Emperor penguins: Good dads, but less dedicated than you may have thought

The popular image of emperor penguins as the ultimate in dedicated dads, going without food for up to 115 days, may have been based on study of a misleadingly small sample size, according to new research.

When it comes to heroic dads, it’s hard to outdo the emperor penguin. But a newly released study suggests the reality may fall short of the legend.

Male emperor penguins are famous for going without food for up to 115 days while they mate and then shelter a solitary egg from the brutal winter winds. Dramatic footage of the semiannual ritual, which begins with a 100-kilometer Antarctic trek to an inland breeding ground, helped make 2005’s “March of the Penguins” one of the highest-grossing documentaries of all time.

But researchers who visited a different colony say they witnessed the animals taking breaks from their breeding duties to go fishing in the winter darkness, challenging the popular notion that they are nature’s most dedicated dads.

The behavior was witnessed at Antarctica’s Cape Washington in late May 1998 — after breeding season had begun and the sun had permanently set for the winter — by a team led by Gerald L. Kooyman, a marine biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCLA, San Diego.

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Kooyman and his fellow researchers were surprised to see about 30 penguins swim past their ship as they arrived. They later found fresh tracks marking the ground between the breeding area and the water, suggesting the animals had been taking frequent dips. By the end of their visit to the cape, they had witnessed more than 100 emperor penguins either swimming or returning from the sea.

Before they left, the researchers tagged four birds with satellite tags and “water switches” that allowed them to track how far the animals traveled and how often they entered the sea. The data confirmed that the penguins continued to take moonlight…

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