Rare 'cookies and cream' penguin is spotted in Antarctica

Meet the ‘cookies and cream’ penguin! Incredibly rare bird almost completely covered in dark feathers is spotted in Antarctica

  • Gentoo penguin has a condition called melanism that gives it its black colour
  • A King penguin with melanism was spotted in South Georgia back in 2010

Most penguins look like they’re wearing a little waistcoat.

But this ‘all-black’ bird snapped in Antarctica looks like it’s wearing a snazzy cookies and cream vest. 

The Gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis papua) has a condition called melanism, where too much of the dark pigment melanin has been produced, making it blacker than usual. 

In humans, melanin is the natural pigment in the body that gives our hair and eyes a dark colour – and it protects us from the sun’s rays.  

Although melanism makes animals look different to other members of the same species, it can be passed down to offspring as an evolutionary benefit. 

The penguin  has a condition called melanism, where too much of the dark pigment melanin has been produced, making it darker than usual  

Despite its ‘unusual plumage coloration’, the penguin seemed to be accepted by its colony mates

READ MORE Penguin with melanism a ‘one in a zillion’ mutation

The King penguin with melanism stands on coast line at Fortuna Bay in 2010 

Back in 2010, a King penguin with melanism described as a ‘one in a zillion mutation’ was found in Fortuna Bay on South Georgia, but this is only the second recorded Gentoo penguin with the condition. 

The new discovery has been detailed in a new study led by Rocio Nigro at the Universidad Nacional de La Plata, Buenos Aires, Argentina.  

‘The unusual coloration of the penguin was identified as melanism, a genetic condition that causes an excess of melanin pigment in feathers,’ Nigro and colleagues say in their paper, published in Polar Biology. 

‘This particular individual appeared to be in good health and exhibited normal behaviour.’ 

The penguin was seen in Hope Bay, north of the Antarctic Peninsula (the bit that sticks out from the Antarctic mainland like a little tail). 

Despite its ‘unusual plumage coloration’, it seemed to have been accepted by its colony mates. 

The researchers said they could not able confirm its sex or its breeding status, however. 

Normally, Gentoo penguin wings (or ‘flappers’) are black on the top and white on the underside – but this particular bird has all-black wings. 

The cookies and cream penguin was seen in Hope Bay, north of the Antarctic Peninsula (the bit that sticks out from the Antarctic mainland like a little tail)

Gentoo penguin wings (or ‘flappers’) are normally black on the top and white on the underside (as shown in this file photo)

Gentoo penguins have white patches extending from their eyes and a bright red-orange beak. This photo shows an adult with its two adorable chicks 

What is melanism? 

Melanism is the opposite of albinism, and is the result of a gene that causes a surplus of pigment in the skin or hair of an animal so that it appears black.

In contrast, albinism is a condition that can turn animals white.

Some animals intentionally develop melanism, including certain species of moth and ladybugs, which have evolved darker colours because they live in areas impacted by industrial pollution.

Others, like these grey seals, are simply born with the colouring.

Melanism affects several different animal species, including tigers, panthers, zebras and foxes.

While humans do not experience melanism, some people experience a variety of melanistic disorders, such as Addison’s disease, acanthosis nigricans, and melasma.

Like other penguin species, the Gentoo also normally has black on its back and a huge white chest – but this one is heavily speckled with splodges of black to give a ‘cookies and cream’ appearance. 

However, just like other normal Gentoo penguins, it also has white patches extending from its eyes and a bright red-orange beak. 

Penguins are adept swimmers underwater at speeds of up to 15 to 25 miles per hour in the search for food – and their classic black and white ‘waistcoat’ appearance helps them avoid predators. 

When seen by a potential predator that’s looking up from below, a white belly better blends in with light-filled surface water.

Meanwhile, a predator seen looking down from above sees the penguin’s black back which looks similar to the ocean’s darker depths. 

However, Professor Heather Lynch, an ecologist at Stony Brook University in New York, doesn’t think this cookies and cream bird is at more risk of predation because of its genetic condition.  

‘Though penguin colouration is a long-term evolutionary strategy that helps penguins avoid predation, I do not think this penguin’s colouration places it at serious risk,’ Professor Lynch, who wasn’t involved in the study, told New Scientist. 

‘Being a penguin is risky enough already.’

Because black penguins are particularly rare there has been very little research into them.

It is estimated that about one in every 250,000 penguins has the condition, although few are as completely black as the one found in South Georgia in 2010.

This black King penguin was snapped at Fortuna Bay a sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia, about 860 miles off the Falklands in 2010

A grey seal that washed up on the Cornish coast earlier this year (named Liquorice by staff at the Cornish Seal Sanctuary) is also melanistic

In some species, melanism can be beneficial and passed down to subsequent generations as it can help with survival.

For example, dark skin can provide better camouflage that can make them less visible to their prey. 

Mammals and other animals can also experience melanism, including a gorgeous grey seal pup that recently washed up on the Cornwall coast. 

Named Liquorice by staff at the Cornish Seal Sanctuary, the stunning female pup had been spotted by local walkers on a nearby beach.

In 2020, photos emerged of a melanistic tiger in Odisha, India with prominent black all over its back but still with orange stripes over its stomach, neck and legs.

Scientists warn 90% of the world’s Emperor penguins could die out in just 80 years if the Antarctic keeps melting at its current rate 

Antarctica’s emperor penguins are on the brink of extinction amid rapid sea ice melt, an alarming study has warned. 

Scientists at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) claim that 90 per cent of colonies could be wiped out by the end of the century, based on current trends of global warming. 

Their warning follows the analysis of stark satellite imagery from 2022, hinting that no chicks survived from four of the five known groups breeding near the central and eastern Bellingshausen Sea.

This failure to provide offspring marks an unprecedented first for the region – and experts believe it will only worsen in the coming years.

Read more 

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