National Geographic : 2009 Sep
of birds defending plots little larger than a manhole cover. King penguins do not build nests. In their constricted space, the male and female take turns incubating a single egg bal- anced on their feet and covered by a loose fold of skin. ey brood the newborn chick in the same way until it grows plumage thick enough to withstand the elements. During this three-month period, the adults peck at all trespassers. e main o enders are petrels and skuas, avian predators partial to eggs and chicks. Researchers gure that a king pen- guin parent devotes four hours and 2,000 pecks a day to ghting o interlopers. "For all the crowding, there was no sense of chaos," says Unterthiner, who stayed on the island from December to April. " e penguins looked very organized, almost like they were in military formation, each guarding its ground." King penguins have established colonies across seven islands and island groups in the southern reaches of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. e islands are crucially located near the Antarctic Convergence, an oceanic bound- ary where cold polar water meets and mixes with warmer subantarctic seas, producing a rich feeding zone. Prodigious divers and swim- mers, king penguins travel 250 miles or more to feed in the depths on squid and bioluminescent lantern sh. Numbering an estimated 2.2 million pairs, the king penguin population is in good shape. Yet a recent study in the Crozet Islands, where half of all king penguins breed, reveals that warming seas are reducing food resources near the colonies and warns that climate change may pose a serious threat to the species long-term survival. But for now, the clamor, the stink, and the pecking all bear witness to king penguins still in their full glory. ---Tom O Neill Going beak to beak, an adult king penguin challenges a skua attempting to make off with a freshly killed chick. Once they reach a few months of age, chicks lose the vigilant daily care of parents and must bunch together for safety and warmth (left). Chick mortality runs as high as 75 percent, many dying of starvation in winter. Tom O Neill is a senior writer for the magazine. Wildlife photographer Stefano Unterthiner is based in Italy. His latest book is e King s Odyssey.