For penguins, absence does make the heart grow fonder.

Latest study on southern rockhopper penguins found that the smallest yellow-crested, black-and-white penguin in the genus Eudyptes actually engages in long distance relationships with its mate, spending most of the year away and going back to the same mate to make babies.

"In these extremely faithful animals - the pair bonds for breeding may last all life long in this species - the partners may actually be separated by hundreds to thousands of kilometers at sea," said researcher Jean-Baptiste Thiebot.

For their study, Thiebot's team followed and tracked the activity of ten couples by clipping lightweight sensors onto the 20 birds. The penguin couples were apart for about six months. Findings of the research were published online Sept. 9 in the journal Biology Letters.

The sensors clipped onto the penguins showed that each pair was approximately a hundred kilometers apart while feasting at sea during separation. Out of the 20 tracked penguins, seen pairs made it back home for breeding and to rekindle their relationships. Two individual birds came back without their mates, while the remaining four either moved away or died at sea.

When the penguins returned home off the coast of Argentina to New Island, they actually managed to find each other and mate. Their reunions were, however, short - in just less than a quarter of the year.

After six months apart, when the penguins returned home in October, mating was first among their to-do list. Then for a whole month, the birds busied themselves with egg-laying and incubation. The researchers did not find any "lingering over the kids." Rearing of the chicks would take up approximately 70 days just before the penguin moms and dads split up again in April.

Hundreds of kilometers away from their mates, and for roughly six months, made the penguins either stay close together, or end up "divorcing." According to Thiebot, divorce is not uncommon among penguins, but majority make it back home together as a couple after a long period of separation to build a family.

There was also an instance where the researchers found that a penguin couple that was farther apart from each other during separation showed different behavior. After being almost 2,500 kilometers apart, the birds did return home, but became homebodies, spending most of their time at the nest. Because of this, the researchers noted that penguins that do not build a home together, such as the Emperor penguin, are least likely to be as monogamous as the southern rockhopper which, even after a long period of separation from its mate, comes back to build a home, usually with the same partner.

Photo: Matt Kieffer | Flickr

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