The Arctic is a bird-lover’s paradise. Witness the spectacle of 10,000 Brunnich’s guillemots wheeling through the air in dark clouds or nesting on precipitous ledges on the sea cliffs of Alkefjellet, Svalbard.
Close your eyes and tune into the raucous calls of millions of puffins, northern gannets, guillemots and razorbills pealing off the towering sea cliffs in Látrabjarg, Iceland.
One of the common questions our expedition team receives when we visit Arctic seabird sites like these is ‘this is amazing...but where are all the penguins?’
For many of us, penguins and the polar regions seem to go hand in hand, so it's no surprise that some visitors to the Arctic are hoping to catch a glimpse of these charismatic creatures.
But alas, there are no penguins in the Arctic! Were there ever penguins in the Arctic? Why can’t we see them there today? Read on...
The penguin of the north?
Despite its name, pinguinis impennis was never a real penguin. It evolved in the Arctic and enjoyed a wide distribution across the North Atlantic coast, from northern Canada to Norway, Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands until 1844.
More commonly known as the Great Auk, this stately seabird stood at 75-85cm tall, so although it lumbered a little on land, its size protected it from all but the largest predators, like polar bears and killer whales.
In the 19th century growing pressures from humans, who had long hunted them for meat, oil and down, drove them to extinction. The final blow was cast by three men who scooped up the last two known Great Auks in Iceland for display in a collection.
Why isn’t the Great Auk a penguin?
A flightless bird with black and white plumage, pinguinis impennis is the closest thing that the Arctic ever had to a native penguin. It was agile and graceful underwater, able to dive up to 1km deep and hold its breath for as long as 15 minutes!
Like the penguin, it could shoot through the water and leap out onto rock shelves above. So perhaps it’s no surprise that the first sailors to see penguins in the south noticed the similarity and gave them the name ‘penguin’.
Despite its reputation as the penguin of the north, the Great Auk is actually more closely related to razorbills, puffins and guillemots than penguins, which evolved independently in the southern hemisphere.
Have there ever been ‘actual’ penguins in the Arctic?
Yes, there have!
In 1936 after a long journey aboard SS Neptune, nine king penguins arrived in Norway. Lars Christensen, an important figure in Antarctic whaling, had seen the potential for a bi-polar penguin population and sent them north from South Georgia. Carefully settled on the Lofoten islands, safe from foxes and other land predators, the penguins began a new life in the Arctic. Over the next decade, other species including macaroni penguins were also introduced.
The last of these penguins was spotted in 1949. No one is sure where they went or whether they managed to reproduce, but one thing is certain. Despite their best efforts to protect penguins from land predators, the settlers overlooked one important threat: humans.
One day an inquisitive penguin waddled through a grassy field into a farmyard. Trusting and unaccustomed to dangers on land, it wandered in, catching the matron by surprise. Terrified and convinced it was a ‘freak of nature’, the matron killed it.
A matter of evolution
Perhaps the most straightforward answer to the question of why penguins aren’t in the Arctic is this: they simply didn’t evolve there.
Exactly why is anyone’s guess. Just as you can’t find grizzly bears in Guatemala or kangaroos in Kazakhstan, penguins are uniquely adapted to their habitats in the south.
Penguins breed, nest, incubate and raise their chicks at ground level or in burrows so they thrive in the southern hemisphere where there are few land-based predators. Perhaps the abundance of foxes, mink, stoats, skuas, wolves and polar bears in the north would have made their evolution impossible. Not to mention all those humans!
Will I ever see polar bears and penguins together?
While some scientists and conservationists have considered settling polar bears in Antarctica, the cost, logistics and the threat this could pose for Antarctic ecosystems have kept the idea on the shelf.
For now, the only place you’ll see penguins and polar bears together is in a documentary or a children’s book! But that doesn't mean that you can't visit their far-flung abodes and gain a deeper understanding of how each of them is uniquely adapted to their own polar home.