Found: Africa's Oldest Penguins
While only the black-footed, or jackass, penguin lives in Africa today, about 5 million years ago at least four penguin species lived in the continent.
Frozen Planet began airing on Discovery Channel on March 18. In this ultimate portrait of animals in the frozen zones of the Arctic and the Antarctic, we get to see, up close, the animals that live in this habitat like we have never seen them before. The stars of the show are the animals, like the Adelie penguins in Cape Crozier, Antarctica (seen here). The following is a look at some of our favorite images from the series, which you can see every Sunday at 8 e/p from March 18 until April 15.
FROZEN PLANET VIDEOS: On the Discovery Channel
Great Grey 'Ghost' Owl
One of the largest owls in the world with a wingspan of between four and five feet, it is often referred to as the Great Grey Ghost or Phantom of the North because it is so reclusive.
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Unlike dark-eyed nocturnal owls, the Great Grey Owl has distinctive piercing eyes, which may be an adaptation to hunting by day.
Emperor Penguin, Ross Sea, Antarctica
During the winter months in Antarctica, male emperor penguins keeps their eggs warm. They remain alone for the six months of winter without feeding, waiting for the return of the sun and their female partners, who have been gone, feeding.
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During the depths of winter, they have to endure temperatures of minus 60 degrees Centigrade.
Sea Lion and Gentoo Penguin
A sea lion chases a Gentoo penguin onto land - both are like fish out of water and the sea lion struggles to make a kill.
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The fully-grown Gentoo penguin has no natural predators living on land, though birds will occasionally steal eggs from their nests.
Grey Wolf, Ellesmere Island, Canada
Young pups born into the High Arctic packs have a precarious life ahead of them if they are to grow to a size big enough to survive the next winter.
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Snowy Owl, Artic
Each snowy owl chick eats two lemmings a day, so the parents are kept very busy. During nesting season, predators abound as the owls are stuck on the ground to tend the eggs. Both the male and female dive-bomb predators until the chicks are able to fly and they can all escape the ground.
A beluga whale enjoys a body scrub. It uses the gravel on the beach as a loofah to scrape off old skin as it molts.
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Polar Bears, Hudson Bay, Canada
Frozen Planet captured a surprisingly playful and sociable side of polar bears.
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In the 1970s there were an estimated 5,000 to 25,000 polar bears in the Arctic. Since conservation began 46 years ago, the current population is estimated to be 20,000 to 25,000.
Musk Ox, Canadian Arctic
Musk ox are Arctic residents and are uniquely adapted to withstand the ferocious Arctic winters with a double layer of fur.
Arctic Wolf Chasing Buffalo
An Arctic wolf chases after a herd of wood buffalo, Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada.
Polar Bear Cubs
A pair of two-day old polar bear cubs. At this age they weigh less than a kilo so by weight are less than 280 times smaller than their mother.
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Over the next 12 to 18 weeks, the bears will nurse. After three or four months, they will leave the den where they were born to learn survival and hunting skills from their mother.
Grey Wolf Watches Crew
The crew filming "Frozen Planet" at Karrak Lake, Barrenlands, Canadian Arctic, encountered some incredible things. As the midnight sun glows on the horizon, a lone Arctic wolf spots the crew and eyes them curiously. After spotting them on the horizon, this wolf traveled over 6 miles to see humans, a species it was unlikely to have encountered before. "Completely naive and unafraid, he sniffed around our feet as our hearts pounded. He then gave us this quizzical last look and headed back across the horizon," crewmembers said.
Least Weasel, Finland
The least weasel is the smallest carnivore in the world; the very smallest are found in the High Arctic (weighing an ounce, average body length of about 5 inches). They stay active throughout the winter despite extreme temperatures that can drop below minus 50 degrees Centigrade. These tiny mammals are voracious hunters, tracking down voles, mice and shrews that live in icy corridors below the snow. Their slim-line bodies allow them to hunt in tunnels the same width as their prey. The snow acts as an insulator, keeping the "subnivean" world at an almost constant minus one degree, so despite their tiny bodies, these little mammals, both predator and prey, can live comfortably even in the coldest months.
Dolgan Hunter With Reindeer
A member of the Dolgan tribe rounds up his reindeer. The Dolgan live in the most northerly mainland region of the Arctic, the Taimyr Peninsula in Siberia. Siberia is also the coldest region of the Arctic, where temperatures often reach minus 60 degrees Centigrade. The lasso was first invented in Central Asia and came north centuries ago with the Dolgan's ancestors. The best lassooes are made from walrus or bearded sealskin, which the Dolgan traditionally obtain in the summer, when they bring their herds to the coast and trade with the coastal hunters.
GET MORE VIDEOS AND BLOGS AT FROZEN PLANET ON DISCOVERY CHANNEL
Penguin fossils from 10 million to 12 million years ago have been unearthed in South Africa, the oldest fossil evidence of these cuddly, tuxedoed birds in Africa.
The new discovery, detailed in the March 26 issue of the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, could shed light on why the number of penguin species plummeted on Africa's coastline from four species 5 million years ago to just one today — Spheniscus demersus, or the jackass penguin, known for their donkeylike calls.
Daniel Thomas, a researcher at the National Museum of Natural History, and colleague Daniel Ksepka of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center were studying rock sediments near a steel plant in Cape Town, South Africa, when they uncovered an assortment of fossils, including 17 pieces that turned out to be backbones, breastbones, legs and wings from ancient penguins.
The bones suggested these ancient birds ranged from 1-to-3 feet tall (0.3 to 0.9 meters). For comparison, Africa's living jackass penguin, also called the black-footed penguin, stands at about 2-feet tall (0.6 meters) and weighs between 5.5 and 8.8 pounds (2.5 and 4 kilograms). (Happy Feet: A Gallery of Pudgy Penguins)
The discovery pushes back the penguin fossil record in Africa by at least 5 million years.
Because the next oldest fossils from Africa date to 5 million years ago, it's tricky to determine exactly why most penguin species disappeared from Africa.
"It's like seeing two frames of a movie," Ksepka said in a statement. "We have a frame at five million years ago, and a frame at 10-12 million years ago, but there's missing footage in between."
One possibility is that changing sea levels eliminated most of the penguins' nesting sites.
About 5 million years ago, sea levels were 296 feet (90 m) higher than today, and the low-lying South Africa became a patchwork of islands. Those islands provided beaches for several penguin species to create nests and rear their young while sheltering them from predators.
Once the oceans fell, most of those beaches would become mainland.
Africa's remaining jackass penguins are also on the decline. Their numbers have plummeted by 80 percent, in part because humans are overfishing their staple foods, sardines and anchovies. African penguins are being bred in captivity; for instance, a successful breeding season at the New England Aquarium in 2010 ended with the birth of 11 new African penguin chicks.
In addition, Bristol Conservation and Science Foundation, along with South African and international partners, is working to establish breeding colonies of the African penguin closer to fish resources, to ensure successful chick-rearing, according to the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
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