Despite having some of the harshest cold climatic patterns on the planet, Antarctica abounds with gems of wildlife unique to its ecosystem. These animals are well adapted to survive this extreme weather and reproduce vibrantly therein. A lack of human development on the frozen continent also facilitates the prosperity of Antarctic wildlife. Global warming and other climate change factors, however, are increasingly taking their toll.
Also called the dove prion, the Antarctic prion is a seabird whose feathers and upper body are grayish blue, and the underbelly from the throat to the tail feather is mostly white. Its bill is light gray and curved on the tip, while the forehead is rounded and legs black. The Antarctic prion has a wingspan of 31.5 to 36 inches (80 to 91 cm), weighs 1 lb (440 grams), and the body length is 14 to 16.5 inches (35 to 42 cm). Its populations are distributed on Antarctic continent, and peri-Antarctic islands like South Sandwich, South Orkney, South Shetland, Macquarie, Auckland, Heard, Crozet, and Kerguelen.
Antarctic prions are social and live in flocks of thousands on those islands. Crustaceans like krill, tiny cephalopods, small fish, polychaete worms, and carrion are part of the Antarctic prion diet. To feed, it flies along the water surface with its bill and head submerged in water to scoop up their food. To reproduce, the Antarctic prion lays one egg in December which is incubated for 45 days by both the male and female. 45 to 55 days after hatching, the fledglings leave to grow independently. The Antarctic prion has a lifespan of 15 to 20 years.
Orca (Killer Whale)
The orca, also called a killer whale, is a carnivorous ocean mammal, and the largest member of the dolphin family. A male’s maximum length is 32 feet (9.8 m), and a female 28 feet (8.5 m). The orca has 4-inch teeth which is not surprising when considering it is about the size of a minibus! A male orca weighs 11 tons (10,000 kg), and a female 8.25 tons (7,500 kg). It has a huge black body, white underbelly, a white patch above and behind the eye, and a grey saddle patch, behind the dorsal fin.
The orca’s diet consists of seals, sea lions and birds, turtles, sharks, squid, whales, and fish. The habitat for the orca are oceans with cold water in Antarctica, Norway, Alaska, the North Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans. The lifespan of the orca is 50 to 80 years. Orcas are social and travel in groups called pods with 5 to 30 of them or more. Female orcas lead these pods. Orcas can also swim at speeds of up to 33.5 miles (54 km) per hour.
The Adelie penguin is a migratory bird named after the wife of French Antarctic explorer Dumont d’Urville. Its populations are spread across the Antarctic continent, and such southern islands as South Shetland, South Orkney, South Sandwich, and Bouvetoya. A male Adelie penguin weighs 12 lbs (5.4 kg), and a female 10.5 lbs (4.7 kg). Adult body lengths reach about 27.5 inches (70 cm). At full maturity, the Adelie penguin has a black head, with white rings around each eye and a red bill. Its back is black with blue-tipped feathers; the chest is solid white, and the feet are grey-pink.
The Adelie penguin’s primary diet is made up of krill, small fish, squids, amphipods, and cephalopods. To get food, it is known to dive 575 feet (175 m) into the water, and it is an adept swimmer. Adelie penguins are social and breed in colonies numbering in the thousands, in nested depressions on the ground lined with small stones to protect eggs from water. They will sometimes steal nesting rocks from other nests. Both male and female Adelie penguins take turns incubating the eggs. Sexual maturity begins from 3 to 6 years, and an Adelie penguin can live on average 20 years in the wild.
The sea cucumber is an echinoderm, meaning it is part of a large family of marine invertebrates. Its body is shaped like a cucumber with small tentacle-like tube feet for movement and feeding. Depending on the species, the sea cucumber can be red, dark green, or black. Its length varies from less than an inch to over 6 feet (2.5 to 182 cm). The sea cucumber usually lives on or in the seafloor and is therefore regarded as the sea’s earthworm. Other planktonic sea cucumber species float in the water and move with currents.
It scavenges and feeds on algae, aquatic invertebrates, and sea waste particles, recycling them back to the ocean like an earthworm. Sea cucumbers are found in nearly all marine ecosystems on the planet. A sea cucumber exhibits sexual and asexual traits: females release eggs into the water, and they get fertilized on coming into contact with sperms released by males. For this reproduction to work, many males and females need to be together at one location. A sea cucumber lives 5 to 10 years. When threatened, it discharges sticky threads to trap its enemies or even mutilates its own body by detaching body parts. The missing parts later regenerate.
Rotifers are tiny microscopic zooplanktons that thrive on moist soils, freshwater, brackish waters and marine environments. There are about 2,000 rotifers species and their size generally ranges from 0.1 to 1 mm, though some reach 2 to 3 mm. They feed on microalgae and are food for fish, shellfish, corals and other aquatic organisms. Due to their high reproductive rates and nutritional importance, rotifers are used in aquaculture and aquariums.
Some rotifers lead a solitary lifestyle and others live in active colonies. Rotifers live also in lake bottoms, rivers, and streams, sewage treatment plants, and even grow on freshwater crustaceans. Antarctica’s native rotifer is the rusty red Philodina gregaria. During summer, it is found in large quantities in ocean bottoms and pools.
