Fun Facts About Penguins

African Penguin Pair

Paul Mannix/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Penguins are some of the most recognizable and beloved birds in the world and even have their own holiday: World Penguin Day is celebrated every year on April 25. Penguins are also amazing birds because of their physical adaptations to survive in unusual climates and to live mostly at sea. Do you know what makes penguins so special and interesting?

facts about penguins
Illustration: Hugo Lin © The Spruce, 2018 

Penguin Trivia

  • There are 18 unique species of penguin in the world, though two species, the northern rockhopper and southern rockhopper, are sometimes considered the same species. While some penguins are widespread and thriving, 13 penguin species have declining populations. Five types of penguins are considered endangered and facing possible extinction if strong protection and conservation measures are not taken. Adopting a symbolic penguin is a great way anyone can help these birds.
  • Penguins are primarily found only in the Southern Hemisphere. While most people associate penguins with Antarctica, these birds are much more widespread than just cold regions. Penguin populations can be found in South America, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as many small islands in the southern Pacific Ocean. In captivity, penguins can be found all over the world.
  • The naturally northernmost penguin species is the Galapagos penguin, which lives year-round near the equator on the Galapagos Islands. This penguin regularly crosses the equator into the Northern Hemisphere as it swims while feeding.
  • Penguins lost the ability to fly millions of years ago, but their powerful flippers and streamlined bodies make them very accomplished swimmers. They are the fastest swimming and deepest diving species of any birds and can stay underwater up to 20 minutes at a time.
  • While swimming, penguins will leap in shallow arcs above the surface of the water, a practice called porpoising. This coats their plumage with tiny bubbles that reduce friction, allowing them to swim as fast as 22 miles per hour (35 kph). It may also help them evade predators and allows them to breathe more regularly, and some scientists theorize that penguins may make these leaps out of sheer joy.
  • The light front and dark back tuxedo-like coloration of classic penguin plumage is called countershading. This stark color pattern provides superb camouflage from above and below to protect penguins in the water. It also helps disguise penguins from their prey so they can hunt more successfully. Male and female penguins look alike and have the same coloration.
  • Penguins are carnivores that catch all their food live in the sea. Depending on the species they can eat a variety of different marine animals, including fish, squid, shrimp, krill, crabs, and other crustaceans. Because their diets are so specialized, penguins are called piscivorous.
  • Penguins’ eyes work better underwater than they do in the air, giving them superior eyesight to spot prey while hunting, even in cloudy, dark, or murky water, or where water is turbulent.
  • The emperor penguin is the largest penguin species, standing up to 48 inches tall and weighing up to 90 pounds when mature and not fasting to incubate eggs. The little penguin is the smallest penguin at just 12 inches tall and weighing only 2 pounds.
  • The yellow-eyed penguin is believed to be the rarest penguin species, with only approximately 5,000 birds surviving in the wild, though population numbers fluctuate. They can only be found along the southeastern coast of New Zealand and smaller nearby islands.
  • Penguins are highly social, colonial birds that form breeding colonies called rookeries numbering in the tens of thousands. Many generations may use the same nesting grounds for thousands of years, and the largest colonies can number in the millions, with many penguins staying with the same mates for years. Parents and chicks use their superb hearing to easily keep track of one another even in a crowd.
  • Emperor penguins and king penguins do not make any nests. Instead, a single egg for each mated pair is incubated on a parent’s feet and kept warm by a flap of skin called a brood pouch. Incubation can take 8 to10 weeks and occurs during winter, so the egg must always be kept warm and safe.
  • Emperor penguin males incubate their eggs for two months in the winter without eating while the females are at sea. During that time, males live off their fat reserves and may lose half their body weight. When the females return shortly after the chicks hatch, they switch parental duties, and the females fast while the males go to sea to replenish their fat stores.
  • Depending on the species, a wild penguin can live 15 to 20 years. During that time, they spend up to 75 percent of their lives at sea.
  • Penguins have many natural predators depending on their habitat, including leopard seals, sea lions, orcas, skuas, snakes, sharks, and foxes. Artificial threats are also a problem for penguins, including oil spills and other pollution, climate change that alters the distribution of food sources, invasive predators such as rats, and illegal poaching and egg harvesting. Fortunately, many penguins are receptive to captive breeding programs, and those successes in zoos, aviaries, and marine parks can help preserve penguin populations.