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EILEEN BATTERSBYponders emperor penguins and Gabrielle Walker

HEROIC BEST DESCRIBES the emperor penguin, largest of the 17 living penguin species and 26 sub-species, and native to Antarctica, the coldest region on earth. It stands 112 to 115 centimetres or roughly waist-high to an average adult human and weighs about 16 kilos. This non-flying seabird is the only animal of any kind able to endure the unimaginably freezing temperatures of the Antarctic interior. Instead of laying their eggs in the spring and rearing their chicks through the warmer summer months when food is easier to source, emperor parents-to-be choose the hard way, beginning the process at the start of winter.

There is daunting nobility in this perverse madness, the reverse of the patterns of most other birds. If there is anything left on the planet that is inspiring, it must be the breeding ritual of these beautiful creatures. Their size helps them retain body heat but it also means that their large chicks take longer to hatch and mature.

Parenting an emperor penguin is a dramatic procedure, as seen in the magnificent 2005 Academy Award-wining documentary, March of the Penguins.

After a summer spent feeding at sea, the adults come ashore in March, shortly before the winter darkness closes in, and begin the long trek south to the breeding grounds. In the waning light of April and May, display commences, followed by mating. Emperor penguins are not territorial and do not build nests – they can’t, there is neither rock nor vegetation, only sea-ice. Once the female lays, she must quickly lift her egg off the ice and ease it with her beak up on to her feet.

There it is protected by the fold of feathered skin hanging from her belly. Then her mate completes the breeding ritual by taking the egg from her and placing it on his own feet, beneath his apron. The female then sets off to sea to feed, but not before first walking about 150 kilometres to open water. Now the male begins a two-month stint of child-minding during which, huddling in a mass of thousands of similarly incubating males, he will live off his body fat. It is a tough vigil. After 60 days, the chick hatches. Somehow the father manages to regurgitate food from his stomach to feed the newborn. On cue, mother returns, calls to her mate and, on recognising his cry, the family is reunited. Should she fail to re-appear, or is late, tragedy will strike.

Climate scientist Gabrielle Walker, author of the recently-published Antarctica (Bloomsbury), has made five trips to this vast, serene continent, travelling in the footsteps of polar pioneers such as Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton.

There are no human natives. Sophisticated research bases have been established there for scientific communities. The cold can and does kill. Walker is urging mankind to heed the dangers of burning of fossil fuels. The ice is melting; Antarctica will revert to greenery. Global warming is now a reality. Nature is in upheaval, the weather has become confused and confusing.

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