Penguins (Spheniscidae) are thought to have evolved during the Cretaceous period (140 – 65 mya) from an ancestor that could fly but also swim underwater to catch food. They are flightless birds and they are closest relatives of albatrosses (Procellariidae) and petrels, grebes (Gaviidae), and loons. Taxonomists believe that penguins flourished in the period from 40 – 10 mya, and that the diversity in penguins was much higher than it was in the twentieth century. They are the only member of the order Sphenisciformes.
Penguin Facts For Kids
- Penguins are medium to large flightless seabirds with elongated bodies and large heads. They have a funny sort of waddle in that it gives the impression of human-walk.
- They are 17.7–51.2 in (45–130 cm) long, and weighs up to 1.8–88 lb (842 g–40 kg).
- Penguins are black-and-white birds as their back is absolute black while the chest is white. On the funny side penguins seem to evoke a comparison with tuxedoed waiters.
- All penguin species are adapted to living in a marine environment because their structure is so built. As it turns out, they also share some anatomical features that are rarely found in other sea birds.
- Penguins can maneuver and dive with agility underwater. Thanks to the penguin’s flat flippers, webbed, feet, heavy bones, and wings along with stiff feathers that keep the body warm in extreme temperatures and provide excellent insulation.
- All species vary in size. The largest penguin is the emperor penguin that stands nearly 4 ft (115 cm). Little species weigh no more than 1,100 g and stands less than 18 in (45 cm). Each of these species varies in weight over the breeding season. Male emperor penguins can live without eating for about 115 days during courtship and thus they lose almost 41% of their body weight during this period.
- Males are larger than females. They have large flippers and the size of the bill is also greater than those of females. However one can hardly observe this difference simply by casual observation.
- Penguins have gray, blue-gray or simply black feathers on the back while the chest and belly have white feathers. Some species seem to have yellow or orange plumes that sprout from head with certain patches of bright orange or yellow on the face. The young are covered with a layer of fluffy down. Males do not differ from females.
- It’s true that penguins are flightless birds but they do have keeled breastbone—a keel that is present in all flying birds as it lifts the pectoral muscles which are used for flight.
- Unlike other birds, penguins have strong and heavy bones and they are not filled with air spaces. The bones are rock solid. These bones are an adaptation for diving underwater.
- Their wings are flippers but they do serve the purpose of wings as penguins are able to fly underwater.
- They have webbed feet along with short and stout legs. While swimming the feet trail behind and are pressed against its tail where they perform the function of a rudder.
- Unlike in other birds where feathers grow from a specific portion of a skin, penguins have their body covered almost entirely with feathers except on the belly. The tropical species are seen to possess greater areas of hairless skin on the belly which facilitates cooling.
- Many penguins go through a molt stage each year during which they stay on land and go without eating for 13 – 34 days.
- They have a layer of blubber which offers an additional insulation and keep the body warm while swimming in cold water.
- Penguins are generally found in the southern tip of the world. Galapagos penguin is the only species that lives exclusively north of the equator.
- They are believed to be the birds of Antarctic when of course 17 species are not found in Antarctica. Seven of these species inhabit the islands of southern New Zealand. Most penguins are found between 45 and 60° south.
- Other remaining species breed along the subtropical coasts of South Africa and South Africa. That is to say, Antarctica is home to only four penguin species—gentoo, chinstrap, emperor, and adelie penguins. Out of these emperor and adelie penguins breed all year-round in Antarctic.
- Penguins spend almost all their lives underwater to search for squid, crustaceans, and fish. That is not to say that penguins cannot walk on land; they do go ashore to breed or rear their young.
- One can find many breeding colonies within a few hundred yards of shore except king and gentoo penguins; they make colonies 2 miles inland. They have got a wide variety of breeding habitats—from ice sheets and snowfields of Antarctica to the larva fields off the coast of Ecuador. Galapagos penguins are known to breed in larva fields.
- Many species make colonies in coastal cliffs, level and open terrain, but gentoo penguins establish colonies on rocky slopes. They are known to nest in the middle of tussock grass. Magellanic penguins also come on land to lay their eggs in coastal beach forests.
Read More: Where Do Penguins Live?
- Penguins are social birds as they typically make very large colonies in breeding areas. The colonies are extremely noisy and all birds drink water in groups.
- They also communicate with their neighbors and are able to develop complex behavior such as courting, and recognizing a mate or offspring among other birds.
- Penguins generally avoid aggression and as such they adopt a ‘slender walk’ behavior—a behavior during which they lower down their heads and hold their flippers forward while passing other birds. Some of them even use a strong sideways signal to tell others to keep distance.
