The Gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua) are a unique species of penguins famous for their courtship ritual of wooing females with gifts of pebbles. The heights of the Gentoos range between 51 and 90 centimeters, with males weighing around 4.9 kilograms prior to mating and females weighing as low as 4.5 kilograms while nesting. The penguins have reddish-orange beaks and peach-colored feet. With highly streamlined bodies and powerful flippers, the Gentoos are the fastest underwater swimmers in the penguin world and can swim at speeds of nearly 36 kilometers per hour.
The Gentoo penguins are opportunistic feeders whose diet highly varies depending on the season of the year and their location. Primarily, small crustaceans like krill form a major part of their diet. Benthic fishes are also an important source of food for these birds. Squids are an occasional inclusion in the penguin diet. The penguins usually forage for food in the waters near the shore but are also known to swim as far as 26 kilometers from the coast in search of food sources. The penguins are able to stay under water for nearly 7 minutes at a stretch and often dive to depths of about 655 feet in search of food.
Gift Giving, Reproduction, and Socialization
The Gentoo penguins live in large colonies and usually breed in areas with tufts of grass on land which might be near the shore or further inland. The courtship ritual and nesting activities of these penguins are a pleasure to watch. The nests are roughly circular in shape, built of heaps of pebbles, often stacked as high as 7.9 inches and with a nest diameter of 9.8 inches. The penguins are very protective about their nests and its pebbles. Males are known to pick up pebbles in their beaks and gift them to the female, earning the male favors from the now happy female. The female lays about two eggs weighing around 130 grams, and both parents take their turns at incubating the eggs. The eggs hatch after about a month and, by 80 to 100 days thereafter, the chicks are ready to enter the water.
Habitat and Range
The Gentoo penguins prefer to inhabit areas that are partially covered by ice or are ice-free. They occupy coastal plains, cliffs and valleys of the southern continent and the islands and ice-shelves around it. The Gentoo penguin populations can be seen in the Antarctic Peninsula, and southern islands like the Falklands, Kerguelen, Staten, South Orkney, Macquarie, South Georgia, and others.
Environmental Threats and Conservation
The Gentoo penguins are prone to dangers as they enter the waters of the sea to hunt for food. During this time, they are at high risk of themselves becoming the prey of sea lions, orcas, and sea leopards, who patrol the waters around penguin inhabited land in the hope of catching a penguin. On land, adult penguins are usually devoid of any predators except for man who have been known to hunt these creatures for their meat and oil. Besides hunting by man and other creatures, the worst threat faced by the Gentoos of the world today comes from global warming and climate change. As more and more Antarctic ice melts and sea levels rise submerging the islands inhabited by these penguins, their habitat shrinks to smaller territories. The Gentoo penguin populations on Bird Island and South Georgia Island are currently nearly one-third of their population of 25 years ago. This has led to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's classification of these penguins as “Near Threatened”.