On Possession Island king penguins have established six breeding colonies, the largest one on 90 acres of boulder-strewn ground that French researchers have dubbed Jardin Japonais, or "Japanese garden." Far from a meditative space, as Unterthiner discovered, the colony seethes with the drama of birds defending plots little larger than a manhole cover. King penguins do not build nests. In their constricted space, the male and female take turns incubating a single egg balanced on their feet and covered by a loose fold of skin. They brood the newborn chick in the same way until it grows plumage thick enough to withstand the elements.
During this three-month period, the adults peck at all trespassers. The main offenders are petrels and skuas, avian predators partial to eggs and chicks. Researchers figure that a king penguin parent devotes four hours and 2,000 pecks a day to fighting off interlopers.
"For all the crowding, there was no sense of chaos," says Unterthiner, who stayed on the island from December to April. "The penguins looked very organized, almost like they were in military formation, each guarding its ground."
King penguins have established colonies across seven islands and island groups in the southern reaches of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. The islands are crucially located near the Antarctic Convergence, an oceanic boundary where cold polar water meets and mixes with warmer subantarctic seas, producing a rich feeding zone. Prodigious divers and swimmers, king penguins travel 250 miles or more to feed in the depths on squid and bioluminescent lanternfish.
Numbering an estimated 2.2 million pairs, the king penguin population is in good shape. Yet a recent study in the Crozet Islands, where half of all king penguins breed, reveals that warming seas are reducing food resources near the colonies and warns that climate change may pose a serious threat to the species' long-term survival. But for now, the clamor, the stink, and the pecking all bear witness to king penguins still in their full glory.