Animal, Bird and Sea Life of the Antarctic

Home to an estimated 360 million sea birds, the Antarctic is where more than half the world’s seals live. Whales, dolphin, penguin, fish, sealife, are all a part of the diversity, including a seabed twice as rich and diverse as the Arctic.

On the continent itself, the joke of Antarctica is that the only animals that live year round are less than ¼ of an inch long.   The largest permanent land animal is the wingless midge at 12 millimeters in length.   Even the midge prefers living on the slightly warmer Antarctic Peninsula, surviving the harsh climate by altering the water content of its blood so that it does not freeze.

There are 100 land invertebrate, 67 species of insects such as aquatic rotifers, eight legged tardigrades, nematode worms, tiny arthropod crabs, and biting and sucking lice.  Some Antarctic insects solve the cold problem by losing water and drying out when the temperature drops.   Others avoid freezing by producing chemicals in their blood.   Some do freeze with ice crystals forming between the cells.

Mites, and black and shiny springtails half the size of a grain of rice, are common around bird and penguin colonies.   They jump around attaching themselves to the warm blooded hosts as parasites.   Midge and springtail collemola also live under rocks and stones and among lichens.   These landed gentry are extremely small; many are microscopic.

Flightless Pelagic Seabirds

In their scientific, taxonomic cataloging, penguins are flightless pelagic seabirds not land animals.   A variety of penguins live on the shelves and coasts of the Antarctic region in the summer, but except for the Emperor and Adélie, those who remain in winter stay on the peninsula ice.

In the coldest, most dreadful conditions the Emperor male stays on the winter sea ice.   The Emperor female lays one egg in June then leaves for sea to feed during winter.   Holding the egg on its feet under the skin of the abdomen the male remains throughout the long winter months without feeding.

To survive the cold they huddle together, taking turns moving from the freezing outer edge of the colony to the warmer inner packed center.   The females return near hatching time and take over the feeding and protection of the chicks.   Then its time for the males to take off to sea, to regain the loss of their body weight from the weeks of being without food.   There are an estimated 200,000 breeding pair of Emperor.

The king penguin, found along the barren coasts of the sub-Antarctic islands, are the most colorful of all the penguin species.   With an average height of three feet, weighing 26 lbs, they have blue, silverish-black shoulders, a white belly and a bright orange outline at their ears.   A small orange band follows the neck to under the chin where it forms into an orange-golden bib.   The king’s population is estimated between 1 to 1.5 million pairs.

The macaroni is the most abundant species of penguins.   Distinguished by orange tassels that meet between the eyes, the macaroni has an estimated breeding population of between nine and eleven million pairs.   Macaronis don’t breed until they are 6 of 7 years old and today their breeding habits, as other penguins, are being disturbed by both pollution and change of climate.

The chinstrap is the second most populace at an estimated 7 and a half million pairs.   With a distinctive black line connecting the black cap to below the chin they have vast colonies along the coasts of the South Orkneys, South Shetlands and South Sandwich Islands.  

Birds of the Antarctic

“A gannett — a sea bird that spends most of its life off shore.”
Photo by Commander John Bortniak,   NOAA

Shearwaters, gulls, terns, and skuas are some of the birds seen in the air.   Skuas are similar to eagles in their grace and intelligence, and they can be fierce predatory birds feeding on penguins around the penguin colonies.   In areas where there are no penguins, they forage on fish and small krill crustaceans to keep alive.

South polar skuas are one of the few bird species that breed on the Antarctic continent.   Long-lived, 70 years or more, they are known as the world’s most southerly bird.   It is rare, but at times they have been sighted as far inland as the South Pole.

King cormorants have a blue eye-ring around their eyes and are often referred to as the blue-eyed shag.   Black and white, and looking like skinny penguins, their diet is mainly benthic fish, caught by long and deep dives underneath the sea surface.

Pipits are small songbirds that live on the lowland island grasses.   They like feeding on insects but when these are not available they will eat water crustaceans.

Some Arctic terns fly all the way from the high Arctic to spend summer in the Antarctic.   Most Antarctic terns stay closer to home, migrating to South African waters for the winter months.

