Penguins and why we love them

From Nine To Noon, 11:34 am on 13 March 2019

A new book sets out to celebrate penguins in all their divorcing, stealing, and waddling glory.

Professor Lloyd Spencer Davis, known as Professor Penguin has been studying, writing about and filming penguins for four decades.

He has led 15 expeditions to Antarctica and has studied penguins in other places around the Southern Hemisphere.

His documentary ‘Meet the Real Penguins’ won 12 international awards and his book The Plight of the Penguin was the Children's Book of the Year in 2001.

Llloyd Spencer Davis has a new book out - called Waddle - A book of fun for penguin lovers and joined Nine to Noon to discuss the endearing animals.

Davis says the concept came from his publisher who suggested they put together a book that “really celebrates” penguins.

He says part of the reason we find penguins so attractive is because they’re a bit like us.

“They’re birds that are upright, they walk on their legs a bit like us, they look like they’ve got a better sense of dress, of course. But, it’s that process where they look like us, we tend to anthropomorphise them and put on them characteristics about ourselves that we would like to have.”

However, there are a lot of misconceptions about the way penguins live, he says.

“For example, the movie March of the Penguins which made emperor penguins paragons of love in Antarctica, one of the harshest places on Earth love will find a way. Well, to be honest, you couldn’t get a worse bird to be a paragon of love. They have the highest divorce rates of any of the penguins, 85 percent of them divorce from one year to the next, and yet that’s something of the myth of the penguin verses the reality.”

Davis says the film was even picked up by right wing Christians in the United States who said it was an example of monogamous relationships and family values in the wild.

“It couldn’t be further from the truth, but they grabbed on to it.”

There are penguin attributes we can recognise in ourselves, but there not always something to be proud of. Davis gives the example of Adelie penguins who use stones to protect their eggs from the wet ground.

“But the stones are in short supply relative to the number of birds wanting them. Most of them go out and find the stones through hard work, and some of them steal them. Perhaps on the most intriguing things I found with my research over years is that in a few cases they actually indulge in – it’s hard to put another word on without it sounding anthropomorphic – prostitution, where the females will go up to a male and exchange sex in order to get a rock.”

Another familiar pattern of behaviour is that because male penguins are frequently infertile, the females will often mate with more than one male – but they tend to do with while their partner is out fishing.

Davis says that as far as animals, and even birds go, they’re not particularly intelligent creatures, but rather they’re “supremely adapted” to their environment, especially the water.

“That’s the kind of irony penguins face is that they live in two worlds. They used to be flying birds, and by giving up flight it meant that they could get down deep in the water. If you’re going to be a flying bird you have to be light and have big and expansive wings to keep you up in the air, but to get down deep to get at those fish and the krill that live deep in the water column, you need to be heavy and thick and so that’s what they became.”

He says that penguins have around the same body temperature as humans so they’ve evolved to insulate themselves with their feathers.

“Despite the view of penguins as being soft and cuddly, they’re actually really stiff and have short little feathers that lock together like Velcro. This creates a layer of air next to the skin which sort of acts like double glazing or like a thermos flask and it keeps them warm.”

This means penguins can go anywhere on land and can breed in the middle of winter in the Antarctic if they need to, but it comes with a caveat – they don’t look very cool out of the water.

“In order to become streamlined for the water, they’ve got these stubby little legs that sit down at the bottom of their bum and, when they walk on land, they waddle because they simply don’t have the normal gait that other birds would have.”