. . . or, as we biologists say, a melanistic penguin—a king penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus), to be precise. I’m reporting on this because I’ve been a bit of a penguin freak ever since I wrote a biology term paper on these birds in 1964, and, let’s face it, who doesn’t love penguins?
Now you’re gonna cry “Photoshop” or “hair dye” on this one, but as far as I can tell it’s real. The National Geographic blog Intelligent Travel reports on and shows (Fig. 1) a black penguin just seen by writer Andrew Evans on the island of South Georgia (South Georgia is, of course, the island Ernest Shackleton crossed on foot in 1916 to seek rescue of his men during the disasterous Imperial Transarctic Expedition of 1915-1917).
Figure 1. The black king penguin (from Intelligent Travel)
Evans reports the sighting:
He looked like a single black king moving across a chessboard of so many white pawns. Our first glimpse was puzzling until we drew closer and realized that this was not some other bird but indeed another penguin of a different color.
Our group from Lindblad Expeditions spotted this very unique bird at Fortuna Bay on the subantarctic island of South Georgia. Out of several thousand pairs of king penguins, this was the only individual that was entirely black although earlier in the morning I had spotted another that showed muted coloration. Recent science papers (PDF) show that the trait has been documented only a handful of times in South Georgia. Some fellow travelers recall seeing a melanistic penguin at St. Andrew’s Bay, also on South Georgia.
Dr. Allen Baker, a Canadian ornithologist who’s published on melanistic birds, describes his reaction to the photo with scientific precision:
“Well that is astonishing,” he said. “I’ve never ever seen that before. It’s a one in a zillion kind of mutation somewhere. The animal has lost control of its pigmentation patterns. Presumably it’s some kind of mutation.”
Intelligent Travel also reports an independent sighting of a melanistic king penguin on South Georgia in 2006 by Ted Cheeseman and members of his ecology expedition. The bird, presumably the same individual, was photographed by Hugh Rose (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2. The black king penguin (presumably the same individual) photographed in 2006.
The paper mentioned in Intelligent Travel, by Louise Blight and Sylvia Stevens, reported a partially black king penguin on South Georgia in 2000 (Fig. 3; only the ventral surface was abnormally colored). This may be the same individual as the one spotted by Evans and Cheeseman. Sadly, Blight and Stevens note that the individual “did not appear to be breeding.” I worry that its abnormal coloration will make it unsuitable as a mate. Blight and Stevens also report two other partially melanic king penguins; Figure 3 also shows one of these.
Fig. 3. Photos from the Blight and Stevens paper. Left: melanistic king penguin seen on South Georgia in 2000. Right: king penguin with partial melanism on breast (seen on Isle Crozet).
Blight and Stevens report that melanism has also been seen in the Adelie, Royal, gentoo, and chinstrap penguins, while the absence of pigment (leucism) has been seen in seven species of penguins (there are 17 species of the bird in toto).
Melanism is often (but not always) the result of a single gene mutation. Melanistic mutations are responsible for producing dark jaguars and leopards, called “black panthers” (Fig. 4) and erroneously assumed to be a different species from nonmelanistic individuals.
Some of the commenters at the Intelligent Travel site assert that this picture is Photoshopped. Seeing the earlier pictures and reading about the independent sighting in 2006, I’m fairly sure it’s real.
Fig. 4. A melanistic jaguar (“black panther”), Panthera onca
h/t: Steven Mears
Blight, L. K. and S. Stevens. 2000. Partial melanism in King Penguins Aptenodytes patagonicus. Marine Ornithology 28:83.