The larger wattled sheathbill and the lesser sheathbill are land birds that scavenge on the coastal penguin colonies and the seal wallows.

Many birds act as scavengers cleaning up the environment.   Giant petrels are the most elegant.   In flight they are extremely graceful.   Their movements in the air look effortless.

Petrels include fulmers and shearwaters and prions.   The beautiful gray-blue and white dove prion can be seen in large numbers flying over the Antarctic waters.

Varying in size, petrels include the wandering albatross, which has a wingspan of 3 meters, and the small, delicate, wilson’s storm petrel.   Wilson’s storm petrel have a population of millions, traveling as far as Europe, yet are rarely seen because of their tendency to stay far out on the open ocean.

The albatross family includes the wandering albatross, the black-browed, the grey-headed and lightly-maned sooty albatross.   There used to be a legend among sailors that the souls of drowned seamen lived on in the albatrosses.

Albatrosses are the largest flying sea birds in the world.   They are spectacular gliders, able to stay aloft in windy weather for hours with only a slight flapping of their long, narrow wings.

Mating for life the birds are known to live up to 90 years.   Like other oceanic birds, albatrosses drink seawater.   They spend their time in the deep oceans riding the currents of high warmer air.   Only after years at sea will they return to the sub-Antarctic islands to breed.

Many varieties of albatross and petrel can be found flying above Antarctic waters, but both are threatened today.   There are 24 more threatened species in 2000 than in 1996.    Over the past two decades, southern giant petrel populations have fallen by a third.

Southern giant-petrel like to return to the same nesting sites every breeding season.   Some pairs have been observed returning to the same nest year after year.   It is estimated that 100,000 Antarctic seabirds are dying yearly in encounters with long-line fishing fleets that have expanded their operations into the Southern ocean.

The high seas fishing boats unreel net bait containing several thousand hooks.   As the birds dive for fish, they catch the bait at the surface and are dragged under and entangled.   The slow-to-breed southern giant petrel populations are now crashing as a species, along with albatross.

Much of the long-line fishery threatening the birds, involves the unregulated and often illegal taking of patagonian toothfish.

Patagonian toothfish is a deepwater Antarctic species being pushed towards extinction by over fishing.   Toothfish are labeled, shipped and sold in the United States as Chilean sea bass.

Life in the Coastal Seas

“Humpback whale feeding — straining water out to trap krill in baleen.”
Photo by Commander Richard Behn,   NOAA

Fin, humpback, orca and other toothed whales, minke, sei, sperm, southern Right and the mighty ‘Blue’ — the largest creature on Earth — all cruise in the Antarctic seas.   Acting like dolphins they leap out the ocean, slapping their tail on the water.

Conservationists believe the survival of the few remaining blue whales in the Antarctic are now being imperiled by a loss of krill, the tiny crustaceans on which the whales depend.   Larger than the giant dinosaurs, the mighty Blue’s extraordinary loud whistle can be heard for hundreds of miles underwater.

Loss of krill could be especially serious for the blue whales because there are so few of them.   Before the onset of commercial whaling they are thought to have numbered about 250,000 in the southern oceans, with perhaps another 50,000 elsewhere.   Today there are probably fewer than 1,000.

Whales are protected in the Antarctic although there is still illegal, and some ‘scientific’ catching taking place, especially by Japanese fishing boats.   The whale meat being sold to pay for the research.

270 different kinds of fish species live in Antarctic waters, many live on krill.   In many Antarctic fish, cartilage has replaced skeletal bone, reducing the body density.   These lighter species are found living throughout the ocean, from bottom dwelling fish to surface fish.

Bottom-dwelling fishes include hagfish, barracuda, lantern fish, skate, eelpout, and the strange looking rat-tail fish that has a long tail like a rat.

The most common fish is the Antarctic cod, swimming in the shallower coastal waters of the continent and islands.   Bald rockcod and marbled rockcod are commonly seen fish and can be easily caught though holes in the sea ice.

An Antarctic Emperor penguin looks at its chick in an undated publicity photo released July 28, 2005 in this scene from Warner Independent Films documentary 'March of the Penguins'.