As the largest animals on earth, the blue whale’s main diet is krill, a crustacean and one of the tiniest aquatic creatures. Daily, a blue whale eats 2 to 4 tons of it. Also called the Antarctic blue whale, a male’s length is 95 feet (29 m) and a female is 108 feet (33 m), while a young calf is 23 feet (7 m) long. A male blue whale weighs 165 tons (150,000 kg), and a female 200 tons (180,000 kg). Its broad, U-shaped head makes up to a quarter of its body’s length, and it has a streamlined body dotted with pale blue spots on its back. Its belly color is pale, but it looks yellow due to an algae layer. It has two blowholes that, when exhaling, spew water sprays up to 30 feet (9 m) into the air.
Blue whales are found in the North Pacific, Atlantic, and Southern and Northern Indian Ocean. They sometimes swim in small groups, but usually alone or in pairs. During summer they spend time feeding in polar waters and then they migrate towards the equator at the onset of winter. A blue whale swims at 5 miles (8km) an hour but when agitated can reach up to 20 miles (32 km) an hour. Blue whales are the loudest animals in the world. In calm conditions, they hear each other’s groans, pulses, and moans up to 1,000 miles (1,600 km) away. A blue whale’s sexual maturity starts at 6 to 10 years, and its average lifespan is 80 to 90 years in the ocean. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies the blue whale as an endangered species. It is estimated that there are between 10,000 and 25,000 blue whales remaining. Fortunately, their population trends appear to be increasing.
The snow petrel is a petrel subspecies that is all white with dark eyes, a black bill, and bluish-grey feet. This bird is native to the cold, icy Antarctic continent. Its weight range is 0.5 to 1 lb (260 to 460 g), and its length is 12 to 16 inches (30 to 40 cm) with a wingspan of 30 to 37.5 (75 to 95 cm). Fish, squid, mollusks, krill, as well as carrion of seals, whales and penguins, are part of the snow petrel’s diet.
Snow petrel populations are mostly in the Antarctic continent and peri-Antarctic islands, as well as South Georgia, Bouvetoya, South Sandwich, and South Orkney Islands, where they nest on cliffs as colonies. To avoid predators like the south polar skua, a snow petrel flies low over the water or very high over the land. Snow petrels are sociable and fly erratically in a bat-like motion. A snow petrel can squirt foul-smelling oils with its mouth at intruders, and it can also fight them with its bills and wings. The snow petrel can live for up to 20 years and their average age of sexual maturity is seven years.
The colossal squid is a large deep-sea predator whose body length and tentacles combined measure up to 46 feet (14 m), and it weighs about 1,100 lbs (500 kg). It has eight arms measuring 2.75 to 3.75 feet (0.85 to 1.15 m), and two tentacles about 7 feet (2.1 m) long. The colossal squid has rotating hooks that grab and hold prey at the end of each tentacle.
Its diet consists of fish like the Patagonian tooth-fish and other squids. The colossal squid’s skin is reddish-pink, and the eyes are larger than those of any other creature on the planet. A male squid is smaller than a female. The deep oceans of Antarctica and the southwest Pacific around New Zealand is where the colossal squid is found. It lives 1,000 feet (300 m) below the surface. Researchers believe the colossal quid leads a solitary lifestyle and eats large amounts of food. It is known to fight off the predatory sperm whales that prey on it.
The leopard seal is an aquatic, aggressive carnivorous mammal found in the Antarctic continent coast and sub-Antarctic islands, as well as on the coats of South Africa, South America, Australia and New Zealand. A male leopard seal weighs up to 660 lbs (300 kg), and a female up to 1,100 lbs (500 kg). The body length of a male leopard seal is between 9 and 109 feet (2.8 to 3.3 m), and a female 9.5 to 12.5 feet (2.9 to 3.8 m). At full maturity, its coat is silvery-grey to black with patchy dark spots and a pale underbelly. It has front flippers for swimming. A leopard seal’s head is large, with a long flexible neck, and a jaw with long canine teeth.
Its diet consists of small seals, krill, penguins, seabirds. It preys on them by hiding under the ice, and its dives underwater last up to 15 minutes. A leopard seal leads a solitary life, or can be found in pairs or smaller groups. A female achieves sexual maturity at 4 years and a male leopard seal at 4.5 years. The average lifespan of a leopard seal is 12 to 15 years in the wild, but some have lived for up to 26 years. The orca is the only known leopard seal predator.
The emperor penguin is the largest of about 17 penguin species documented. At full maturity, it stands at 3.75 feet (1.15 m) and weighs up to 88 pounds (40 kg). The emperor penguin has yellow ear patches that fade into the white of its breast feathers and underbelly. Feathers on its back and wing-like appendages are gray-black. The emperor penguin’s main diet is made up of cephalopods, fish, and krill. In a day, the emperor penguin can eat 4.4 to 6.6 lbs (2 to 3 kg) of food, but when it needs to fatten up to breed, it eats up to 13 lbs (6 kg).
Emperor penguin populations are scattered all over the Antarctic continent, and they range from a few hundred to over 20,000 pairs. To survive the harsh freezing katabatic winds reaching up to 125 miles (200 km) an hour, males huddle closely together to keep warm as they incubate the eggs, as this reduces heat loss by up to 50 percent. Male emperor penguins achieve sexual maturity at 5 years and females at 6. Their average lifespan is 15 to 20 years but some have lived over 40 years.