TravelTraveler Magazine

Today’s Pic: Rare Black Penguin

UPDATE: Andrew Evans gives us his report from the field after the jump.
SECOND UPDATE: There’s been more black penguin sightings by our readers.
THIRD UPDATE: Watch a video of the penguin.

When Andrew Evans sent us this photo of a rare melanistic penguin that he spotted during his travels, I became intrigued. So I decided to call up Dr. Allan Baker, an ornithologist and professor of Environmental and Evolutionary Studies at the University of Toronto and head of the Department of Natural History at the Royal Ontario Museum, to learn more about melanism in birds. I got him on the line before he had the chance to look at the photos, and suffice it to say he was slightly flabbergasted at what he saw: “Wow. That looks so bizarre I can’t even believe it. Wow,” was his first response. Then he made me swear on a stack of National Geographic magazines that the image was real.

“Well that is astonishing,” he said. “I’ve never ever seen that before. It’s a one in a zillion kind of mutation somewhere. The animal has lost control of its pigmentation patterns. Presumably it’s some kind of mutation.” He explained that typically, melanistic birds of all species will have white spots where melanin pigmentation has failed to color the feathers. But it’s extremely rare for melanin deposits to occur where they’re not normally located, as genes control those pathways (in this case, in the breast feathers of the king penguin). After looking through several texts, he ruled out the potential for it to be a hybrid and said that it’s closer in coloring to the Little Blue penguin. “But look at the size of those legs,” he added, “It’s an absolute monster.”

Many thanks to Dr. Baker for taking the time to look at the photos.

Andrew Evans reports from the boat…

He looked like a single black king moving across a chessboard of so many white pawns. Our first glimpse was puzzling until we drew closer and realized that this was not some other bird but indeed another penguin of a different color.

Our group from Lindblad Expeditions spotted this very unique bird at Fortuna Bay on the subantarctic island of South Georgia. Out of several thousand pairs of king penguins, this was the only individual that was entirely black although earlier in the morning I had spotted another that showed muted coloration. Recent science papers (PDF) show that the trait has been documented only a handful of times in South Georgia. Some fellow travelers recall seeing a melanistic penguin at St. Andrew’s Bay, also on South Georgia.

Melanism is merely the dark pigmentation of skin, fur–or in this case, feathers. The unique trait derives from increased melanin in the body. Genes may play a role, but so might other factors. While melanism is common in many different animal species (e.g. Washington, D.C. is famous for its melanistic squirrels), the trait is extremely rare in penguins. All-black penguins are so rare there is practically no research on the subject–biologists guess that perhaps one in every quarter million of penguins shows evidence of at least partial melanism, whereas the penguin we saw appears to be almost entirely (if not entirely) melanistic.

So far, king penguins represent the most documented cases of melanism, though there is evidence of partial melanism appearing in other penguin species, namely Adélie, chinstrap, gentoo, macaroni and royal penguins.

Observing this black penguin waddle across South Georgia’s black sand beach revealed no different behavior than that of his fellow penguins. In fact, he seemed to mix well. Regarding feeding and mating behavior there is no real way to tell, but I do know that we were all fascinated by his presence and wished him the best for the coming winter season.

Andrew Evans traveled 10,000 miles–by bus–from Washington D.C. to Antarctica for National Geographic Traveler and has tweeted about his travels at @Bus2Antarctica. Want more? Follow the map of his journey, bookmark all of his blog posts, watch videos, and get the full story on the project here.

Photo: Andrew Evans