Picture: Warner Independent Films/Handout

An Antarctic Emperor penguin looks at its chick in an undated publicity photo released July 28, 2005 in this scene from Warner Independent Films documentary 'March of the Penguins'.

Another type of fish is the snail fish, shaped like a ball of jelly.   Orange-flecked, pink and gray, one-third of a snail fish’s body weight is a gelatinous substance.   

The so-called Antarctic fish, or ice fish, has a blood that is a milky white color.   Whalers would refer to the two and a half pound, two foot long mackerel icefish as the ‘white crocodile fish’ due to its large mouth and its many long teeth.   Fin fish, tuna, squid are all found in the Southern Ocean.

There are also mollusks, polychaete worms, isopods, pycnogonids, tunicates, and more than 300 different kinds of sponges.   Many of the smaller species of invertebrates found in other oceans grow to gigantic proportions in the Antarctic cold water.   They look like giants.

Sea spiders, or pycnogonids are among the most bizarre-looking arthropods.   A giant Antarctic sea spider is the size of a human’s palm.   Its abdomen has almost disappeared, the legs are long and clawed.   The head has a long proboscis with a strange mouth and several eyes on a central tubercle.   The head also bears a pair of claws and a pair of ovigers on which eggs are carried.

Squid range in size from the small to enormous.   The octopus are thought to be common but to date they have not been well catalogued.   There are also various crab species.

Krill, the small shrimp like crustaceans, are the most abundant life species.   Feeding off a type of algae — microscopic phytoplankton — they in turn provide food for many of the other ocean life forms.   Copepods, salps and various persuasions of jellied zooplankton are a part of the ocean order.   Antarctic sea urchins have recently been studied because of the super energy efficiency in their metabolism.   These small creatures have been identified as the most energy-efficient animal on the planet.

Three species of dolphins, the dusky, hourglass, and peale are the most common dolphin in Antarctic waters.   The small, strikingly patterned commerson’s dolphins also make an appearance.   The hourglass is the southern most frequenting dolphin, cruising as far as 65 degrees south.   The spectacled porpoise are seen around Heard Island, Kerguelen Island, Macquarie Island and South Georgia.

Seals were the first Antarctic species to be commercially harvested — the trade in seal skins beginning as early as the 1820’s.   Wanted for their skins, and also for oil, various species came close to extinction.

Seals like an amphibious life and they will often lie around for weeks at a time in muddy depressions called wallows.   Under water they can manage to remain for half an hour or more diving to obtain food.

Six species live around Antarctica.   The infamous leopard seals — some as long as nine feet — like to catch Adélie and other penguins at sea.   They will often play with them as a cat plays with a mouse.   Leopard seals will catch penguin by their feet and then beat them back and forth on the surface of the water to skin them.

Weddell seals weighing up to 600 kilograms dive deeper than any other creature on earth, down as far as 600 meters.   They are able to hold their breath for up to an hour while diving.   Their fat protects them from the cold.

Ross seals live deep within the consolidated pack ice and are rarely seen.   Other seals are the southern elephant seals, not considered to be predators of penguins, fur seals — the only ‘eared’ seals resident in Antarctica — and crabeater seals.   It is estimated 15 to 30 million crabeater seals live around the Antarctic.   Their main diet is krill,

Where many of the Antarctic birds and mammals go in winter still remains a mystery.   Much is not yet known of the natural environmental forces of Antarctic life.   While some species seem to thriving with the changes in climate, others are diminishing quite rapidly in populations.

Many islands in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic now have rodents, cats, rabbits, sheep, cattle and reindeer — all of them brought on ships.   These small islands are the only breeding and resting grounds for the seabirds and native animals.   Preservation of these islands in their natural state is vital if native species are to survive.

There have been several cases of successful eradication of alien mammals from islands, and such efforts are continuing.     However introductions of alien species and viruses is a constant threat.   In recent years both the Adélie and Emperor penguin populations have been affected by the introduction of the infectious Bursal Disease Virus.
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Photograph top of page: Adélie penguins — Commander John Bortniak, NOAA