30 October, 2007


My husband and I recently went to the theatre to see “The Marsh of the Penguins” one of the greatest stories of parental sacrifice that occurs in nature.

The movie is essentially a nature program starring Empero Penguins who make their home in the Antarctica, a solid sheet of ice where temperatures dip to 70 below and it is dark six months out of the year.

As the story begins, the penguins leave their watery home to march 70 miles inland to a place where the ice sheet is thick and a huge ice wall protects them from the worst of the wind. There they spend several days carefully selecting a mate, followed by three weeks of gestating an egg. After the egg is produced, the female transfers the egg to the male so she can go back to the waters to eat enough food to sustain the coming young. Producing an egg has taken up a third of her body weight. The transfer of the egg is a tricky process. If the couple fumbles the egg and it lands on the ice, the egg will freeze in seconds and the breeding season is over for that couple. More experienced couples practice how they will transfer the egg, and do so successfully. The male holds the egg on top of his feet and underneath his down feathers. After the transfer of the egg, the females leave for the 70-mile trek back to the coast and the males are on their own for a good three months during the worst of winter. Throughout the long, cold, dark months the males keep warm through a huge body huddle during which each penguin spends some time in the innermost part of the huddle and some time on the outside of the huddle walking to keep warm. Temperatures reach 70 below zero and the males have been without food for months. When the egg hatches, the male has kept in a separate gullet one small morsel of food to feed his young to sustain it until its mother comes back. The females return full of sustenance for their young and have no trouble identifying their mates among the huge mass of penguins. After the chick is transferred to the female, the male spends some time bonding with his chick and memorizing the sound of its voice before himself returning to the coast. At this point he is on the verge of starvation, having lost half of his body weight with a 70-mile trek to make.

The males and females will feed the chick in relays throughout the coming months, with each taking a turn going to the ocean and each taking a turn staying with and feeding the chick. Then the whole family will march to the shore together, with the fledglings staying ashore until they are ready to claim the ocean as their home.

Penguins exist in other parts of the world, but this particular species has chosen of their own free will this harsh climate and precarious environment. Perhaps it is because of the abundance of food or lack of competition or relative few predators. But having chosen this environment, it is also an act of their own free will that they sacrifice so much for their young.

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