52 Interesting Facts About Penguins

Last updated on July 7th, 2024

Penguins are one of the most fascinating creatures in the world. They have exceptionally attractive colours, they live in extreme weather conditions and they have some extraordinary behaviours, too. Penguins are birds of the Spheniscidae family. Like all birds, penguins have feathers and reproduce by laying eggs. However, their feathers differ from those of terrestrial birds because they are waterproof. In place of wings, penguins have flippers that they use to propel themselves while swimming in water. The birds spend 75% of their life in water.

With these 52 facts about penguins, let us continue to learn more about these magnificent birds.

1. Penguins Inherited their Name from an Extinct Bird Species

According to penguin explorers, the bird inherited its name from the Auk. The now-extinct Auk bird got its name from the Welsh, a native Brittonic group. These people named the Auk ‘pen’ ‘gwyn,’ meaning white head. Nevertheless, some people also associate the name penguin with the Spanish term, ‘pingüino,’ or the Latin term ‘piquins.’ Both words refer to the fatty appearance of the bird.

2. Penguins Evolved from Flying Seabirds Millions of Years Ago

Research on fossils indicates that penguins are descendants of flying seabirds, specifically Petrels and Albatrosses. Primitive penguins gradually lost their ability to fly and adapted to life in water by diving and swimming.

facts about Penguins: Penguin basking in the sun
Image credit – Buratino5

3. Penguins are Native to New Zealand

Common belief has it that penguins originated in South America and Africa. Not so! Although many penguins are in Antarctica, fossil studies show their original home was New Zealand.

4. More than Half of Penguin Species Don’t Live in Antarctica

Although most people associate penguins with Antarctica, about eleven species have never been there. In reality, only the Emperor and the Adélie penguins are exclusive habitants of the Antarctica. Five other species move in and out of the region, including Kings, Rockhoppers, Gentoos, Chinstraps, and Macaroni.

5. Penguins Aren’t Exclusive to the Southern Hemisphere

Most people think penguins live exclusively in the southern hemisphere walking on Antarctica ice. However, many penguins live in other southern hemisphere countries like Chile, New Zealand, Peru, and South Africa. As an exception, the Galápagos penguins live in the northern hemisphere, just above the equator. Their name comes from their home in the Galápagos Islands.

6. Waimanu Manneringi is the Oldest Species in Penguin History

Ancient fossil explorers suggest that the oldest class of penguins was the Wainamu manneringi. The penguins existed about 60 million years ago. They lived in the rocks and shallow sea waters of New Zealand.

facts about penguins: penguin swimming under deep water
Image credit – PublicCo

7. Penguins Swim Best in Deep Waters

Although the distances don’t compare, Penguins will definitely beat the celebrated American swimmer Michael Phelps with their deep sea water speeds. Depending on their size, larger penguins can swim at 14kmh while smaller species reach 1.5kmh. Interestingly, penguins are slower on the water surface and only paddle like ducks.

8. Penguins are Carnivorous

Many terrestrial birds are granivorous, surviving mainly on seeds. Penguins are exclusively carnivores. They feed on seafood like fish, squid, crustaceans, plankton, and krill. Also, penguins do not hunt land animals for food. Instead, they move from land to the sea in search of prey when hungry. Besides, you can often see them searching for krill under snow.

9. Penguins are not Cold-blooded Amphibians

Many people think penguins are amphibians because they live both on land and in the water. But, unlike the cold-blooded amphibians who cannot generate internal body heat, penguins are warm-blooded. They generate body heat by shivering and flattening or fluffing their wings. They also use a heat exchange mechanism to move blood from warmer parts of their body to the colder ones.

10. Penguins are Excellent Divers

While smaller penguin species tend to look for food closer to the water surface, large penguins can dive into extreme depths. Emperor penguins can dive for half an hour in a single breath and go as deep as 1500ft (457m). The World’s longest penguin dive by an Emperor stands at 32.2 minutes at 1751ft (534m).

Gentoo Penguin
A Gentoo Penguin. Image credit – Alex Slaven

11. A Penguin Species Holds the Fastest Bird Swimmer Record

The Gentoo penguin species is the current holder of the fastest bird swimmer. Gentoos can swim at 36kmh, only a unit shy of Usain Bolt’s 37kmh record in the 100m in 2008.

12. Penguins have Knees and Longer Legs than What is Visible

Penguins look like they have extremely short legs, which many think is the reason they cannot walk fast and steadily. However, the water birds have longer legs hidden under their downy feathers. The legs have knees covered with feathers.

