Penguins are everyone’s favorite Antarctic animal. There are 18 species of these flightless seabirds scattered around the southern hemisphere. The penguin facts below explore some interesting features about these birds that spend about half of their lives in water and the other half on land.
These fascinating birds are both social and entertaining. And sadly, over half the penguin species are at risk of extinction, primarily due to the decline and degradation of their snowy Antarctic homes. Read on to discover 18 intriguing facts about these incredible creatures.
Most penguins live in the southern hemisphere7. You will find them on all continents in the southern hemisphere. These continents include Australia, Antarctica, and some countries in South America, like Argentina and the Falkland Islands. Penguins also live in Namibia, Chile, New Zealand, the South Ocean, and the Sub-Antarctic islands.
The emperor penguins and Adelie penguins live permanently in Antarctica. In contrast, Chinstrap, macaroni, and gentoo penguins live on the Antarctic peninsula and use the Antarctic and subantarctic islands as breeding grounds.
The Galapagos penguin species is the only species of penguin to live in the Northern Hemisphere. They live on the Galapagos Islands, a chain of volcanic islands along the coast of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean.
Fun penguin fact: before 2006, the number of penguin species was 17. However, during that year, scientists researched the rockhopper penguin in more depth and decided it might, in fact, be several different species. The result was two additions to the penguin species count3: the northern and southern rockhopper penguin. While some also include a third, the eastern rockhopper.
Next on our list of facts about penguins is their unique bone structure, allowing them to be excellent swimmers and divers. Penguins are flightless birds; their body structure differs from other birds.
A penguin’s body is more like that of a whale, dolphin, or seal. It is spindle-shaped, thick at the center but thin at the ends. While many birds have hollow bones, penguins have a solid bone structure.
Penguins have the same wing structure as flying birds but use them as flippers to propel themselves forward in the water.
Besides using their wings as flippers, they also use their webbed feet and short, wedge-shaped tails for propulsion. Unlike most birds, flightless seabirds can walk upright on land. This is possible because their short legs are far enough away from each other to support their weight and balance upright.
Another interesting fact about penguins is the relationship they have with each other. Penguins are social animals.
These flightless birds live in colonies. Penguin colonies, also known as rookeries, can contain up to a million nesting pairs of penguins. The penguin world looks chaotic because of the number of penguins gathered together in one space.
Emperor penguins huddle together to share heat among themselves. They switch and rotate out of their huddle formation. According to research on a colony of emperor penguins, the warmed individual birds break away from the huddles while new individuals needing warmth join in4.
Penguins bow to each other as a sign of acceptance. They spend time together hunting for food and eating. During the breeding seasons, male penguins can easily recognize their female mates and vice versa due to their loud and buoyant vocal calls. Also, penguins are tactile, habitually touching each other during interactions.
Next on our list of penguin facts is a fascinating detail about the largest member of the penguin species: the Emperor penguin. These majestic creatures are the biggest of all penguin species globally.
An adult emperor penguin grows to a maximum length of 47 inches, weighing 22 kg to 45 kg. Sexual dimorphism is evident among the emperor penguin species, with the male emperors weighing more than their female counterparts6.
One of the many facts about penguins is their love for eating meat. Penguins eat lots of fish, krill, and squids. They mainly eat the Antarctic silverfish. Penguins catch their prey quickly with their hefty bills. Once they catch their prey, they swallow it whole.
The penguin's diet varies according to species. For instance, gentoo penguins eat krill and shrimp, which are fast-moving dinners, whereas the Emporer and King Penguins prey on larger fish.
The smallest penguin in the world is the blue penguin, also known as the fairy penguin. New Zealanders call the species blue penguins, while Australians call them fairy penguins. The little blue penguin is 13 inches to 15 inches tall and weighs a maximum of 1.4 kg1.
However, the weight of these little penguins fluctuates during different seasons. They are heaviest during the breeding season and lose weight while nursing their chick.
Also, in New Zealand, we can find yellow-eyed penguins. There are thought to be only about 4000 of them left in the world, mainly due to habitat loss and introduced penguin predators.
Related: Read more about baby penguins
After blue penguins, Galapagos penguins are the second smallest penguins in the world. They weigh 2.5 kg, and they are 19 inches tall. Galapagos penguins exhibit sexual dimorphism as the female penguin is smaller than its male counterpart.
King penguins have the most extended breeding cycle of all penguin species, with a breeding cycle lasting about 13 to 16 months. They breed every year. Unlike other species, this penguin doesn’t build a nest. Instead, it incubates its eggs on its feet.
Egg incubation goes on for 54 days. During this time, the male king penguin incubates the eggs until he runs out of energy. Then, the female penguin takes over. However, the male penguin sometimes abandons the eggs when he’s out of energy. When this happens, and the female is still out hunting for food, they do not replace the abandoned eggs.
There are same-sex penguin couples, usually observed in sanctuaries and zoos worldwide.
In the Berlin Zoo, two male 10-year-old penguins, Skipper and Ping, are in a long-term relationship. The zookeepers noticed both penguins' attraction to each other and their desire to parent a chick. They often caught them incubating a stone. So, they allowed the couple to adopt an abandoned chick.
Another instance of same-sex couples happened in a New York Zoo. The couple was a pair of chinstrap penguins known as Silo and Roy. The penguins successfully hatched an adopted egg, and writers Richardson and Peter Parnell immortalized them in a story titled "And Tango Makes Three."
Out of all the species of penguins present on the planet, only the African penguin lives in Africa. They are an endangered penguin species, with declining penguin populations primarily due to habitat loss and overfishing along South Africa's shorelines. People also call them black-footed penguins.
