Penguins

The penguin is a noble bird, always dressed in formal attire. Most belong to the subfamily Spheniscinae, but some play hockey in western Pennsylvania. And still others belong to a prestigious but mostly obscure medical organization – The American Association of Physicians. The group was founded by William Osler and a few other physicians more than 130 years ago. Its nickname, The Old Turks, gives you an idea of its composition for its first century or so.

In these more enlightened times the AAP has gone from a good old boys club to a more inclusive band even as its visibility on the medical scene has diminished. One of its first female members, an exceptionally accomplished physician, called the organization ‘The Penguins’. She was referring to the the black tie dinner that caps every annual meeting. I have been assured that the black tie dinner tradition persists to the present even though it’s been decades since I attended one of them. In the age of the internet with its instantaneous transmission of information, the only reason to attend a medical or scientific meeting is to schmooze.

The Penguin is one of Batman’s most finely drawn adversaries. He’s been around since 1941. He often wears a monocle, a top hat, and a tuxedo. I think he’s a potential member of the AAP.  An umbrella is his favorite weapon. His real name is Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot and he has an extensive backstory. He’s been played such major actors as Burgess Meredith and Danny DeVito. Supposedly, his character was inspired by Willie the penguin used to advertise Kool cigarettes. Willie was alternatively a doctor, a soldier, and a chef. The Penguin is one of Batman’s most enduring villains. I think he’s still plotting villainy as I write this.

Ron Cey was a fine major league third baseman. He played 17 seasons in the Bigs. He was nicknamed ‘The Penguin’ for his slow waddling running gait by his college coach, Chuck “Bobo” Brayton. He was a six time all star and the World Series MVP in 1981. He received both the Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig Awards. Sometimes it’s good to be a penguin.

Back to the birds. All penguins with the exception of the Galapagos variety live south of the equator. And the Galapagos bird is barely north of the line. In general, the larger the penguin the further south its habitat. There were penguins, now extinct, that were as large as a fully grown human. The largest penguin now living is the emperor penguin. The emperor, male or female, can weigh up to 100 pounds. It is also the only member of the species that breeds during the Antarctic winter.

This hardy bird is proof again that everything in life stems from the search for sex and food. The emperors, like movie stars, are serially monogamous. After a brief interlude of connubial bliss the female lays a single egg. She is at the verge of starvation after producing this egg and transfers it to the male. This exchange is fraught with hazard as the temperature during the austral winter is close to absolute zero -not really, but it’s very cold. If anything goes wrong the chick is carrion. She then heads for the sea, which may be 75 miles away, to replenish her calories lost because of reproduction.

Meanwhile, the male incubates his solitary egg. This process takes more than 2 months. Then the male feeds his chick with a curd-like substance made by his esophagus. When this supply is exhausted survival for both father and child depends on the return of the fattened female. If she makes it back they’re OK. In the meanwhile the solitary males huddle together in a desperate search for warmth. They even take turns on the inside and outside of the scrum in a sign of mutual concern. After the female returns, the male goes back to sea for food. This cycle repeats until the chick is big enough to fend for himself.

It’s hard to understand how this survival strategy proved better than any alternative. Evolution seems to make weird choices. This reproductive marathon also seems another example of the failure of Occam’s razor.  Other penguins have a more comfortable time making the next generation. In fact, it’s hard to think of a worse reproductive technique, in any species, than that employed by the emperor. If you’re really intrigued by the emperor watch The March of the Penguins.