13. Penguins have Super Slow Walking Speeds

Because they are created to swim, walking is not a penguin’s specialty. That’s why the documentary images of walking penguins that we have in mind show them waddling on snow at super slow speeds, about 1.5mph. Their swimming ability has evolved better than their walking skill, considering they spend most of their time in the water.

14. Penguins Toboggan Better than They Walk on Land

Rather than walk while on icy land, penguins often prefer to toboggan or sled. They do this using their wings and legs to propel while they slide on ice, their bellies down. Sledding helps them cover more distance on ice than when walking. You can get an idea of penguin sledding in this video.

15. Penguin Species have Reduced from 25-18

Although there are 18 currently recognized penguin species, at least 7 former species are extinct. Some existing species like Gentoo have as many as 4 subspecies, according to a 2020 Bath University study.

16. Penguins are Generally an Endangered Species

Penguins are one of the world’s most endangered species. This is mainly due to climate change, marine pollution, reduced food sources, reduced habitat, fishing, and disease. The IUCN Red List shows that 12 of the current 18 species are decreasing. 3 species are vulnerable (VU), 5 are endangered (EN), 2 are near threatened (NT), and 2 are of least concern (LC).

17. Penguins are Safer from Predators on Land than in Water

Because of their freezing habitat in Antarctica, penguins don’t need to watch out for terrestrial predators. Nonetheless, the eggs and chicks can be preyed on by other water birds like Petrels and Skuas. In water, Killer Whales, Leopard Seals, and Sea Lions are their worst enemies.

group of penguins

18. Groups of Penguins Have Different Names on Land and Water

On land, a group of penguins is a waddle, rookery, or colony. In water, many penguins together are a raft.

19. Penguins are Extremely Prone to Malaria

One of the least known facts about penguins is that they are highly susceptible to malaria infection. Experts think this is primarily because of the rise in global temperatures. Malaria-infected penguins rarely show symptoms of the disease. Unfortunately, 50-80% of penguins that contract malaria die from it.

20. Penguin Males and Females Look Alike

Unlike many species where males and females have differentiating physical features, penguins are not sexually dimorphic. This means you can’t easily tell a male from a female by their looks. The Crested penguins are an exception, with their males appearing more robust than the females. Royal penguins also show sex differences in color during the breeding season.

facts about Penguins: antarctica penguin incubating
Image credit – jcrane

21. Rearing is a Shared Responsibility Among Penguins

While only female penguins lay the eggs, incubating them is a shared responsibility. Both males and females take turns lying on the eggs. Once the chicks hatch and can move around, adult penguins switch turns to watch over groups of chicks. This does not only protect the chicks from predators and from freezing, but it also allows their parents to go hunting in the sea.

22. The Emperor Penguin Incubates its Egg on its Feet

While all other penguin species build nests and sit on their eggs to hatch them, male Emperor penguins keep the egg in a brood skin pouch at their feet. The temperature in this pouch is warm enough to facilitate hatching, even when the surrounding temperatures are at their lowest. The male incubates the egg for 62-67 days while the female hunts in the ocean.

23. Most Penguin Species Usually Lay Eggs in Pairs

Except for the Emperor and King species that lay a single egg annually, other penguin species lay their eggs in pairs. The eggs can come 24-48 hours apart, and some penguins may abandon one egg to produce only a single chick.

24. Penguin Breeding Seasons Tend to Vary by Species Size

The breeding season of penguins varies by species. Larger penguin species like the King have the longest breeding interval of 14-16 months. Smaller species, like the Blue penguin breed all year long, with a breeding cycle of only 50 days. Most other species have an annual breeding season in warmer spring and summer.

25. A Penguin Holds the Longest Egg Incubating Record in a Bird

When male Emperor penguins incubate the eggs in the hatching pouch, they fast for 62-67 days. The fasting time is extended by the courtship and mating season. An Emperor penguin has the Guinness World Record for the longest egg incubating period. This penguin fasted for 134 days (about 4 months) while incubating an egg, the longest time any bird has ever fasted.

king penguin feather
Image credit – Ken_haley

26. Penguin Chicks Molt to Grow Their Waterproof Feathers

Penguin chicks are born with down feathers that are usually different from their adult color. At about 2-4 months of age, the chicks lose all their woolly chick feathers to grow the waterproof feathers that keep them warm and dry in water. After this, they can start swimming to explore the ocean waters and learn to hunt.

27. Adult Penguins Undergo ‘Catastrophic Molting’ Once Every Year

Molting in adult penguins is one of the scary facts about penguins. It is a period in which penguins shed all their feathers at the peak of summer every year.

