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Penguins use pebbles to build nests – they don’t search beach for perfect pebble ‘present’

Do male penguins scour the beach to find a special pebble to present to their mate, as a cute meme going around Facebook in South Africa says?

It shows a pair of penguins walking on a beach. The text reads: “When a male penguin falls in love with a female penguin, he searches the entire beach to find a pebble to present to her. This is the perfect example of true love.”

In some species of penguin the male does bring pebbles to the female during courtship to help build the nest. But it’s not true that he searches the whole beach to find one special stone.

Stones serve to protect eggs, not just as a courtship gift

According to Sea World, a US company that runs marine-themed amusement parks, Adélie penguins build their nests out of small stones. They line hollows in the ground with the stones.  

Some chinstrap and gentoo penguins also make nests out of stones. 

“The stones help keep the eggs above the surface when there are rookery (nesting area) floods from melting snow,” Sea World says

SeaLife says a good supply of pebbles is essential to certain species of penguin, as they “give these to their mates as gifts and use them as building materials”. 

And according to the Smithsonian, a “shallow dugout in the ground or a pile of stones serves to protect eggs and chicks from the elements, whether that is the sun, wind, snow or rain”.

“One study found that 14% of chicks drowned in flooded nests after a storm, with the majority of the deaths occurring in smaller nests.”

Male Adélie penguins steal stones from neighbours

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says the male Adélies are mainly the nest builders. “Their aim is to attract a female by building the biggest and best nest.”

The fund says they do this by collecting small rocks or pebbles from surrounding areas, either by rolling them or – if small enough – carrying them in their beaks, and using them to build the nest.

“If they think their nest is lacking rocks, the cheeky little Adélie will steal rocks from their neighbours' nests,” the WWF says.

So while some types of male penguin do collect pebbles as part of their courtship ritual, they don’t seek out just one to “present” to their mate. They find lots of pebbles, and use them to build nests. – Taryn Willows


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