By Scott A. Rowan
How do penguins mate?
Nothing about penguin mating is simple or easy.
There are many steps in the process from courtship to nest-building to copulation and brooding. Throughout the entire process, penguins follow are a very predictable routine that includes a variety of gestures, actions, and acts that are done by the males to attract females.
Penguins are not sexually dimorphic, which means that it’s impossible to tell a male from a female penguin. The males do not have a phallus and the females do not have a uterus. Instead, they both have a cloaca, an anatomical part that allows for both the removal of waste and mating.
While many penguins will mate for life, that isn’t a strict rule. In fact, when males begin presenting themselves to females by building nests, it is not uncommon for a new female to pick a male before the male’s previous mate arrives and kicks the intruder out of the nest. (According to some visual reports, the entire three-way exchange looks just like what it basically is: a soap opera, penguin-style.)
Once the female has selected her mate or returned to her previous one, the two will begin to enter an elaborate presenting gestures that include dancing and singing. If the female is in agreement, she will sing and dance with the male.
Without the traditional sexual anatomical parts that mammals possess, penguins have an unusual mating act that requires coordination and patience. The female will lay on her front, raising her tail to expose her cloaca. The male carefully climbs on the female’s back, often standing on her at first with both feet, and shakes his cloaca back and forth until he finds the female’s.
When the male’s cloaca comes into contact with the female’s, he will ejaculate sperm into her and dismount her back.
The female will lay her egg(s) within a few days of copulation. Penguins often will lay two eggs, sometimes staggering them a few days apart knowing that there is a likelihood of an egg theft. Some penguins will lay both eggs at the same time. It isn’t uncommon for penguins to lay just one egg, but a three-egg nest is unusual.
As soon the female lays her egg(s), she leaves the nest and returns to the ocean to feed and restore her energy reserves. At that point, the male takes over and broods the egg(s) with his brood pouch. This is why it’s a fun fact to know that a fat penguin makes for a sexy male penguin.
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