We think of penguins as dapper little dudes in white tie suits, right? Indeed, it could be said that these flightless birds from the Southern Hemisphere are universally loved around the world for their comical waddle and underwater grace.
Admittedly, most of us have only ever met a penguin at an aquarium or zoo. That’s why nature documentaries are so important to our understanding of these creatures.
Still, most documentaries leave us with the perception that these animals live a life of adorable confusion. The birds are often seen waddling on their tiny feet or sliding on their rotund bellies between their nesting sites and the ocean or sea.
It’s only when they hit the water that they show off the real reason as to why they look like stuffed bowling-ball pins. Penguins in the water are amazingly quick and acrobatic swimmers. And these subaquatic skills are very impressive.
After catching some fish, the penguins hop back on land and march in half-steps to their nests to feed their adorable little chicks. Most penguin species mate for life, too, so we watch with romantic idealism as a faithful partner returns to a longtime sweetheart and assumes parental egg duties.
But if you’re a penguin living in Antarctica, life can be brutal indeed. First there are the killer whales and sea lions waiting in the water to eat you. Then there is the ice-covered desert you call home.
Imagine trying to survive in a place where the average winter temperature is -30 °F (-34.4 °C) and lasts for six months. Unlike us, penguins can’t retreat to a shelter, either; they have to huddle among themselves and constantly change who is on the outside just to survive.
It’s not an easy life even when the weather is good, either. Climate change is gradually reducing the habitable area for penguins as well as other Antarctic fauna. This means that they have less space in which to live and nest and are more exposed to predators.
Furthermore, loss of sea ice and the accompanying algae that grows under the ice are also steadily reducing one of the penguins’ major food sources: krill. The shrimp-like animals feed on the algae, and so with less ice and less algae come less krill. As a result, not only are penguins facing a hungry future, but they’re also at greater risk of getting diseases and are less able to raise their chicks.
Does this explain why penguins can sometimes act so strangely? It’s a mystery that Antarctic biologists have yet to solve, but some penguins are actually committing suicide.
And we’re not talking about taking one for the team by diving first into what might be sea lion-infested waters. No, these are penguins that make a decision that will kill them with no obvious altruistic outcome. And the way they do it is extremely upsetting for anyone who loves them.
There’s a clip from the Werner Herzog documentary Encounters at the End of the World in which the legendary director focuses on an apparently indecisive Adélie penguin. The bird can’t seem to decide whether to go back to the nest or go fishing with the others.
Disturbingly, the penguin then turns inland. And Dr. David Ainley, a specialist in this species of penguin, finds the behavior more than odd. However, it is likely not insanity. “I’ve never seen a penguin bashing its head against a rock,” he says. But occasionally the birds do seem to get confused. “They end up in places they shouldn’t be, far away from the ocean.”
So, the penguin is seen walking toward the mountains. And, as Herzog puts it, there’s nothing there for him. “He’s heading towards certain death.” It’s a sad sight indeed.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing that can be done for the poor animal in the film, as the camera crew and scientists have sworn not to disturb them. And anyway, Herzog says, even if you picked one up and put it back in the nest, it would just start again on its fatal journey.
We have no idea why these poor penguins feel that they have to end their own lives – or even if that’s what they intend to do. Yet while Ainley doesn’t elaborate, Herzog’s documentary presents this behavior as a kind of depression.
Altruistic suicide is not unheard of in nature. Pea aphids are known to explode to protect their progeny from predacious ladybugs. And often animals that die of seemingly self-inflected wounds in zoos or aquariums are labeled suicides from depression. Still, little research in this area has qualified what is really involved when it comes to apparent animal suicides.
For the penguins, it could be a mix of stressors on the population that lead some penguins to opt out of the colony. They could be leaving so as not to be another burden; or, the opposite, perhaps they have a sense that something better really is just over the horizon. Maybe the poor penguins are even parasitized. After all, some parasites are known to cause their host to behave erratically in ways that can lead to death. But if the scientists just let the little critter wander to his doom without stopping him and conducting an autopsy, they have no evidence one way or the other regarding what, biologically, might be the reason.
Whatever the cause, though, the birds continue to get anthropomorphized with every little trick or habit they have to survive. For example, when two male penguins at the New York Zoo displayed affection toward each other, they were embraced as a homosexual couple. And when female Adélie penguins were caught having affairs with other males besides their long-term mates and stole some rocks for their nests as part of the courtship, the media labeled them prostitutes.
Of course, penguins, like all animals, including humans, have similar survival instincts, but how they respond to environmental and physiological stress may vary depending on the individual. And just as we can’t explain every human action through the lens of society, neither can we explain every penguin through the lens of the colony. Moreover, while scientists try to figure out why some of these birds are marching to their own doom, perhaps we should reflect on how we might be contributing to their drive to do so.