In December 2019, Belgian wildlife photographer Yves Adams had an exceptional stroke of luck while on a remote island in South Georgia.
Adams was leading a two-month photography expedition through the South Atlantic and had decided to stop on a South Georgia beach. It was then that he caught sight of an extremely special King penguin who stood out against his black-and-white-clad peers.
Adams and company immediately dropped what they were doing to grab their cameras and capture some shots of the unconventionally dressed penguin in its yellow tuxedo. According to Adams, it was the only yellow penguin out of the 120,000 birds on the beach.
Black-and-white coats with a dash of yellow on their collar are typical of King penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus). This yellow-gold pigment is unique to penguins, but not all species have them.
This penguin seems to lack melanin, the dark pigmentation that gives their plumage its typical black-brown shade. Instead, it has retained only its yellow feathers, sprucing up the trademark black tux. Unusual plumage and coloring are quite rare when it comes to penguins, and are often due to injury, diet, disease, or less frequently, genetic mutations.
Experts are at odds with each other as to the cause of this bird’s special look. Adams and Dee Boersma, a conservation biologist, and professor at the University of Washington believe that the penguin is not albino because if it were albino it would be completely white. Instead, they think that it has a genetic condition known as leucism.
Kevin McGraw, an integrative behavioral ecologist at Arizona State University, disagrees. He asserts that animals can be albino but still have non-melanin pigment, which explains some of the yellow pigmentations that the penguin has retained.
In any case, Adams and his team were extremely fortunate to have seen such a rarity in its natural habitat and even luckier to have been able to capture some impressive, unobstructed photos for the rest of us to enjoy.
Image source: Yves Adams