Antarctica (8 Sep 2001) -- In 1997, after more than 30 years of studying penguins in Antarctica, a scientist at UCSD's Scripps Institution of Oceanography reported what is believed to be the first sighting of an all-white emperor penguin.
Gerald Kooyman, a Scripps research professor, said he came across the penguin while conducting a census of a colony of penguins located on snow-covered sea ice in the western Ross Sea. Kooyman said he almost missed the chick completely as its white feathers caused it to blend so well with the icy background.
"There are thousands of penguins in the colony and they are quite spread out," he said. "But we were counting every chick and that's how we spotted it."
Kooyman said the chick was about five months old and stood just under 2 feet tall. Whereas emperor chicks are usually covered in a grayish down coat, their wing and tail feathers are dark, as are their bills and feet. They also usually exhibit dark rings around their eyes. The chick Kooyman discovered, however, was completely white.
"It really was a spectacular bird," he said.
The penguin is not believed to be an albino, however, as it did not exhibit the characteristic pink eyes associated with albinism.
Kooyman said he believed the penguin fledged and, thus, is not expected to return to the colony until 2002. A recent study by Kooyman found that fledgling penguins travel thousands of miles before returning to their colony.
"The survival rate of the birds from the time they leave the colony until they return is quite low," he said. "So the chances of seeing the penguin again is really pretty low."
Emperors are the largest of the penguins, standing nearly 3 feet tall and weighing about 65 pounds.
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