Penguins Actually Experience Depression — And They Do Something Really Sad When It Hits

When we think of penguins, we imagine cute, waddling birds that are happy and carefree. But, these jovial little creatures aren’t exactly as simple as we like to imagine they are.

The truth is, penguins can suffer from depression just like humans, and when they do, it’s pretty bleak. Nothing can stop them from wandering off toward certain death, and it’s a really sad moment to witness.

Beloved for their comic waddle and their rotund little bodies, penguins may be the most unassuming creature to call the Southern Hemisphere home. 

Flickr / Divulgação Livre

You’d be hard-pressed to find a person who didn’t think these little guys were adorable, especially as babies.

Flickr / Sara Gillins

However, penguins are more complicated than we think. In fact, they can experience emotions as complex as ours — including sadness.

Flickr / Jill Encarnacion

By nature, penguins mate for life, and are dedicated to the good of their group. They instinctively know what to do to help themselves (and the rest of their family) survive the harshest of conditions. But there’s always the chance of making a mistake.

Flickr / Magnus Brath

Research has shown just what happens when penguins get frustrated and confused. Like humans, their feelings can get the best of them, causing depression and even suicidal actions.

Flickr / Antarctica Bound

Documentaries studying penguins and their lives have recorded strange behavior when this happens.

Anne Dirkse / Wikimedia

If a penguin gets disoriented and loses track of where the sea is, it may wander off into the ice-covered desert of Antarctica. This means certain death for the poor little penguin.

Eli Duke / Flickr

Antarctic biologists are still studying the reasons penguins commit suicide, because it doesn’t appear that there is any reason behind it that would serve the greater good of the group.

Liam Quinn / Flickr

In Werner Herzog’s documentary Encounters At The End of The World, there’s a scene focusing on a particular Adelie penguin who seems quite indecisive.

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In the film, the penguin can’t decide whether to go back to the nest or stay with the other penguins. The resulting footage is somewhat disturbing. 

Jonathan Shaw / Flickr

The penguin turns toward the land and away from the ocean. Dr. David Ainley believes the behavior is strange, but not insanity. “I’ve never seen a penguin bashing its head against a rock,” he says. But occasionally the birds do seem to get confused. “They end up in places they shouldn’t be, far away from the ocean.”

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The penguin then heads toward the mountains, into a future that will surely end in death.

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Sadly, nature researchers and camera crews can’t do anything to prevent this behavior; they’ve sworn never to interfere. 

Flickr / Rita Willaert

Even if they did, the penguins would likely wander away from their safe place and back on their original path toward death. Herzog’s documentary presents this behavior as a feature of depression.

Flickr / Robert Nunn

There is no conclusive evidence that reveals why penguins display suicidal tendencies, but the result is inarguably sad. 

Flickr / Matt Pelletiere

It’s likely not one thing, but a mix of several environmental stressors that take their toll on the little birds.

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These poor penguins! All we can do is watch and hope they’re able to sort through their troubles and stay out of harm’s way.

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