This shedding is described as ‘catastrophic molting’ because the birds look like naked, vulnerable chicks. Besides, they have to stay fasting offshore for 3-4 weeks until their feathers grow back. By then, they are dressed well enough to go into the water and catch prey for food.

28. Molting in Penguins is Energy Intensive

Before they go offshore to lose and regrow their feathers, penguins intensify their food intake to store fat reserves. This helps them survive the energy-intensive molting period. By the time they lose and regrow all their feathers, the birds have lost about half their body size. A study confirmed an intensive protein utilization in penguins during molting, accompanied by notable changes in hormonal action.

29. There are Four Different Types of Feathers on a Penguin

When you spot a penguin, you notice the Contour feathers emphasizing its tuxedo look and torpedo-shaped body. But penguins also have 3 other types of feathers:

  • Aftershafts grow at the base of the contour feathers.
  • Plumules or down feathers grow close to the skin.
  • Filoplumes are tiny feathers with spike-like ends.

facts about penguins: penguin balancing while walking

30. Slimmer Penguins have a Steadier Walk

When Penguins go into the ocean in search of food, they store up food for when they are offshore. This increases their size and makes them heavier. Researchers have found that heavier penguins have less walking balance. Lighter and slimmer penguins have a steadier walk.

31. Penguins do not have teeth

As they are birds, they do not have any teeth. Their tongues and mouths are lined with bristles that point towards their throat. Thus, they can easily swallow preys like squid, fish and shrimp.

32. Penguins Spot Their Chicks in a Large Colony by Sound

Penguin colonies can vary from hundreds of nesting pairs to thousands of them. Despite the music made by chick and parent penguins in a colony, parent penguins can tell out their own chicks from the rest just by sound. Experts estimate that penguins have a hearing range of 100-15000 Hz with the best sensitivity at 600-4000Hz.

penguin feeding young ones
Image credit – clara5656

33. Penguin Feed their Chicks with Semi-digested Food

The chicks can not digest the food which the adults can eat. Hence, when penguins with chicks go hunting, they eat for themselves and their chicks as well. They feed their chicks in three different ways. First, the food is ingested and stored to be regurgitated later and fed directly into the mouths of the young ones.

34. Method of “Refrigeration”

The second effective method by which the Penguins feed their chicks is “Refrigeration”.  Penguins can also swallow and store whole prey in the stomach through ‘refrigeration.’ In this method the food is not digested instead it is kept as it is with the help of certain enzymes at body temperature. They will then vomit the stored food to feed their young ones.

35. Male Penguins Feed Chicks with ‘Crop Milk’

As we already now that female and male penguins take turns to nurse the chicks. When the mothers go hunting under the water the males (in some penguin species) feed their young ones by using this third method. The males secret a milk-like substance from a storage pouch (crop) in their throat. This secretion is often described as ‘crop milk’ and is rich in protein and fats. The crop milk has similar benefits as a mammal’s milk for its young.

36. Penguins Store Stones in Their Gizzards

Penguins swallow stones, sometimes in large quantities. A study with King penguins confirmed the presence of stones in the gizzards. We don’t know why the birds ingest stones, but experts think they have these three functions:

  • aid in food breakdown during digestion
  • minimize fasting discomfort
  • enhance springiness during diving and swimming

37. Some Penguins Species Reflect UV light

Emperor and King penguins have an ultraviolet (UV) or yellow-orange spot on their beaks that reflects UV light. Experts associate the light with a sexual attraction function during mating and reproduction.

38. A Flattened Cornea Helps Penguins See Better in Water

The cornea is the part of the eye that helps create a focused image on the retina. Because water and eye fluid are similar, penguins see further in the water. But this far-sightedness can distort the image. The flat cornea of a penguin’s eye helps prevent that image distortion with reduced refraction.

penguin eyes
Image credit – Anders_Mejlvang

39. Penguins Have a Salt-filtering Gland Behind Their Eyes

Considering they swim in salty water most of the time, penguins are bound to take some of it into their bodies. Luckily, these marine birds have a supraorbital gland behind the eyes that prevents salt accumulation in their bloodstream.

40. Penguin Ears Have Protective Tissues for Pressure Regulation

When penguins dive into the water, pressure change can threaten the delicate middle and inner ear parts. Research has discovered that penguin ears are protected from damage by venous tissues. The tissues expand and fill up space in the ear to regulate pressure and prevent damage.

. . . continue reading on the next page