Fun Facts About Penguins

emperor penguin, animal facts, fun facts
Credit: Dr. Robert Ricker, NOAA/NOS/ORR

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Aves

Order: Sphenisciformes

Family: Spheniscidae

Genus: Megadyptes, Eudyptes, Spheniscus, Eudyptula, Pygoscelis, and Aptenodytes

Species and Subspecies: Aptenodytes forsteri (Emperor penguin), Aptenodytes patagonicus (King penguin); Pygoscelis adeliae (Adélie penguin), Pygoscelis papua, (Gentoo penguin), Pygoscelis antarcticus (Chinstrap penguin); Eudyptes chrysocome (Rockhopper penguin), Eudyptes chrysolophus (Macaroni penguin), Eudyptes schlegeli (Royal penguin), Eudyptes pachyrhynchus (Fiordland crested penguin), Eudyptes sclateri (Erect-crested penguin), Eudyptes robustus (Snares Island penguin); Megadyptes antipodes (Yellow-eyed penguin); Eudyptula minor (Fairy penguin); Spheniscus magellanicus (Magellanic penguin), Spheniscus humboldti (Humboldt penguin), Spheniscus demersus (African penguin), Spheniscus mendiculus (Galápagos penguin).


See images of all of the species and subspecies of penguins and read more about them here:

Flightless Birds: All 17 Penguin Species


Basic penguin facts:

Penguins are one of about 40 species of flightless birds, a category that also includes the ostrich, rhea, cassowary, emu and kiwi. Penguins are neither the smallest nor the largest of the lot, but some may think of them as the cutest.

These waddling birds are known for their white bellies and dark-colored backs and wings, resembling a tuxedo. This distinct coloring is thought to hide penguins from predators in the sea. Besides its coloring, a penguin’s body is designed for swimming, and includes tapering at both ends of the body for hydrodynamics, paddle-like wings and web-shaped feet. 

The largest penguin subspecies is the Emperor penguin — an average Emperor penguin stands about 45 inches tall (114 centimeters) and weighs 90 pounds (41 kilograms). The smallest is the fairy penguin, also known as little blue penguin — these birds stand 10 inches (25 cm) tall on average and weigh about 2.5 pounds (1.1 kg).

Penguins eat only seafood, including krill, squid and various fish. Because they don’t have teeth, penguins swallow their prey whole. They use their pointy beaks to catch the prey and their textured tongues to hold onto the food while they swallow it.

While penguins can spend as much as 75 percent of their time at sea, all penguins give birth to their young on land or sea ice.


Where penguins live:

Penguins live almost exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere, on Antarctica, New Zealand, and the southern tips of South America and Africa. The slight exception is the Galápagos penguin; one of the islands they dwell on just crosses the equator, so they occasionally visit the Northern Hemisphere.

Penguins typically live on islands or other secluded areas where there is minimal threat from land predators.

The ideal climate for these flightless birds depends on the species. For example, the Galápagos penguins live on tropical islands while the Emperor and Adélie penguins are found on the ice of Antarctica.


Conservation status: Threatened to Endangered

Of the 17 penguin species on Earth, 13 are considered either threatened or endangered, with some species on the brink of extinction.

Penguin species that are experiencing declining populations include: the erect-crested penguin, a New Zealand native that has lost about 70 percent of its population over the last 20 years; the Galápagos penguin, which has experienced a population decline of over 50 percent since the 1970s, and faces a 30-percent chance of extinction in this century, according to Tony LaCasse, spokesman for the New England Aquarium; the yellow-eyed penguin of New Zealand; the northern rockhopper penguin; and the African penguin.

Penguins face several threats to their survival, the most common of which are pollution and human encroachment to their habitats, as well as new mammalian predators such as dogs, cats and weasels that have been introduced by humans to penguins' environments. Other threats include commercial fishing, as penguins are sometimes caught as a byproduct, oil dumping and algae blooms, which wreak havoc on their food supply and habitats. 

In addition, climate change appears to be playing a large role in the declining population of penguin species. As waters warm, the ice that makes up their habitat melts, leaving limited space available for penguins to breed.


Odd facts:

The stereotypical male and female parenting roles are reversed for Emperor penguins. The male penguin incubates his mate’s egg while she goes out to feed. And once the little chick hatches, the male penguin feeds it with milk that he produces in his esophagus.

To keep warm in their chilly environment, penguins’ bodies are insulated with a thick layer of blubber and covered in waterproof feathers.

Penguins shed their feathers and grow new ones every year during a two- to three-week period. (Penguins spend a lot of time grooming in order to keep their down coats in tip-top shape for an entire year.)

The Magellanic penguin is named after Ferdinand Magellan, who first spotted them in 1520 and who also gave his name to the Straits of Magellan at the southern tip of South Africa, where the penguins dwell.

While most penguin species are not sexually dimorphic (male and female penguins look alike), during mating season you might be able to distinguish the female penguin from the muddy footprints on her back left by males during mating.


Other resources:

World Wildlife Fund (WWF)

International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Species

Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)

Penguin Science

Sea World

Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust

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