Tobogganing Definition

Penguin Sliding Behavior

Emperor Penguin Tobogganing

Christopher Michel / Flickr / CC by 2.0

Penguins know how to get around. One of their favorite modes of transportation is tobogganing. Learn about this penguin sliding behavior, including why penguins, and a few other types of birds, use this action.

What Is Tobogganing?

(verb) As it relates to birds, tobogganing is the act of a penguin laying on its stomach and propelling itself horizontally, sliding across the ice and snow using its flippers and feet for propulsion, steering, and braking. Tobogganing is a faster, more efficient, easier way for penguins to cross large stretches of ice instead of walking.


(rhymes with "to blog a thing" and "to fog a ring")

Why Penguins Toboggan

Penguins have short, thick legs and large, webbed feet set well back on their bodies. This makes walking cumbersome and slow, and in fact, most penguins can only reach up to two miles per hour while walking. Tobogganing is a better choice for faster movement, particularly on flat or slightly descending surfaces where the birds can pick up much more speed than if they were walking. The top speed of tobogganing can be several times the bird's walking speed, depending on the snow conditions and the reason why the bird is sliding instead of walking.

Not all tobogganing is faster, however, and penguins may be relatively slow as they toboggan if the snow is fresh or deep, or if they are not urgent in their movements. Speed notwithstanding, tobogganing is still a more efficient way for them to travel than walking. When birds are laying on the snow or ice, their weight is distributed over a broader area and they do not sink into soft, powdery snow as far as they would if they were on their feet. This makes traveling easier and more efficient, with less energy expended for the overall distance traveled, no matter what the speed.

Tobogganing does come with a cost, however. As the birds slide over the ice, their plumage becomes more worn and disrupted. This increases feather wear and may disrupt the insulating properties of the plumage. Penguins that toboggan frequently will need to spend a greater amount of time preening to keep their plumage in peak condition. Furthermore, because more of the bird's body is in contact with snow and ice while tobogganing, they can also lose body temperature more quickly if their insulation from feathers and body fat isn't intact.

In addition to just traveling, tobogganing is also essential for escaping predators such as skuas or seals that may attack penguins on the ice. The change in height and burst of speed penguins get when they drop to their bellies to toboggan can thwart a predator. Penguins may also quickly toboggan away from unfamiliar visitors, such as human tourists or researchers.

In some cases, it appears that penguins use tobogganing simply for fun and enjoyment. It is well known that different birds will play games and amuse themselves, and tobogganing can be a fun game for a penguin.

What Tobogganing Isn't

It is important to realize that while tobogganing is a relatively common type of locomotion for penguins, it is unlike other types of movement. Tobogganing should not be confused with:

  • Flying: Penguins are flightless birds, and while they may use their flippers to help propel themselves forward while tobogganing, they are not flying. While tobogganing, the flippers are not flapping as rapidly as a flying bird would use their wings and the bird is not in the air. Even if a penguin reaches enough speed to go airborne briefly while tobogganing over a bump or ridge, this short jump is not a type of flight.
  • Swimming: Swimming is exclusively in the water. Tobogganing does use similar motions of the flippers and feet, but when tobogganing the penguin's head is typically held more upright so the bird can see its route and progress better. While swimming, the head is held down in line with the body for more efficient streamlining through the water, and even when porpoising, the body and head alignment is different than when tobogganing.
  • Falling: Because many penguin species live on the ice, slip-and-falls are frequently part of their movements. Tobogganing is a deliberate, distinctive motion, however, rather than a clumsy, uncoordinated accident. When penguins fall, they may land on their backs or sides, but tobogganing is always on the chest and stomach.
  • Laying: Penguins will often lay on their bellies, but just laying on ice or snow is not tobogganing. Movement is essential for tobogganing, and while a penguin may have brief pauses in its motion as it toboggans, any extended stop is no longer tobogganing but is just laying down.

Birds That Toboggan

All penguin species can use tobogganing for land locomotion, but the extent of tobogganing depends on the local habitat and surface conditions. Penguins that live almost exclusively in Antarctica, such as the Emperor penguin, adelie penguin, chinstrap penguin, and gentoo penguin, use tobogganing more frequently than penguin species in more temperate areas. Galapagos penguins and African penguins, for example, rarely use tobogganing, but may still toboggan over slippery rocks, well-packed wet sand, or surf edges.

While penguins are the most well-known tobogganers in the avian world, several similar birds may also toboggan. Puffins, murres, and razorbills may infrequently use tobogganing, but they are not as well known for the behavior and are not as skillful at sliding as penguins.

Also Known As

Sliding, Sledging