- They are often involved in fighting, hitting, or biting one another despite their defensive behavior.
- Penguins are also engaged in bill-jousting behavior during which they use their bill as a sword to attack each other.
- In order to claim the nest site, a male penguin begins to call loud and as it stands straight the bird also waves his flippers.
- They continue to show mutual display even after the mating takes place and one or two eggs are laid. The male and female changes their place on the nest and the behavior is known as a ‘nest relief ceremony’. The adult penguins recognize each other not only by this behavior but also by voice.
- Species that make large gatherings are more apt to recognize their mates. King penguins are known to respond to their mate’s call but not to those of other colony members; chicks do recognize their parents by a distinct vocal.
- The parents typically forage in groups as and when they leave for the sea. By doing so, each bird is least likely to be eaten. Foraging flocks also fancy their chances for food-finding as compared to those of solitary birds.
- Penguins may swim by porpoising along with skimming above the water surface and at times shoot out of water like a dolphin. During porpoising they grab a breath in mid-air.
- Rockhopper penguins walk by two-footed jumps as a result of which it has earned its name. Other species walk on land by a waddling gait. They are also seen to travel by sliding on their bellies over snow.
Feeding Ecology and Diet
- Penguins are most likely to feed on small fish, crustaceans, and squid. It is able to swallow a large number of preys before finally returns to the surface to breathe again.
- Crested penguins are more apt to consume krill and other small crustaceans that are found in dense swarms.
- The little species such as Spheniscus live on small fish including sprats and anchovies.
- Pygoscelid penguins eat only krill.
- Only a few humans are lucky enough to see penguins capturing their prey precisely due to the fact that they hunt underwater. They do not dive deep into the water as they move from the shore to a foraging sea. On the contrary however deep water may be, penguins will follow their prey and stay underwater longer.
- Emperor penguin holds the record of longest dive in water that it remained underwater for 18 minutes. Emperors are also the deepest divers as they often reach a depth of 1755 feet (535 meters). Emperor penguins are the largest species; the bigger the penguin, the greater the diving ability. Similarly, king penguins can last seven to 10 minutes underwater. Many medium-sized species can dive for three to six minutes. The little penguins dive no more than a minute or deeper than 98 ft (30 m).
- Penguins are known to dive deeper at midday because they hunt with their excellent vision. At dusk or dawn there is not enough light and thus penguins remain in shallow water.
Read More: What Do Different types of Penguins Eat?
- Penguins begin to breed once they are 2 – 5 years old. Gentoo, yellow-eyed and little penguins breed at the age of two. King and emperors do not breed until they are 3 years old.
- Royal and macaroni penguins begin to breed at the age of five.
- Females attain maturity earlier than males.
- They do not often change their mates.
- King and emperor penguins do not lay eggs in their nest rather they carry them along on their feet. Gentoo penguins drop eggs in their nest build of stones while the little and spheniscids penguins build nests underground.
- Emperor and king penguins lay a single egg while the other lays 1 – 3 eggs.
- Crested penguins generally lay 2 eggs but they normally raise one offspring.
- The incubation period lasts 33 – 64 days.
- The eggs are hatched at the same time.
- One of the parents is always there to look after the chicks while the other one goes on a foraging trip. Later, the parents guard their chicks against predators until chicks can stand their own.
- King penguins guard their chicks for as long as 12 months. The young will leave their nest once the feathers replace their down. These young will jump into the water (to pursue prey) without seeking any formal training of hunting.
- Endangered: Erect-crested, Yellow-eyed, and Galapagos
- Vulnerable: Rockhopper, Snares, macaroni, Fiordland, Humboldt, African
- Lower Risk: Gentoo and Magellanic
Davis, L. S., and J. T. Darby, eds. Penguin Biology. New York: Academic Press, 1990.
Marchant, S., and P. J. Higgins, eds. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand, and Antarctic Birds. Vol. 1, Ratites to Ducks. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Marion, R. Penguins: A Worldwide Guide. New York: Sterling Publishing Co.,1999.
Reilly, P. Penguins of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Bried, J., F. Jiguet, and P. Jouventin. “Why do Aptenodytes Penguins Have High Divorce Rates?” Auk 116 (1999): 504–512.
Cherel, Y., and G. L. Kooyman. “Food of Emperor Penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) in the Western Ross Sea, Antarctica.” Marine Biology Berlin 130 (1998): 335–344.
Gandini, P., P. D. Boersma, E. Frere, M. Gandini, T. Holik, and V. Lichtschein. “Magellanic Penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus) Are Affected by Chronic Petroleum Pollution Along the Coast of Chubut, Argentina.” Auk 111 (1994): 20–27.