Adelie penguin defends Emperor penguin chicks

April 14, 2022 • 1:45 pm

I haven’t seen Emperor Penguins in the wild, as their breeding spots on the ice are far away from tourist access, and that’s fine.  But they do have a long march to the sea when they’re growing up. In this video clip from BBC Earth, a group of juvenile Emperors is having their March to the Sea when they’re attacked by a giant petrel.  He doesn’t succeed in hurting them, though, and for several reasons. First, they form a defensive circle facing outwards, and one of the chicks takes a protective stance with its wings out. (I find this amazing, but surely it’s hard-wired into the juvenile nervous system.)

And then an aggressive Adelie penguin shows up, further protecting the Emperors. Adelies are very small but they don’t take guff. What I don’t get in the video is that the fluffy chicks, who haven’t yet molted into adult plumage, are said to be ready to swim. They’re not. They won’t start swimming and fishing until they get their adult plumage.

12 thoughts on “Adelie penguin defends Emperor penguin chicks

  1. One of the few wildlife videos that’s very funny (look at that Adelie’s swagger!) and very touching at the same time. I can’t help wondering about the Adelie’s motivations. Hatred of Giant Petrels? Sense of kinship with Emperor Penguin chicks? Both?

    1. Emperor penguin chicks are sufficiently close in appearance to Adelie penguin chicks to trigger an otherwise unremarkable protective response.
      The match doesn’t need to be terribly good – see numerous posts on the line of “animal adopts other animal’s young” and an entire swathe of advertising that uses juvenile features in animated characters and graphic design to manipulate the emotions of the tarets.

  2. The emperors were off to promenade? It does seem odd that they were out there. Taking a dip is not an option or hunting, so what the hell… teenagers!

    1. Not in the adelie protecting the emperors. Kin selection refers to altruistic behaviour being selected for when it benefits close relatives of the individual performing the altruistic act. The more closely related the altruist and the beneficiary of the altruistic act are the more costly the act can be expected to be. Haldane’s quote that he ‘would lay down his life for two brothers or eight cousins’ captures this idea. Parental care is the most obvious, widespread and strong form of kin selected behaviour but as the degree of relatedness diminishes, the strength of altruism you would expect to see tails off. The adelie penguin is not nearly closely related enough to the emperor penguin chicks – which are not even the same species (or even genus) for kin selection to be involved.

      Regarding the emperor penguins themselves forming a defensive circle it seems unlikely to me that kin selection is involved there either. Emperor penguins have a single chick per pair so these chicks cannot be siblings and the closest they can be related would be cousins but it seems at least as likely that they are not related. The behaviour can be satisfactorily explained by the mutual benefit they all get from forming the defensive circle.

  3. Based on that video, it seems more like the Adelie was just passing by. Once it came near the emperor chicks and the giant petrel, it was natural for it to stick with the chicks for its own protection. A group is a group, even if a mixed one.

    1. I think the other explanations mentioned above are more probable. If your explanation were correct, the Adele would have hid in back of the chicks or in the middle of the group rather than taking the most risky position.

  4. I wonder about the motivation of the petrel. Do they occasionally kill and eat penguin chicks, did it enjoy the bullying?

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