They can swim over 65 kilometers while hunting for food. African penguins are about 25 to 27 inches tall and weigh a maximum of 4kg. Their diet mainly contains sardines, mackerel, squid, crustaceans, and anchovies.
Next on our list of penguin facts is their relationship terms. Many penguins are monogamous, while some are serially monogamous. Some penguins practice serial monogamy; they mate with one partner throughout a year’s breeding season, then change their partner during the following season.
Other penguins are entirely faithful to their partners. They mate with the same penguin every year. An example is the species of crested penguins like the Fiordland penguin. Crested penguins will always recognize their mate throughout multiple breeding seasons.
However, penguins like the emperor and the gentoo penguin are serially monogamous5. They change their partners every year.
Adelie penguins are small but feisty creatures. Explorer Jules Dumont d'Urville discovered them during the French Antarctic expedition. Their weight ranges from 3kg to 6 kg, and they are about 70 cm tall. The Adelie and emperor penguin are the only ones living in Antarctica.
Adelie penguin species often go on long trips during the winter, traveling about 1,200 km away from their breeding ground. They are excellent swimmers and long-distance walkers. They swim at a speed of 4 km/h to 8 km/h, while their walking pace is at 2.5 km/h.
Another fact about penguins is that they lack teeth. Penguins, like other birds, do not have a row of teeth.
How do they eat, then?
They have rows of serrated ridges of fleshy spines inside their mouth. These fleshy spines help guide their meal down their throat and stop it from coming back out.
It is in the best interest of female penguins to mate with a fat penguin. After penguins mate, the male penguin incubates the eggs under his feet for up to 2 months. During this period, the male penguin fasts while she goes to source food.
Male penguins lose a lot of weight during this period and try to conserve as much energy as possible. So, the females go for a fatter mate to ensure the survival of their chicks.
Emperor penguins regularly hunt underwater for fish and krill. They usually dive hundreds of meters deep and stay there for 20 minutes. In 2013, research showed that an emperor penguin could dive to depths of 500 meters and hold its breath for 27 minutes2.
The research also found that emperor penguins have an unusual hemoglobin structure that allows them to function on low oxygen levels. Their heart races and pumps enough oxygen before they dive. Their blood supply to their muscles is blocked to conserve oxygen while underwater, and their heart rate slows down.
Their average heart rate is 70 beats per minute, but it slows to 10 beats per minute when underwater.
Penguins often swallow a lot of saltwater while hunting and eating their prey. However, they have an organ that helps them filter it out of their system. This organ is the supraorbital gland above the eye.
The supraorbital gland is a lateral nasal gland that removes sodium chloride (salt) from the bloodstream. It constantly removes the salt in the saltwater they consume. They excrete the brine out of their bill or sneeze it out.
However, this doesn’t mean penguins drink salt water when thirsty. Instead, they drink meltwater from pools and streams. They also eat snow.
Penguins are prey for larger marine animals like sea lions, leopard seals, sharks, and killer whales. However, penguins’ black and white coloring serves as a camouflage that protects them from attacks.
The black on their back protects them from the air and land-based predators, while the white on their bellies is like the bright surface when viewed underwater. So it helps prevent attacks from marine predators.
Rockhopper penguins got their names from the way they move on land. They are slow movers on land. They hop around from rock to rock instead of sliding around like many penguin species. However, they move faster underwater, swimming at up to 7 km/h.
You might have heard of the giant penguin or Palaeeudyptes. Giant penguins were a prehistoric species of penguin that lived in the Paleocene and Eocene epochs, around 56 to 34 million years ago.
This species was one of the largest penguins to have ever lived, with some estimates suggesting they could grow up to 6 feet tall and weigh over 220 pounds. The giant penguin had a long, straight beak and a streamlined body, which suggests it was a proficient swimmer and likely fed on fish and other marine animals.
The giant penguin's fossil has been found in Antarctica, New Zealand, and South America. They have helped scientists better understand the evolution and diversity of this fascinating group of birds.
Penguins and polar bears never cross paths in their natural habitats. Why, you may wonder? Well, penguins actually reside exclusively in the southern hemisphere, while polar bears reign supreme in the frigid Arctic regions north of the equator. So, if you were envisioning a whimsical encounter between these two iconic creatures, you'd have to rely on the magic of animation rather than the wonders of the wild!
Related: To further explore the animal kingdom, check out some of the other animals that start with P.
Johannesen, E., Steen, H., & Perriman, L. (2002). Seasonal variation in survival, weights, and population counts of blue penguins (Eudyptula minor) in Otago, New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Zoology, 29(3), 213-219.
Wright, A. (2016). Adaptation to the aquatic environment: from penguin heart rates to cetacean brain morphology (Doctoral dissertation, UC San Diego).
Banks, J., Van Buren, A., Cherel, Y. et al. Genetic evidence for three species of rockhopper penguins, Eudyptes chrysocome. Polar Biol 30, 61–67 (2006).
André Ancel, Caroline Gilbert, Nicolas Poulin, Michaël Beaulieu, Bernard Thierry, New insights into the huddling dynamics of emperor penguins, Animal Behaviour, Volume 110, 2015, Pages 91-98, ISSN 0003-3472
Ancel, A., Gilbert, C., & Beaulieu, M. (2013). The long engagement of the emperor penguin. Polar biology, 36, 573-577.
Dunning, B. (1994). CRC Handbook of Avian Body Masses. In Avian Body Masses. CRC Press.
Davis, L. S., & Renner, M. (2010). Penguins. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
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