Till Death Do Us Part? Animal Mating in Antarctica

February 5, 2015

Antarctica is the most remote of the world’s seven continents, but that doesn’t mean its native inhabitants go without companionship. While wildlife are unlike humans and forgo a marriage or commitment ceremony, you may be surprised to learn on your Antarctic expedition that some animals do in fact stay together for the long haul!

Albatross mating ritual in South Georgia Photo Credit: Samantha Crimmin

Big birds, big commitment

The albatross has the longest wingspan of any bird, and its physical size is matched only by its devotion to its mate.

It can take years for these birds to settle on a spouse but, once they do, the bond is usually broken only by death. That’s not to say they spend all of their time together – the opposite is generally true – but their wavelengths are so in sync, they will always return to their nesting spot, and each other, after many months apart.

Both parents will incubate an egg and participate in rearing a chick, a process that usually only happens once every two years. Albatrosses may live for several decades, making their relationships truly long-lasting. 

Elephant Seal haremPhoto Credit: Samantha Crimmin

Seal the deal

Seals are nowhere nearly as committed as the albatross. In fact, the breeding and mating process for the southern elephant seal is comparatively short, brutal and intense – so intense that a successful male may amass a harem of up to 100 females! 

Males arrive at a breeding ground first and do battle with each other to establish their dominance to attract the attention of females, who arrive later to give birth. After carving out their territories on what becomes an increasingly crowded beach, alpha males will gather together as many females as they can, protecting them from other males. Several weeks after the females have given birth on the beach, they are ready to breed again, and the male will begin to mate with them right then and there. 

Other males who have been unsuccessful in establishing a harem of their own may never mate. But they will usually remain on the periphery of another male’s territory and make attempts to get with an unoccupied female while the alpha male is “busy” elsewhere. The female doesn’t mind, although the alpha male certainly does mind when he realizes what is happening! 

Once the mating process is over, the parties go their separate ways and leave the weaned pups to fend for themselves and eventually grow to maturity. The seals return to their birthplace/breeding ground each year, so it’s possible that a male will renew old acquaintances with a particular female, but this will happen by chance rather than by any sense of devotion or special attraction.

Penguin pairings

King penguins

You will encounter hundreds or even thousands of penguins on your polar expedition. 

Penguins occupy the middle ground (middle ice?) between adoring albatrosses and swinging seals. Some species stay together forever, and others remain an item only for short periods of time. 

Emperor and king penguins are serially monogamous, meaning they will have one partner per year and will remain faithful to each other for that year. All bets are off after that, but while together they cooperate in the incubation of their egg and the rearing of their chick. 

Adélie penguins seem to be more committed to their mates in one sense, doing their best to seek each other out year after year, but females are notorious for “slipping around” on their partners with unattached males, for the purpose of gathering stones for their nests.

Gentoo penguins are closely related to the Adélie. Stones for nesting are also important to the gentoo, although for a sweeter reason; it is said that, rather than let his chosen female compromise her dignity for a pebble, the male will search for one for her, even if it means stealing one from a rival. If the female accepts the male’s pebble, they will mate, usually for life.

Magellanic penguins are also life mates, probably the most faithful of the bunch. One couple is known to have remained together for 16 years! 

These are only some of the fascinating stories we’ve learned about Antarctica, its wildlife and its scenery. Join us on an expedition to the great white continent!

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