The Northwest Territories – Yukon, Nunavut, and the northern regions of many provinces makeup over 40% of Canada’s landmass, classified as Arctic and Northern. About 150,000 people live in Canada’s Arctic, with more than half Indigenous. But are penguins part of this ecosystem? As an avid traveler and a curious soul, I’ve often found myself pondering over such questions. Let’s dive into this icy mystery together.
Canada vs. Antarctica
During my travels, I’ve been fortunate enough to set foot on both the Arctic and Antarctic terrains. They are both cold, they’re both icy, and they’re both surrounding the pole. But Earth’s Arctic and the Antarctic are very different types of places. Most of the Arctic is sea ice, connected to surrounding landmasses, compared to the Antarctic, which is primarily just sea ice.
- Arctic: The Arctic is an ocean surrounded by continents. It’s home to the North Pole and is warmer than the Antarctic. The sea ice here is thinner and often seasonal.
- Antarctic: The Antarctic is a continent surrounded by an ocean. It’s colder, windier, and drier than the Arctic. The sea ice here is thicker and more expansive.
Canadian Resettlement Project For Penguins
During one of my trips to Cornwallis coast, I stumbled upon a fascinating initiative. Operation Flightless Dawn is a controversial government-funded project aimed at reducing the impacts of climate change on animals in the Arctic.
In what seemed like a coco-cola ad brought to life, a dozen pairs of endangered northern rockhopper penguins were among the birds brought to Cornwallis coast from the St Andrews Bay Colony in South Georgia.
- The Relocation: “Most king penguin colonies are very stable. The one at South Georgia’s St. Andrews Bay has hundreds of thousands of breeding pairs and will barely notice a few relocated birds,” says Robin Hawking, an ecological engineer, and lead penguin re-conditioner. “And we’re very hopeful for their long-term breeding prospects in the Arctic.”
- The Habitat: The project’s penguins are raised in a corral on the Cornwallis shore, with netting enabling them access to both land and the vast ocean. Since June 2016, subantarctic birds have lived under the watchful eye of scientists, and by all accounts, Rookeris’s northward move was a hit.
Penguins Of Canada
The original penguin, the now-extinct North Atlantic great auk, was the first bird called a penguin. The Great Auk’s scientific name is Pinguinus impennis. It had a black back and a white belly, like the beautiful penguins. So, when explorers encountered similar birds in the southern hemisphere, they merely called them penguins since they looked so similar.
- The Great Auk: The great auk was discovered in Canadian seas off the country’s east coast and was very popular in the Northern Hemisphere, including Iceland, Scotland, Greenland, and Terranova.
- Extinction: The Great Auk nested in huge colonies and had huge eggs, making them desirable for egg harvesters. Beginning in the 1500s, they were targeted for their eggs, feathers, and meat since they were flightless and vulnerable.
Why Aren’t There Penguins in Canada?
During my travels, I’ve often been asked, especially by fellow travelers and curious kids, “Why don’t we see penguins in Canada?” It’s a question that has intrigued many, and as someone who loves to delve deep into such mysteries, I’ve gathered some insights.
The Arctic Environment
Canada’s northernmost region is in the Arctic, including Northern Canada (Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut), which is extremely cold, with some areas remaining frozen throughout the year. The Arctic is home to many birds, including puffins and terns. Unlike polar bears, penguins do not naturally live in Arctic regions such as northern Canada.
- Natural Habitat: Some may believe that this is a natural home for penguins, yet there are no penguins in this area. On the other hand, Penguins are more common in the southern hemisphere than in the northern and polar hemispheres.
- Predation: Penguins are flightless birds. No flightless birds live in the Arctic today as they couldn’t escape natural terrestrial predators if they couldn’t fly. For instance, puffins effectively exist in the northern hemisphere because they can fly and hence face few (if any) terrestrial predators such as polar bears and foxes. But unlike penguins, puffins can fly and escape attacks and lay their nests up on cliffs.
Penguins and Their Unique Needs
Penguins have evolved in a way that makes them perfectly suited for their natural habitats but also makes them vulnerable in others.
- Egg Protection: Penguins’ have evolved to breed, nest, incubate, and raise their chicks at ground level or in caves. These eggs are fragile, and while they might be safe from aerial predators in the south, in the Arctic, they would be easy prey for terrestrial predators.
- Dietary Needs: Penguins primarily feed on krill, squids, and fishes, which are abundant in Antarctica but not as widely available in the Arctic. This difference in food availability plays a significant role in where penguins can and cannot live.
Adapting to Cold… But Not Too Cold
While penguins are synonymous with cold climates, there’s a limit to how cold they can handle.
