With their upright stance, tuxedo-like plumage, and short wings at their sides, Penguins have an almost human-like quality that separates them from all other animals. Have you ever wondered if they’re really birds at all? Read along with us to learn some fascinating facts about one of the Earth's most unique marine creatures!
In case you were still wondering, Penguins are indeed birds! They fall under the same class (Aves) as everything from Emus to Eagles, although they are part of a specialized bird family, mostly limited to the cold oceans of the Southern Hemisphere. Taxonomically speaking, there are 18 extant species of Penguins in six genera in the Spheniscidae family.
Pair of Emperor Penguins - With their upright stance, tuxedo-like plumage, and short wings at their sides, Penguins have an almost human-like quality that separates them from all other animals
Despite their specialized physical characteristics and lifestyle, Penguins have all the typical hallmarks of the bird body plan. Continue reading to learn more about Penguin anatomy.
Penguins range in size from the massive 90lb (40kg) Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) to the diminutive Little Penguin (Eudyptula minor) at just 3lb (1.5kg). Despite their unusual short-legged appearance, all Penguins have knees.
However, Penguin bone structure does differ from other birds in one interesting and important way. These birds don’t have hollow bones because a denser body helps them dive, and they simply don’t need to be lightweight like flying birds do.
Penguins have specialized feathers to suit their aquatic lifestyle and keep them warm both on land and in the water. However, they must molt just like other birds, and it can take several weeks to complete the process.
Despite being flightless, Penguins have four different types of feathers: contour feathers, filoplumes, plumules, and afterfeathers. These deep-diving birds use secretions from their uropygial (preening) gland to waterproof and maintain their feathers.
Penguins feed primarily on fish, squid, and krill that they catch underwater. This specialized diet requires a specialized beak, although their shapes do vary depending on their species.
King Penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus), for example, have long, thin, and slightly downcurved beaks, while Macaroni Penguins (Eudyptus chrysolophus) and other Eudyptus species have much shorter and stouter bills. Penguins also have remarkable spiny tongues for gripping their prey.
Penguins lay hard-shelled eggs, just like other birds. They lay one or two eggs, which both parents incubate in most species. Penguins lay thick-shelled, large eggs, from about 2 inches (5cm) in the smallest species up to nearly 5 inches (12cm) and a pound (450g) in the Emperor Penguin.
King Penguins have long, thin, and slightly downcurved beaks
Macaroni Penguins and other Eudyptus species have much shorter and stouter bills
Penguins are not the only flightless birds in the world today, although they are the most diverse group. In fact, the 18 unique species in their family make up less than a third of the world’s flightless bird species. Penguins evolved for life in the water, losing their flight in favor of swimming and diving abilities.
There are other seabirds that have lost their flight for similar reasons. The Flightless Cormorant (Nannopterum harrisi) of the Galapagos Islands is an interesting surviving example, while the Great Auk (Pinguinis impennis) was pushed to extinction in the mid-19th century.
Flightlessness isn’t only useful for swimming birds. Several land birds have lost their flight in favor of a terrestrial lifestyle. Ratites like Ostriches, Rheas, Emus, and Cassowaries have become giants of the bird world that can run at impressive speeds.
Penguins are believed to have evolved over 60 million years ago, probably in New Zealand, where a fossil of the long-extinct flightless Waimuna Penguin was discovered. From the time they first appeared until the present, over 50 species have evolved and gone extinct, including truly gigantic birds like Kumimanu that may have weighed over 330 pounds (150kg)!
Penguins are a great example of convergent evolution, a process where completely unrelated species evolve to inhabit the same environment or exploit a particular resource. Like seals and dolphins, Penguins have evolved a streamlined body shape and flippers to navigate the marine environment.
The Galapagos Penguin lives at the Equator off the West Coast of South America
Penguins are only found in and around the marine environment. They come to land to rest, molt, and nest, either laying their eggs in burrows, under vegetation, or in the case of the Emperor Penguin, on their own feet.
Most Penguin species occur at high latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, although some species range much further north, reaching the coasts of Africa, New Zealand, and South America.
Penguins are ideally suited to their environment, with white plumage below and dark plumage above for camouflage, short, streamlined, flipper-like wings for swimming at speed, and webbed feet for steering underwater and moving around on land.
While it’s true that Penguins require cool water, they certainly aren’t limited to icy habitats around the South Pole. The African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) breeds around the coast of South Africa, where temperatures regularly reach the mid-80s Fahrenheit (approximately 30°C), and the Galapagos Penguin (S. mendiculus) lives at the Equator off the West Coast of South America.
Check out this guide to learn much more about Penguin habitat and distribution.
Another common misconception about Penguins is that they have fur. Like all birds, Penguins have feathers, although their plumage is specialized for swimming rather than flight. While Penguins can’t fly, they certainly do have wings. These birds flap their wings underwater to propel themselves.
The African Penguin breeds around the coast of South Africa where temperatures regularly reach the mid-80s Fahrenheit (approximately 30°C)
Most Penguin species have declined considerably, and five species are already endangered, according to the IUCN Red List. Reduced fish stocks due to overfishing and a warming climate are major concerns.
Even though many bird watchers will never see a wild Penguin in its natural habitat, we should all be concerned with their future. You can play your part by reducing your carbon footprint and supporting sustainable fishing only.
Evolution has shaped Penguins to be expert swimmers, but this specialization has come at the cost of flight. Their bodies are too muscular, their bones are too dense, and their wings are too short to stay airborne.
None of the 18 living Penguin species in the Speniscidae family can fly. These specialized birds are believed to have lost their flight way back around the time the last non-avian dinosaurs went extinct.
Penguins differ from flightless land birds in the development of their legs and feet. Ostriches and other flightless land birds have long legs with powerful muscles for speed and stamina, while Penguins are relatively clumsy on land.
Penguins are relatively long-lived birds, and some species can live as long as thirty years. That may be much longer than smaller land birds, but a long lifespan is not unusual for seabirds. Some Albatrosses can live for over 70 years, while some Gulls can live for over 40 years.
So there you have it: Penguins are true birds! They may look and act very differently from your average songbird, but these remarkable avians still have wings, feathers, bills, and many other tell-tale anatomical features. The specialized physical adaptations and unique behaviors they have developed have allowed them to thrive in some of the harshest environments on Earth for millions of years.
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