A pale yellow feathered king penguin spotted among hundreds of thousands of animals crammed together on a beach in South Georgia has put the natural world in a frenzy.
Belgian photographer Yves Adams was on a two-month expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula when he caught the unusually colored penguin.
The conditions on the remote South Georgia beach were “wild,” said Adams. Exposed and in the middle of the South Atlantic, the waves of the water and the intensity of the wind made it difficult for his team to prepare for a landing. In front of them was a 1 km long strip of beach in which there was a “minefield of animals”.
“There are thousands of seals and hundreds of thousands of penguins, so we were lucky enough to find a spot on land.”
He told the Guardian about the moment he spotted the unusual sight among the flocks of black and white king penguins.
“This group of penguins swam past, from left to right. It was a beautiful sight, so I followed them out of the corner of my eye. “
Suddenly he noticed something yellow, dropped his bags and reached for his binoculars to see “a strange pale penguin among the chaos of the animals”.
At that time, Adams and his colleagues were not yet familiar with the penguin breed. And so, out of curiosity, they continued to follow his movements.
“Groups of penguins passed by. But the yellow penguin swam to the bank right in front of us. There was a little show – flicked water from its feathers, walked up the sand and entered a colony of king penguins. “
The scene lasted less than a minute and Adams says he “snapped” the whole time.
Adams and his team couldn’t get any closer to the unusual penguin that easily.
“The beach is full of animals. We cannot go through or disturb the animals or we will be eaten alive by seals. And you have to work fast and watch 360 degrees around you all the time.
“So we’re lucky that this bird chose to land where it did.”
His team initially traced the color mutation back to albino. Only later, in conversation with ecologists on the expedition ship, did they come to the conclusion that the situation could be more complex.
His team contacted Hein van Grouw, curator in the Department of Life Sciences at the UK Natural History Museum, who said the penguin might be an “Ino bird” or a “similar mutation”.
A king penguin is usually black and white, with small tones of yellow on the neck that give it its signature tuxedo look. This touch of yellow “goes much further below the black than you can see,” wrote van Grouw.
He admired it as “a beautiful creature indeed” and stated that its “melanin has decreased so much and has become lighter”. [so] You can see the yellow through them ”.
Andre Chiaradia, a researcher at Phillip Island Nature Parks in Victoria, said he was “surprised” by the pale king penguin.
Chiaradia explained that melanin, just like humans, can have in excess or deficiency of melanin and plays an important role in protection from the sun, it is also crucial for penguins.
It plays two important roles for the sea bird. The first is that it gives strength to their feathers.
“Penguins are flightless birds and spend 80% of their time in the water, so it is important that their feathers are waterproof and warm.”
Due to the way they move, penguin feathers experience “wear and tear” and so they lose stronger feathers once a year and then grow back in a process known as moulting. Chiaradia fears that this is a problem for the yellow-feathered penguin’s chances of survival.
“In the photos I looked at the feathers around his fins. There are high-frequency movements there and the wear and tear is very high. “
Due to its lack of melanin, the feathers of the yellow-feathered penguin are weaker and wear out faster, but lose and grow just as quickly as other king penguins with sufficient melanin.
“In the long run, this could be bad news for the sea bird. I doubt that his feathers will last until the next molt. “
The second role melanin performs for penguins has to do with the way they look for prey.
“Penguins sit on the surface of the water and search for fish with their heads. When they find fish to catch, they dive deep. Dark penguins camouflage themselves in the water so that the fish cannot see them. “
But the pale penguin will be easier to spot by its prey, and its hunting success rates will likely be “much smaller”.
Chiaradia said the cause of the melanin deficiency was likely a “malfunction in genetic coding.” Although it is a similar genetic malfunction to albinism, Chiaradia and other biologists around the world have suggested that the penguin’s condition could beLeucism – what Chiaradia explainsis a “partial and incomplete deficiency” of melanin.
However, the definition of leucism is debated among scholars.
According to van Grouw, leucism is “the lack of melanin-producing cells” and does not apply to this penguin as it is not without melanin.
Rather, the mutation he proposed is responsible for the plumage of this penguin, which influences its melanin synthesis – a mutation that van Gouw calls “Ino”.
The same mutation gives white tigers their pale fur. Like the penguin – pale, but with a yellow and cream color – these tigers have light stripes because their melanin “is not lacking”.
Van Grouw says the fact that the penguin photographed appears to be an adult is evidence of these animals’ ability to survive. “Contrary to popular belief, most abnormally colored birds survive well in the wild.”
A further genetic analysis of the penguin’s feather pigmentation would be necessary in order to assign its rare fur to a specific condition.
Nonetheless, the penguin sighting has attracted worldwide attention. Adams said it was “surreal” from the moment his photo went online.
He said his sighting was like “nature’s lottery win” and believes the yellow penguin will be his most popular photo.
“Unless I see a pink elephant. I could be lucky tomorrow, you never know. “
For Adams “every king penguin and every moment in which nature is photographed is beautiful and unique”, so that the great public response was “strange and surreal”.
“My phone hasn’t stopped ringing or receiving notifications from responding in the past few days.”
“Parents and teachers call me and ask to speak in schools – it’s crazy.
“A guy in New York contacted me. He created an abstract tattoo design of the yellow penguin. And people send me photos of that tattoo on them! “
Adams does not rule out joining them.
“I don’t think yellow will be a very nice color on my skin, but if I get to New York one day, yes, why not.”