- Zoo Incidents: Did you know that even penguins aren’t fully content with Canada’s current frosty weather? Calgary Zoo in Alberta had to bring its penguins inside to survive. In 2018, Calgary witnessed a temperature of 28 degrees below zero Celsius, making it risky for the Penguins to survive outside.
- Natural Insulation: Penguins, especially species like the emperor penguin, have a thick coat of feathers and fat deposits that insulate them from the cold. However, these adaptations are suited for the Antarctic cold, which is different from the Arctic chill.
Penguins in Captivity
While Canada might not be home to wild penguins, it doesn’t mean you can’t see these adorable birds in the country.
Zoos and Aquariums
Although there are no native penguins in Canada, you can still see them in captivity, where their environment is carefully controlled to mimic their natural habitat.
- Calgary Zoo: This zoo is home to four penguin species: Gentoo, Humboldt, King, and Rockhopper Penguins.
- Vancouver and Toronto: Both the Vancouver Aquarium and the Toronto Zoo house the African penguin, a species native to Africa’s southern shores.
The Great Migration Misconception
One of the most common misconceptions I’ve encountered during my travels is the idea of penguins migrating from the Antarctic to the Arctic. Let’s debunk this myth.
Migration Patterns of Penguins
Penguins are known to travel long distances, especially when searching for food. However, their migration is not between the poles.
- Seasonal Movement: Many penguin species migrate between their breeding and feeding grounds, but these migrations are typically along the coasts of the southern continents or between islands and mainland areas.
- No Pole-to-Pole Migration: No penguin species migrate from the Antarctic to the Arctic or vice versa. Such a journey would be incredibly long, fraught with dangers, and outside the environmental conditions penguins are adapted to.
The Beauty of Diversity
Canada’s Arctic and the Antarctic are both unique and diverse ecosystems, each with its own set of flora and fauna.
Arctic’s Unique Inhabitants
While the Arctic might not have penguins, it’s home to a plethora of unique species.
- Polar Bears: Often dubbed the “Kings of the Arctic,” these majestic creatures are perfectly adapted to life in the Arctic regions.
- Arctic Foxes: These small, nimble creatures change their fur color with the seasons, providing them with perfect camouflage.
- Snowy Owls and Puffins: The Arctic skies are graced by the presence of these beautiful birds, each adapted to the cold climate in its own way.
- Distinct Ecosystems: While it’s fun to imagine penguins waddling around in Canada, it’s essential to appreciate the unique ecosystems of both the Arctic and the Antarctic. Each region has evolved over millennia, giving rise to its distinct set of flora and fauna.
- Conservation Efforts: As someone who’s traveled extensively and seen the beauty of our planet firsthand, I cannot stress enough the importance of conservation. Whether it’s the penguins of the Antarctic or the polar bears of the Arctic, every creature plays a vital role in its ecosystem.
1. Do any other flightless birds live in Canada besides the extinct Great Auk?
No, Canada does not have native flightless birds. The Great Auk was the only known flightless bird that lived in Canada and is now extinct.
2. Are there any efforts to reintroduce penguins or other flightless birds to Canada?
While there have been projects like Operation Flightless Dawn, there are no widespread efforts to reintroduce penguins or other flightless birds to Canada.
3. How do Canadian zoos ensure the well-being of penguins in captivity?
Canadian zoos provide controlled environments for penguins, ensuring they have the right temperature, diet, and care. They also engage in conservation and breeding programs.
4. Why are penguins primarily found in the Southern Hemisphere?
Penguins evolved in the Southern Hemisphere and have adapted to its specific conditions, including its marine food sources and lack of land predators.
5. Are there any penguin species that could potentially adapt to Canada’s climate?
While some penguin species, like the King Penguin, can tolerate colder temperatures, the primary challenge would be the difference in food sources and potential land predators.
6. How can individuals help in the conservation of penguins and Arctic wildlife?
Supporting conservation organizations, adopting sustainable practices, and raising awareness about climate change are some ways individuals can help.
7. Are there any documentaries or films that showcase the life of penguins in the wild?
Yes, documentaries like “March of the Penguins” and “Penguins: Waddle All the Way” provide an in-depth look into the lives of penguins in their natural habitats.
The enigma of penguins and their absence in Canada opens a window into the intricate tapestry of our planet’s ecosystems. As we journey through these revelations, it’s evident that every species, every habitat, and every choice we make plays a pivotal role in the grand narrative of Earth. Let’s cherish, protect, and celebrate the wonders of our world, one discovery at a time.