Penguins evolved over 60 million years ago from birds who flew through the air into birds who swam through the water. While giant penguins no longer roam the Earth, as they did up until 25 million years ago, penguins continue to hold a prime spot in our love of nature.
While many penguin species are thriving, some are listed on the Endangered Species list. The best way we can ensure we continue to have penguins in the future is to protect their natural habitat in the Southern Hemisphere, including Antarctica.
Here are 33 Interesting Facts about Penguins you might not know.
33 Interesting Facts about Penguins
1. Penguins Lost the Ability to Fly 62 Million Years Ago
One of the most interesting facts about penguins is just how long ago penguins began evolving towards life in the water and lost their ability to fly.
The oldest fossil of a penguin species dates from over 60 million years ago! This penguin had already lost the ability to fly. While it was not as well adapted to marine life as today’s penguins, it is definitely a penguin ancestor.
Scientists speculate that these ancient penguins swam mostly on the top of the water. However, their wings had already evolved to be better used as flippers in the water and the bird could no longer fly.
2. 170 lb. Giant Penguins Lived in New Zealand 40 Million Years Ago
When we look at fossil records, we find some amazing ancestors of the penguins we are used to seeing today. Emperor penguins are the largest penguins alive today. These birds can be up to 4 feet tall and can weigh 100 pounds.
Giant penguin fossils have been found in New Zealand. These penguins lived 40 million years ago and were nearly 6 feet tall and weighed over 170 pounds! Scientists don’t know whether this was a separate lineage of penguins or simply the result of environmental factors. It may have been that there was an abundance of food available with few competitors, so the penguins grew larger.
Competition from other marine animals, such as the whale species emerging at the time, eventually displaced the giant penguins and they became extinct approximately 25 million years ago.
3. Don’t Get Any Blood on That Tuxedo! Penguins Are Carnivores
One thing we know about penguins is that these creatures are well-loved by children and adults all around the world. There’s something about the well-dressed tuxedo look of some species of penguins that draws us to them. Many children’s movies and cartoons feature penguins as prominent characters.
Make no mistake, these cuddly-looking creatures are carnivores! This means that penguins eat only meat and no vegetables. Penguins survive on a diet of mostly fish. They also consume other marine animals, including squid and octopuses. This diet is partly a result of the region of the Earth they inhabit. Nearly all penguins live in the Southern Hemisphere, and many live in the Antarctic where there is little to no vegetation.
Although penguins are predators, they are also prey. Penguin chicks can be eaten by other birds when they are smaller and more vulnerable. Adult penguins can be preyed on by leopard seals and killer whales, or orcas. The orca is an apex predator. Given that the penguin is preyed on by the orca and few other animals, it is very near the top of the marine food chain.
4. Penguins Can Withstand −40 °F by Working Together in Heat Packs
Penguins have many special adaptations for living in cold weather. They have a thick layer of feathers that acts as insulation, and they can also control the flow of blood to their extremities, maintaining just enough blood flow to keep those body parts from freezing.
Penguins also exhibit a unique behavior that demonstrates their ability to work together as a group to provide benefits to each individual. During the coldest months of winter, after the mother emperor penguin lays her egg, she goes hunting while the father stands over the egg to keep it warm.
Temperatures during this time in Antarctica can reach −40 °F, with winds near 90 miles per hour! To stay warm, the male penguins huddle in so-called heat packs that allow them to maintain their individual body temperatures by creating a shared thermal envelope that protects the group.
This behavior goes beyond simply huddling in groups to stay warm. The penguins rotate position so that each penguin gets a chance to be in the middle of the heat pack where it’s warmest, and no penguin has to stay in the coldest part of the heat pack, on the outside exposed to wind, for too long.
5. Emperor Penguins Can Dive Up to 1,854 Ft. Deep
The larger body size of the emperor penguin allows them to go to extremes that other penguins cannot. For instance, when it comes to diving, emperor penguins are capable of diving to depths of 1,854 ft. in search of fish and squid to eat.
To compensate for the extreme pressures at these depths – up to 40 times the pressure at the surface – emperor penguins have special adaptations. Their bones are solid instead of air-filled, like other birds, to reduce barotrauma.
During deep dives, the emperor penguin’s heart rate drops to 15-20 beats per minute to conserve oxygen. The emperor penguin’s blood also has special properties that allow the bird to continue to function with very little oxygen.
6. Penguins Can Drink Salt Water and Not Get Sick
It seems that penguins are tough inside and out. Their digestive system has unique features that allow the bird to survive and thrive in its marine lifestyle. Penguins have a supraorbital gland, which is a gland that filters out sodium chloride from the bloodstream. In other words, the gland filters salt out of the blood. This allows penguins to drink salt water when they are thirsty! Don’t try that if you get stranded on a desert island, however – it would kill you!
7. Penguins Live in Colonies as Large as 200,000 Birds
As we read earlier, male penguins huddle in heat packs to stay warm in the frigid Antarctic winter. Penguins are social animals, and they like to hang out!
