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Scientists reveal the secret lives of emperor penguin chicks

The fluffy critters are a little less mysterious now.

A penguin chick goes for a dive.

Vincent Munier

Emperor penguins are giants among their peers, but they still start off small, fuzzy and adorable. What they do after leaving their parents has been a bit of a mystery until now.

Researchers tagged 15 fledgling penguins with satellite trackers to see what they get up to on their own and how they handle the challenging environment of Antarctica. 

WHOI biologist Stephanie Jenouvrier holds a 5-month-old emperor penguin before tagging it.

Stephanie Jenouvrier/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

While full-grown emperor penguins swim like torpedoes underwater, the kids aren't quite so graceful. 

"When they first go in the water, they are very awkward and unsure of themselves," says Sara Labrousse, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She is the lead author of a paper on the penguins published Thursday in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series.

The team discovered that the young penguins initially headed far north of their colony in Terre Adélie for warmer waters where they practiced their swimming skills. Once their diving improved, they headed back south to swim underneath sea ice in search of fish and krill.

The researchers were surprised to discover the young penguins spent most of the winter diving beneath the sea ice, says Labrousse. The deepest dive recorded by a tag was 866 feet (264 meters). 

Scientists are studying the impact of climate change on emperor penguins, which depend on having enough sea ice to support the colony during breeding season. 

The juveniles return to breed after about five years, but the researchers hope to learn more about what happens to them in the time they are away. Some of the trackers stopped working, but the researchers don't know if this was due to technical issues or if something happened to the birds. 

Labrousse says the next step for the research would be to use tags that can determine if a penguin dies at sea in order to study the birds' survival rate.

"This study provides insights into an important, but poorly understood, part of their life cycle, which is essential to being able to better predict the species' response to future climate change," says the study.

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