If you have children you will no doubt have experienced the heart stopping moment when you realize the little one has wandered off and you cannot see them anywhere. You might imagine, then, how the average King Penguin parent might feel when they return to feed their chick. Yet it is all part of the King Penguin’s master plan for the survival of the next generation.
In what has to be the biggest day care facility on this our ark in space, thousands upon thousands of king penguins group their offspring together in a (largely successful) attempt to stop them dying in the sub-zero temperatures of South Georgia. They are also better protected from predators in this huge gathering.
Salisbury Plain in England is famed for being the site of King Arthur’s last battle. The Salisbury Plain you are seeing here is named after the original and is on the remote South Atlantic island of South Georgia, home to an even greater diversity of species than the Galapagos. The king penguin colony is, of course, by far the most visible.
The king parent penguins literally herd their chicks together. You can see the swathes of chicks separated from their parents, noticeable by their long, downy brown coats. Ensuring that the chicks survive is no mean feat and this collective act is the only way to create an environment warm enough to nurture them. While the chicks huddle together the parents shuffle, wobble and pretty much bounce down to the sea to catch the next meal for their voracious progeny (they are sublimely graceful once in the water, however).
There they will forage until they have enough food stored to make it worthwhile trekking the arduous route back to their youngest family member. While they are away other parents will stay behind to ensure the protection of the little ones.
It takes an extraordinary 13 months to raise a chick. As it cannot regulate its body temperature until it nears adulthood they need 24 hour care. Yet the adults are required to be working parents. If you need to catch fish to feed the chick this is not possible to guarantee its survival your own. So, when in need, birds of a feather, well, you know the rest.
Such an extensive length of time to raise a chick means that the king penguins do not mate every year. Generally they will breed twice every three year cycle. The feathers and a thick layer of blubber help keep the chicks warm while mum and dad are away. In fact such is the layer of blubber on the chicks that they can patiently wait for their parents for several weeks if necessary. Yet there is always safety, company and comfort in numbers.
The parents are generally gone for several days so this form of collective care is vital. One can only guess at when the king penguin originally had this brightest of bright ideas but the idea, it seems, caught on in a big way.