Penguins are some of the most varied and remarkable creatures on the planet. With 17 extant species’ inhabiting the earth, this bird family contain a vast range of sizes, habitats, skills, and behaviours. This April, to honour our animal of the month, we celebrate 10 amazing facts about the penguin.
1. All creatures great and small
The largest of all the penguin species’ is the Emperor Penguin, standing at around 48 inches tall and weighing up to 45kg. The Emperor and King Penguins form the only members of the “Great Penguins”, or Aptenodytes—derived from the ancient Greek meaning “wingless diver”.
The smallest penguin is the Little Blue Penguin, sometimes known as the “Fairy Penguin”. This species reaches heights of around 13 inches, and weighs on average just 1.5kg.
2. Baptism of ice
The Emperor Penguin is also the only species to breed during the coldest months of the Antarctic tundra. Coupling Emperor Penguins lay just one egg each year, and while the females hunt for food in the icy seas, the males remain to incubate their future chicks through temperatures reaching −40 °C, the coldest breeding temperatures for any bird on the planet.
3. North and south
Penguins are renowned for their habitats in the frozen Antarctic ice, but many species’ venture far north of these frosty climes.
The Galapagos Penguin is the most northerly dwelling of all penguins. This well insulated creature has colonies on the islands all along the Ecuadorian coast, and has even been spotted venturing north of the equator.
4. Need for speed
All penguins are adapted to have exceptionally streamlined bodies, allowing them to hunt proficiently and escape predators while diving through the waves. As a result, penguins can reach incredible speeds while swimming. The fastest species is the Gentoo Penguin, which has been recorded reaching up to 22 miles per hour.
However, the penguin is even faster through the air. Although they are flightless, many members of the bird family use a technique called ‘porpoising’—using their momentum to propel themselves above the surface and increase their speed, either to avoid predators, catch fish, or just for the thrill of the jump.
5. Deep dive
Penguins can also dive into incredibly deep waters to catch their prey. The Emperor Penguin is the deepest recorded diver of the penguin family, reaching average depths of 100 to 200 metres. However, they can go much deeper, with the deepest recorded dive at an astonishing 565 metres.
Penguins wear black and white for good reason. Their distinctive, monochrome wardrobe allows them to remain safe from predators and catch prey. From above, predatory birds like eagles and great skuas cannot easily identify their black bodies in the water; from below, their catch have difficulty detecting their white bellies against the sunlit surface.
7. Walking with dinosaurs
Penguins are nothing new. Several fossilised ancestors have been identified over the years, the oldest of which is around 60 million years old. A recent study on a 57 million year old fossil suggested that this penguin ancestor would have been 5 foot, 7 inches tall.
Scientists estimate that ancient penguins diverged from their closest avian relatives and became flightless around 66 million years ago, just after the mass extinction which wiped out almost all life on earth. This means that modern day penguins are descended from a creature which shared the earth with the dinosaurs.
8. View from space
Though many species’ of penguin are now threatened or endangered by human activity, in 2017 researchers spotted a “super-colony” of Adélie Penguins from space.
Scientists attempting to track the population of this species first noticed the colony in images taken from orbit, showing vast areas of the Antarctic Danger Islands covered by guano—or penguin excrement. Estimates suggest the colony contains around 1.5 million Adélie Penguins.
9. Keeping mum
Because all penguins raise their young in large, communal crèches, these birds have become adept at “kin recognition”. Researchers of the Snares Crested Penguin, African Penguin, and Fiordland Crested Penguin have noticed the remarkable ability of both parents and chicks to easily identify their kin even amongst vast groups.
Amongst Emperor Penguins, in which a couple’s sole chick is frequently lost to the freezing Antarctic temperatures, females have been known to “adopt”—or otherwise “chick-nap”—another couple’s hatchling.
10. Feathery friends
In order to cope amidst freezing temperatures, penguin feathers are adapted to maintain insulation. Over their warm, blubbery skin, penguins are covered by downy feathers, which trap a layer of insulating air around their body. These downy feathers turn into stiff, interlocked ends, which protect against the wind and other elements.
Unlike most birds, which shed feathers throughout the year, penguins undergo an annual “catastrophic moult”, in which they shed and regrow their plumage at once. A recent study on King Penguins found that this process takes on average 32 days.
Featured image: “Happy World Penguin Day!” by Christopher Michel. CC via Flickr.