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Emperor Penguins Have Families Too

Emperor penguins are very special animals. They are the biggest penguins in the world, can dive the deepest and the longest, and they are the only animals in the arctic that stay there during the winter. Emperor penguins are so different from other penguins that they even have a special way of breeding. They are the only penguins in the world that breed during the winter, rather than the spring.

It seems crazy to breed during the winter, mainly because it's cold. It's even crazier to breed during the arctic winter because it's even colder. Emperor penguins have to deal with a lot of hardships in order to reproduce, and the minus eighty degree weather and 112 mph winds of arctic winters are just a couple out of a long list of inconveniences.

The story of the Emperor penguin's mating ritual begins in March, the beginning of winter in Antarctica. First of all, males leave the coastal regions where they have been fishing and eating during warmer months to their mating grounds, up to 50 miles away. The male Emperors leave first and the females meet up with them later. When the female shows up, the males have to compete for a mate with a series of head dances and calls because there are more females than males. Over 200 pairs of penguins mate every winter and each pair stays together during the entire season.

Each Emperor female lays only one egg. She almost immediately passes the egg over to the male penguin and then leaves. How's that for a switch?  It takes about nine weeks for the eggs to hatch. During those nine long weeks of extra cold weather, the Emperor penguins huddle up in a huge circle to keep warm. The females that left went away to find food so that they can feed their chicks when they hatch. If the females aren't back when the chick hatches, the male can regurgitate some of the food he ate more than 100 days earlier. This method of feeding can sustain the chick for about ten days. After the female returns, the chick is able to eat well and then is transferred to the mother's care so that the males can go eat.

The chick and the father sing to each other, since this is how every individual penguin distinguishes itself from any other. The male penguin leaves to find food for itself and to feed the chick again. After such a long time without eating, the male penguin has lost about half its original body weight.

After feeding, the male returns to his female companion and chick, and then both parent care for their offspring for another two months or so. At that point, the chicks are old enough to survive on their own for a little while. The chicks are not left completely alone though, but are bunched together in groups called cr¸ches. They are able to stay warm like this until the summer arrives in December. The chicks are fully grown penguins when they turn six months old, but won't be ready to have chicks of their own until they are around four years old.

Emperor penguins are very special animals indeed. They are the biggest, the best at diving, the best at holding their breath and the best at braving the cold. Every year, they set out to the same place in order to breed and time it in such a way that summer starts when the chicks are old enough to fend for themselves.

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