The emperor penguin is known for its well-regulated life cycle, with adults repeating the same ritual every year to reproduce and raise their young. It is the only penguin species that reproduces during the Antarctic winter.
Males and females make a long ice journey of 50–100 km to form colonies that can include thousands of individuals. Parents will continue to shuttle for supplies until parental care ends. The life expectancy of the emperor penguin is generally 20 years in the wild, but some observations suggest that some individuals can reach 50 years of age.
The Emperor penguin lives and reproduces in a colder environment than any other bird species. The air temperature can drop to -40°C, with winds blowing up to 150km/h. The sea water, of -2 °C, has a much lower temperature than the body temperature of the penguins of 40 °C.
They must therefore adapt to limit heat losses. Between 80 and 90% of penguins' insulation is provided by their plumage. The insulation is also ensured by a thickness of protective fat which at the beginning of the reproductive season can reach 3 cm.
This layer of blubber limits the emperor penguin's movement, especially in comparison to its less fat but more agile cousin, the Magellanic penguin. Emperor penguins live in Antarctica, around the pole, at latitudes between 66 and 78 degrees south.
They generally reproduce on a stable pack not far from the coast. The colonies that are formed therefore look for flat areas sheltered from the winds by rocks or icebergs to settle. The global population of adult emperor penguins is estimated at 595,000 specimens according to a census carried out by a team of American researchers thanks to satellite images, in turn divided into 44 independent colonies.
About 80,000 pairs can be found in the Ross Sea sector. The largest colonies are located at Cape Washington, Coulman's Island in Victoria Land, Halley Bay, Coats Land, and Atka Bay, Queen Maud Land. Two other colonies exist on land: one on a land bridge on the Dion Islands in the Antarctic Peninsula, and the other on a promontory of Taylor Glacier in the Australian Antarctic Territory.
Isolated specimens have also been observed on the Falkland Islands, Heard Island, South Georgia and New Zealand. The species is considered as Near Threatened by the IUCN. However, together with nine other penguin species, it was considered for possible inclusion in the US Endangered Species Act in 2010.
This is explained by the sharp decrease in food resources due to the effects of global warming and industrial fishing on crustacean and fish populations. Among the other causes that have been considered are diseases, habitat destruction and human presence that disturbs the breeding pairs.
Under this last point, tourism was particularly harmful. One study showed that emperor penguin chicks were more fearful after being approached by a helicopter from less than 1000m away. A population decline of about 50% has been observed in Terra Adelie due to increased mortality of adults, especially males, during a prolonged warm period in the late 1970s that led to the reduction of the ice floe.
Conversely, the success rate of egg hatching decreases as the extent of the sea ice increases. For these reasons, the species is considered very sensitive to climatic risks.