Penguins: 25 fascinating facts about these flightless friends

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January 14, 2020
TasfotoNL // Shutterstock

Penguins: 25 fascinating facts about these flightless friends

When you think of penguins, what do you see? Perhaps a large black-and-white emperor penguin waddling around Antarctica. Or maybe you think of the tiny Galapagos penguins who hop across rocky terrain. Both images are absolutely correct. Penguins come in many shapes, sizes, and variations. One of the most common differences among penguins is where they live: While some thrive in below-zero temperatures, others enjoy the warm sunshine near the Equator. In fact, there are just five penguin species that have ever frequented Antarctica despite the common misconception that penguins are exclusively cold-weather birds. The Adélie and emperor are the only penguin species to live there full time.

Penguins also share many common traits, most notably that they are all unable to fly, they all have feathers, and they are always black and white in a pattern commonly described as “tuxedoed.” They are also all very much sea birds, spending as much as 75% of their time in the water (where they are significantly more graceful than on land).

Penguins have enjoyed a lot of recent stardom, featuring prominently in several penguin-themed movies, cartoons, and documentaries. The animals even have their very own World Penguin Day on April 25, which conveniently coincides with their annual migration north. 2018 was also named the “Year of the Penguin” to bring awareness to the animals’ future being cast increasingly into doubt because of climate change and loss of habitat and food.

To find out more about these tuxedo-clad friends, Stacker has compiled a gallery of 25 fascinating facts about penguins, from their origins to their favorite foods. The selections come from authoritative resources including magazines, journals, and media publications that specialize in science and nature. Read on to learn some new facts about these special animals.

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There are 18 species of penguins

When you think of penguins, you may think of the large emperor ones featured in all the movies and documentaries, but there are actually 18 species of penguins around the world. Though they vary in size, every type of penguin has a black back and white stomach.

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Penguins have been around for 60 million years

Millions of years ago when dinosaurs walked the Earth, penguin ancestors were around too. Penguin fossils dated from 60 million years ago prove the flightless birds survived even when the dinosaurs perished. Those penguin ancestors were much larger than the ones found today, with some close to 6 feet tall.

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Penguins are expert swimmers

Even though penguins cannot fly, they are experts at moving around. On land, they waddle slowly—but they swim as fast as 15 miles per hour using their webbed feet, flippers, and aerodynamic shape to cut through the water.

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Penguins ‘toboggan’ over long distances

When penguins have to traverse long distances via land, they won’t waddle. Instead, they’ll act like kids on a snow day and go tobogganing. For penguins, this means they’ll lay down on the ice belly-side down and push themselves with their feet, sliding across the ice.

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Forming colonies keep penguins warm and protected

Many species of penguins live in cold habitats, with some living in the harshest cold-weather climates. To stay toasty, these penguins gather together to form huge colonies that can comprise millions of birds. Not only do these colonies provide warmth, but they also provide protection against any potential predators.

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Penguins make great partners

These sea birds are known for their mating habits particularly because penguins tend to stay with their partners for many years, sometimes even for life. In this dual-parent household, the mother and father penguin share in the duties of raising chicks.

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Penguins come from eggs

Like all birds, penguin chicks hatch from eggs. Some penguin species build nests while others in cold climates incubate their eggs by keeping them on top of their feet and beneath a fatty layer of skin.

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Young penguins fend for themselves

Soon after baby penguins hatch, both of their parents leave to gather more food for them. During this time, the young birds stick together for safety in numbers. When their parents return, penguin chicks can find their parents based on their unique voices.

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No blubber is necessary

Unlike whales and sea lions, penguins don’t need blubber to keep warm in freezing cold temperatures. Instead, their feathers act as insulation trapping the warm air their muscles produce from swimming fast.

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Penguins undergo a ‘catastrophic molt’

Rather than shedding their feathers throughout the year, penguins capitalize on just one molting session to remain waterproof the rest of the year. During their “catastrophic molt” penguins lose all of their feathers over the course of a few weeks and must forgo hunting while this occurs.

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The smallest penguin species is called ‘little blue’

Known for their tiny stature, the little blue penguin is the smallest species. Standing at just 16 inches tall, they are often called “fairy penguins” as a nod to their miniature size.

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Penguins can catch major air

Penguins are big fans of jumping and use two different jumps to get them to their destinations. On the way into the water, penguins will sometimes jump to propel themselves faster into the ocean. When it is time to go back to land, some species can jump up to 9 feet by simply swimming very fast.

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They have great lung capacity

Capable of diving way down to the depths of the ocean, penguins need to be able to hold their breath for long stretches of time. The longest-recorded penguin dive was 22 minutes long.

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Black and white colorations serve as camouflage

Ever wonder why all species of penguins come in black and white? These birds aren’t just sporting tuxedo-like colors for the fun of it. Their coloring acts as camouflage with their white stomachs mirroring the surface while their black backs more closely match the surface of the water.

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Penguins have built-in desalination filters

Whether it be from gulping fish, swimming daily, or simply getting thirsty, penguins ingest a lot of saltwater. To combat this, they have what we call a supraorbital gland that takes the salt out of their bloodstream. Later they expel the salt through their bills.

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These animals are designed to swallow fish

Without teeth, penguins still devour many fish a day. They do so with the help of spines in their mouths that guide their food down their throats.

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Penguins have powerful poop

Because of penguins gathering in colonies made up of thousands and sometimes millions, one could imagine such a group would produce a lot of waste. This is true, but it isn’t a bad thing. Penguin poop leaves dark stains on the ice, allowing researchers to keep track of the birds all the way from space.

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Sink or swim? Penguins can do both

While dense bones would be terrible for most other bird species who need to be lightweight to fly, penguins have dense bones that allow them to sink. This means they’re better adapted for swimming and diving deep.

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These sea birds have no fear (on land)

Although they have many predators in the water, most species of penguins have few predators on land which means they feel very safe while walking about. That means they tend to get up close and personal to people when they come across them.

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Not all penguins love the cold

Despite what people think, not all penguins live in brutally cold Arctic atmospheres. Only one species lives outside of the Southern hemisphere of the Earth though, and that’s the Galápagos penguin. To cope with the hot weather, these penguins pant like dogs.

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Make way for the emperor

The species of penguin you may be most familiar with, the emperor penguin is the biggest of them all. They can grow to be more than 4 feet tall.

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Same-sex penguin couples exist

Similar to some other animals, there is evidence that penguins sometimes have same-sex couples. In particular, male penguins have been known to pair up and raise a chick together.

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Some penguins are endangered

Many species of penguins are listed as threatened and five are even listed as endangered—the erect-crested penguin, northern rockhopper penguin, African penguin, Galapagos penguin, and the yellow-eyed penguin.

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Penguins face a lot of (mostly human-caused) threats

There are many factors for why penguins are being threatened. From commercial fishing, infectious diseases brought by humans, loss of food and habitat, there are lots of hurdles penguins have to overcome daily.

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Climate change remains the biggest threat to penguins

The biggest threat to penguins is the same one affecting all animals, including humans: climate change. With polar ice caps melting and the overall temperatures of the oceans rising, penguins are in grave danger. They’re not only losing their habitats but also the food supply and nutrients they rely on. Luckily, there are conservation efforts to try to combat some of these threats. The Wildlife Conservation Network uses a mix of research, education, and policymaking in order to best help protect these amazing animals.

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