One-off: a melanistic emperor penguin! (+ leucistic lagniappe)

November 23, 2020 • 1:30 pm

Well, I’ll be! IFL Science highlighted the presence in Antarctica of the only melanistic penguin I’ve ever heard of. We’ve all seen or heard of melanistic squirrels and jaguars or leopards (both called “black panthers”); it’s a genetic trait and can be either dominant (one gene copy and you’re black) or recessive (two copies required). But penguins?

For a panoply of melanistic species, go here, and click on the screenshot to read the article:

The one-minute BBC video is below, and though I worried this penguin may be subject to predation or lack of potential mates, the IFL Science article (and the video) says it’s doing fine:

Adult emperors have black heads and wings, gray backs, and white bellies, with their distinctive yellow-orange markings around the neck. This particular penguin spotted when the Dynasties team were filming the Emperor episode in Antarctica, is almost entirely black, but does have the odd patch of white on its chest and wing tips, and a splash of yellow around its neck.

Sometimes, sadly, it’s not good to stand out in a crowd, though. The mutation can make animals with melanism more easy to spot by predators. In this penguin’s case, not just because it may be more visible on the ice, but because penguins’ white bellies make them look invisible to predators swimming below by helping them blend in with the light from the surface.

Though, as the BBC points out, this one isn’t doing too badly, having survived into adulthood.

In fact, according to the BBC the penguin is doing just fine. Filmed amongst hundreds of its besuited brethren and looking healthy, it appeared to show signs of looking for a mate while huddling for warmth with the other penguins.

It looks lonely to me, but maybe I’m just anthropomorphizing.

UPDATE: Reader Bill Turner sent this photo, taken by his wife Yvette, and added the caption,

“Your post today on a melanistic Emperor penguin prompted me to send the attached photos of a leucistic gentoo, taken at the Chilean Captain Arturo Prat Base on Greenwich Island on 24 December 2018. The bird was, apparently, quite a familiar sight around the island.”

I hope this white bird found a mate, too.

h/t: Nicole

13 thoughts on “One-off: a melanistic emperor penguin! (+ leucistic lagniappe)

  1. Black might be an advantage in some ways. All the better to absorb energy from radiation, possibly also in the IR from body heat in winter, but we need the IR absorption spectra.

    1. I’m thinking the white belly is an adaptation to pursuing pray. As the bird chases fish underwater, the white blends with the light from above. This individual looks plenty well fed though.

      1. Black back / white belly (or grey variants) is normal shading for predators – the theory being that when illuminated from above, the tones appear more even and make the outline of the predator less noticeable when viewed on the level.

  2. In some species the exotic-looking individuals are highly sought after.

    For example, you should see how Ecuadorians fall for blonde-haired blue-eyed people here. Both sexes go after the exotic forms. (The locals, almost without exception, have black hair and brown eyes.)

      1. I remember my grandmother telling the story about my uncle, when he was a kid up in Minnesota. They had many Scandinavian-rooted neighbors but they weren’t.

        My uncle had darker hair while his playmate Ole was blonde. One day they’re sitting out in the sun, in the sandbox, my uncle with no cap on so his hair would bleach out like Ole’s, and Ole with mud on his head, to turn his hair dark like my uncle’s.

  3. It may have difficulty finding a mate. It does not have the visual attributes that a female may be looking for. That seems even more picky in the animal world than in humans. Hope he is successful.

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