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Spy in the Snow

Penguin chicks rescued by unlikely hero

Underestimating a penguin is a mistake that might cost you dearly

Penguins have an undeserved reputation as funny and somewhat ridiculous animals and it’s easy to see why: they’re cute, flightless birds that waddle about like fluffy, drunk toddlers. Hollywood casts Danny Devito as your human equivalent for a reason.

However, underestimating them is a mistake that might cost you dearly, as one petrel bird discovered when it attacked a group of emperor penguin chicks hoping for an easy meal.

Penguin chicks face giant petrel

As these chicks made their way to the sea without their parents’ supervision for the first time, a predatory giant petrel swooped in for what it thought would prove a quick kill. The chicks initially tried to flee, but struggled with running on land, and, in a case of ironically unhappy feet, one of them slipped and fell, becoming an easy prey to the predatory bird.

When the petrel grabbed him by the neck with its strong beak, it looked like there was little or no hope left for the clumsy chick, but a tactical fall allowed it to escape and slide away back to its group.

Rejoined by their fallen companion, the chicks assembled into a defensive circle that allowed them to protect each other from all sides. The hunt was brought to a stall. After a tense stand off, the arrival of an adult adelie, a smaller, but extremely feisty species of penguin, finally set the petrel on the run.

Predators like the petrel are just one of the many dangers encountered daily by penguins.

What strategies do they adopt to survive in one of the most inhospitable environment in the world?

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

Strength in numbers is the most known survival strategy for penguins. Huddling together allows them to find shelter from the extreme cold and unforgiving snow storms, but also functions as protection to fight off some of the many, deadly predators that inhabit Antarctica.

COUNTERSHADING

Disguise is another fundamental skill for the survival of penguins. Their typical black and white coat is more than just a fabulous look: the colour arrangement provides penguins with counter-shading, a method of camouflage used by many animals where their top colour is much darker than their underside. In the case of penguins, it allows them to stay hidden from both predators and preys when in the sea: their white belly blends them with the bright sea surface, while the black feathers make them disappear into the dark bottom of the ocean. Fashionable AND practical!

TOBOGGANING

Penguin bellies are not just useful for camouflage: when on land, they are also the tools that provide them with their fastest escape technique, tobogganing, the word that better describes when penguins slide on their belly to gain speed on ice. Curiously, Penguins have been observed tobogganing not only to escape predators or move faster, but also just for fun.

JUMPING

There’s another, amazing technique Penguins use to escape predators, and that’s jumping out of water up to nine feet straight. For small, flightless birds, that seems like an incredible feat, and Penguins achieve it by trapping air bubbles under their plumage before diving. When they then release these air-bubbles as they swim towards the surface, the air coats their bodies like a lubricant, allowing them to achieve the great speed that lets them go airborne once outside the water.

These are only some of penguins’ surprising skills. Discover more of their unexpected survival secrets below.

Penguin survival tricks

By Tom Aglietti
Featured image by John Downer Productions

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