Penguin Post Office - Cycle of Life at the Penguin Post Office

During World War II, Britain established a remote post office at Port Lockroy on the Antarctic Peninsula. Today, the post office is a popular tourist attraction, playing host to a seasonal staff of up to ten people, a museum and a colony of roughly 3,000 gentoo penguins. Here is how a typical year unfolds at the ‘Penguin Post Office.’ The cycle of life at the ‘Penguin Post Office’. Unlike migratory penguin species, gentoos typically stay close to their breeding grounds. In the cold winter months they spend their time trying to stay warm and foraging for fish, squid and crustaceans in shallow coastal waters. UK Antarctic Heritage staff arrive in November to open the post office and museum. They must clear their living accommodations and Bransfield House (the historic building that houses the post office) of ice and snow that has accumulated during the cold winter months. Gentoo females lay two white, spherical eggs into a nest made of stones. The eggs are incubated by the male and female for 31 to 39 days. To keep the eggs at a toasty 95°F (35°C) they nestle them in a featherless brood patch between their legs. Gentoos take up residence at Port Lockroy in early spring. Once a mate is chosen, they get to work building nests made from small stones. Gentoos often form long-lasting pair bonds, choosing the same mate year after year. Chicks begin losing their soft down, which is replaced by dense waterproof feathers better-suited for swimming. The process in uneven and leaves the chicks sporting feather mohawks. As the temperature begins to drop and the tourist season winds down, the Port Lockroy team departs, leaving the post office buildings and gentoos to face the chilly Antarctic winter. Average monthly temperatures can fall to -22°F (-30°C) . Parents begin to abandon their chicks while foraging. The chicks band together for protection, forming large groups called crèches. Chicks begin to hatch at the height the summer. They are covered in fuzzy-looking down feathers that protect against the cold. The male and female take turns protecting the chicks and foraging for food. At the height of the tourist season, two tourist ships per day visit the post office and museum. Around 70,000 postcards are mailed each year from Port Lockroy to over 100 countries. When they aren’t busy welcoming visitors, the UKAHT staff carry out maintenance work and monitor the penguins as part of long-running breeding study.

Sources:

Borboroglu and Boersma. Penguins: Natural History and Conservation. University of Washington Press, 2013.

Lescroel et al. Breeding ecology of the gentoo penguin Pygoscelis papua at Kerguelen Archipelago. Polar Biol (2009) 32:1495–1505
DOI 10.1007/s00300-009-0647-9. Accessed at: http://www.cebc.cnrs.fr/publipdf/2009/LPB32_2009.pdf

Email correspondence with the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust.

Credits:

Designer – Karen Brazell
Producer – Eric R. Olson

Special thanks to Lisa Avis of the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust AHT logo new