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The unbreaking hearts of rockhopper penguins

September 9, 2015

Here's one for you: What's black and white and true-blue all over? Need a hint? It has red eyes and pink feet, and, according to a study just published, is remarkably faithful to its mate...

Image: Imago/blickwinkel

The answer is the southern rockhopper penguin!

A group of southern rockhopper moms and dads were hundreds - in one case thousands - of kilometers away from each other when not making babies, says a new study out Wednesday.

Yet when the birds returned home to New Island off the coast of Argentina they managed to find each other and mate, according to findings published in the prestigious Biology Letters journal.

"In these extremely faithful animals - the pair bonds for breeding may last all life long in this species - the partners may actually be separated by hundreds to thousands of kilometers at sea," researcher Jean-Baptiste Thiebot said.

In it for the long haul

The scientists decided to follow the penguins by clipping lightweight sensors to 20 birds - 10 couples - which tracked their movements during their roughly six-month separations.

Seven pairs made it home and rekindled their relationships, while two birds came back solo. Researchers surmised the remaining penguins from their study either died at sea or moved away.

The data from the sensors showed the penguins generally stayed hundreds of kilometers apart as they feasted in the ocean.

However, researchers found one case where a couple had nearly 2,500 kilometers between them.

When the birds finally got back together they promptly turned into homebodies, with most of their time spent at the nest.

It led researchers to note that birds like Emperor penguins, which do not build a home together, are less likely to be monogamous.

"Penguins may use the same nest site or nesting area to breed every year, over and over again," Thiebot said. "This probably helps the two partners to meet up ashore at a known place."

Leben unter extremen Bedingungen Kaiserpinguine
Emperor penguins are much bigger, and much more prone to sleep aroundImage: picture-alliance/dpa

No beating around the ice

Once back on land in October after a half year at sea, the penguins got straight to the business of mating, egg-laying and incubation, all of which kept them busy for about a month.

There was no lingering over the kids here, as the rearing of the chicks took up another roughly 70 days before the parents split up in April.

Given the risk the animals could lose each other for good by going their separate ways in the wild, the researchers wanted to see if the creatures would make an effort to stay close together outside breeding season.

"Divorce" happens among the penguins, but it is rare to find two ex-partners breeding with somebody new, Thiebot said.