Emperor penguins live in colonies that number into the thousands, but the largest group gatherings are those of the macaroni penguins. Macaroni penguins can group in colonies of several hundred thousand birds at once!
As a result of living in these large groups, penguins have adapted many unique vocalizations and displays to communicate with other birds. It appears that they haven’t developed a complex language but they do have a number of displays that accompany mating. These displays occur between male and female penguins and between male penguins that may be competing for the same female.
8. Emperor Penguins Lay Only 1 Egg Each Breeding Season
Emperor penguins breed during the cold winter months in Antarctica and they only lay one egg each breeding season. This must put a lot of pressure on the father penguins that must bear the cold winter weather and protect the egg while the mother penguin fishes.
Emperor penguins are the fifth heaviest bird species on Earth. During the cold winter months, while they protect their one egg, father penguins can lose 25% or more of their body weight. Despite this effort to protect the egg, only 19% of emperor penguin chicks survive their first year of life.
Emperor penguins live on average to be 20 years old, with scientists speculating that some individuals may live as long as 50 years. As a result of a long life expectancy and the high infant mortality rate, 80% of the emperor penguin population is five years or older.
9. There are No Penguins that Live in the Northern Hemisphere
Penguins only live in the wild in the Southern Hemisphere. The only penguins that ever enter the Northern Hemisphere are penguins living near the Galapagos Islands who may travel north to feed.
When penguins were first discovered, they were mistakenly thought to be auks. Auks are northern birds that share some similarities in appearance with penguins. However, they are completely separate animals. At one time, there were flightless auks that had similar traits as penguins. Modern auks are capable of flying, but they are not the most majestic birds in the sky.
Auks are actually separate animals that share traits with penguins due to convergent evolution. This means that auks and penguins evolved similar traits at the same time, but not through a process of breeding with each other. They developed these similar traits separately, in response to the similarities of the Arctic and Antarctic environments.
10. Penguins Can Swim Up to 17 Miles Per Hour
What evolution took away from penguins in terms of flight, it gave back when it comes to swimming ability. Their vestigal wings are now powerful flippers that can propel them through the water at incredible speeds.
Penguins typically idle around at 4-7 miles per hour. But, when an orca or leopard seal is stalking them, they step on the gas and can hit speeds as high as 17 miles per hour!
Another benefit of evolution is their streamlined body. This helps the penguin swim fast, and to expend less energy on swimming when it’s not being chased by a killer whale.
11. Male gentoo penguins give pebbles to females to attract them as mates.
12. Many penguins slide on their bellies over ice and snow. This means they use less energy and it is faster than walking. And it’s called tobogganing.
13. Penguins can hold their breath for up to twenty minutes.
14. Whilst most penguins are black and white there is a very small number that is all white or all black.
15. There are an estimated 18 million Macaroni Penguins on the planet.
16. In addition to looking great, the black and white colours of the penguin provides it with camouflage called countershading.
17. A group of penguins on land is called a waddle but when there are a group of penguins in the water they are called a raft. There are also other names for groups of penguins including rookery, colony, and huddle.
18. Penguins have a gland near the base of their tail that provides waterproof oil. They spend several hours a day covering their feathers with this oil.
19. Some species of penguins can march up to 60 miles across the sea to get to their breeding grounds.
20. Penguin feet help to steer penguins when they are swimming. They use their feet as rudders to help them steer and to determine their direction.
21. The smallest species of penguin is called the Little Blue Penguin or fairy penguin. They are 13 to 15 inches tall and weigh no more than three pounds.
22. Have you noticed that penguins jump into the air before they dive? This movement releases air bubbles from their feathers and allows them to swim up to 2 or 3 times faster.
23. Penguins don’t have teeth.
24. Penguins have one giant molt each year. Over a period of 2 to 3 weeks, they lose all of their feathers. They can’t swim or fish until their insulation grows back.
25. Chubby penguins are more appealing as mates. This is because they are more likely to survive for longer when females go and hunt for fish.
26. Scientists often find penguins through their poop. Penguins produce so much dark poop that it can even be seen from space sometimes.
27. Penguins have dense skeletons that help them to dive easily.
28. Penguins are generally quite friendly with humans. The reason for this is that all of their main predators such as whales and sea lions reside in the water. As their interactions with humans tend to be on land they see them as less threatening.
29. The name penguin comes from a Canadian bird that is now extinct called an auk. As they looked like auks explorers used the name Pinguinis impennis.
30. Penguin chicks look particularly cute as their first coat of feathers is light down. Their weatherproof layer grows in later.
31. Penguins spend about half of their time in the water and half on land.
32. Chinstrap penguins get their name from the thin black band under their head which means they can look like they are wearing a helmet. They are considered the most aggressive type of penguin.
33. Hoiho or yellow-eyed penguins are an endangered species of penguins native to New Zealand. It is thought that there are only about 4000 hoiho penguins.