosystems we share. Through ongoing conservation initiatives, we strive to ensure the continued flourishing of these iconic species for generations to come.

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A final word

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