Penguins are flightless seabirds that live almost exclusively below the equator. Some island-dwellers can be found in warmer climates, but most—including the emperor, adélie, chinstrap, and gentoo penguins—reside in and around icy Antarctica. A thick layer of blubber and tightly-packed, oily feathers are ideal for colder temperatures.
The 18 different species of penguins can widely in shape and size but all have black bodies and white bellies. This protective countershading allows them to hide from predators like leopard seals and orcas while they swim.
While penguins can’t fly, their stiff flippers, webbed feet, and sleek shape make them expert swimmers. In fact, they spend most of their lives in the ocean and do nearly all of their hunting for krill, squid, and crabs underwater. They can swim about 15 miles an hour, and when they want to go faster, they often porpoise or leap out of the water as they swim.
The type of food utilized varies with the species, the geographic region, and the time of year. Most of the smaller southern penguins feed primarily upon krill, which attain high densities in the rich, well-oxygenated Antarctic waters. Cephalopods (squid and cuttlefish) and small fishes may form substantial fractions of the food, and in a few, such as the African penguin, fish is the basic element of the diet. The total weight of food consumed by a large penguin colony is prodigious, often exceeding several tons per day.
Penguins come ashore to lay their eggs and raise their chicks. Most penguins stay with their mate for many years and lay only one or two eggs at a time. Parents take turns keeping their eggs warm, and when they hatch, feeding and protecting the chicks. For a few weeks each year, thousands of baby birds wait together while their parents forage for food. When mother and father return, chicks listen for the unique audio frequency of their parents’ call, allowing them to reunite in a large, noisy crowd.
Soon after the chicks fledge, parents will begin molting. Unlike some birds that shed a few feathers at a time, penguins lose all their feathers at once during a process called the catastrophic molt. They condense this process to just a few weeks because they must fast during this time—they can’t hunt without their waterproof feathers.
Life on Land
On land, penguins have an upright stance and tend to waddle, hop, or run with their bodies angled forward. Polar penguins can travel long distances quickly by “tobogganing,” or sliding across the ice on their bellies and pushing forward with their feet. If it’s especially cold, they huddle together in large colonies that protect them from predators and provide warmth. These colonies consist of thousands, and even millions, of penguins.
|Habitat:||Southern Hemisphere & Galapagos Islands|
|Location:||Angola, Antarctica, Argentina, Australia, Chile, Namibia, New Zealand, and South Africa|
|Lifespan:||6 – 25 Years (Depending on Species)|
|Size:||1.3 – 3.7 ft (0.4 – 1.1 m)|
|Weight:||2 – 78 Pounds (1 – 35 kg)|
|Color:||Black on their back, and white on their front. Some species have distinct markings or colors, such as yellow and orange.|
|Diet:||Seafood, such as fish, krill, squid|
|Predators:||Seals, Sea Lion, Killer Whales.|
|Top Speed:||6 – 9 kph (4 – 6 mph)|
|No. of Species:||17 – 20|
|Conservation Status:||5 Species Endangered: Northern Rockhopper, Erect-crested, Yellow-eyed, African, Galapagos.5 Species Vulnerable: Humboldt, Macaroni, S. Rockhopper, Fiordland, Snares.3 Species Near-Threatened: Emperor, Magellanic, Royal.|
Penguins are amazingly loyal and caring animals that take care of their families in ways comparable to humans. In most species, male and females are monogamous. Emperor Penguins, for example, usually mate for life. Often, in some species, the monogamy is just for the season, usually due to a penguin’s difficulty in finding its mate. Courtship involves three main displays, “ecstatic” (or trumpeting by the males), “mutual” (joint display), and “bowing” of their heads. Ultimately, it is the female that chooses her mate.
Most penguins lay two eggs in their “clutch,” or nest (except for the “great penguins” which lay only one). Unfortunately, only one chick normally survives, but that one chick is well cared for and protected. The male and female parents normally take turns feeding the penguin, and in some species, juveniles are gathered in groups while the parents hunt. After several months, the chick is able to feed on its own.