John Downer Productions

Watch: Remarkable footage of emperor penguins 'mourning' dead chick

I'm not crying, you're crying!

BEC CREW
17 DEC 2015
 

I was not expecting today to be the day that a couple of giant emperor penguins would make me cry, but here we are. This incredibly intimate footage was captured as part of the 2013 BBC documentary, Penguins: Spy in the Huddle, shot over the course of a year by 50 spycams shaped like stones, eggs, and other penguins. It's not clear how the chick died, but that tiny frigid corpse is enough to kick anyone right in the feels, and then you have deal with the reaction of its mother.

 

Hunched over the perfectly preserved chick, the mother pokes gently at it with her beak to check for signs of life. Instinctively, she nudges it towards her pouch because it's all she has to offer, but it's far too late.

In perhaps the most heartbreaking moment of the footage, a female companion trundles over and rests her head on the shoulder of the crumpled mother. It's not right to anthropomorphise and project emotions onto these animals that we don't know are even there, but it's pretty surreal how the scene could just as easily be two humans mourning a child.

The mother nudges the chick closer between her feet before throwing her head back and bleating into the air and her companion does the same. "The mother invested everything into her chick, to lose it is a tragedy," says narrator and British actor, David Tennant. "She will have to wait another year."

Emperor penguin females lay just one egg each during the Antarctic winter months, and once that's done, they will leave the inland colony and make the 50- to 200-km walk back to the ocean to feed and recuperate. The males remain to incubate their eggs. Before then, the couple must take great pains to ensure that when they transfer their egg from brood pouch to brood pouch, they don't drop it on the ice and kill the embryo - many Emperor penguins lose their chicks by messing up the handover.

For almost four months, the males will remain huddled together, their eggs kept warm by the flesh of the brooch pouch and propped up on their feet - they're the only species in the world known to care for their young like this. For up to 115 consecutive days, the males will stand, still as statues, eating nothing but a little snow as they wait for their mates to return from the sea. They'll often lose 40 percent of their body weight in the process.  

The females will return just after their chicks have hatched, and then they have to figure out where their family is in the throng by calling out to their mates. Then it's up to each couple to ensure that what happened to the poor little chick above doesn't happen to their offspring.

Now, if all this talk of dead penguin babies has got you down, don't worry. John Downer Productions, which is responsible for the footage above, has put together a compilation of spycam penguin bloopers to take away the sads:

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