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14 fun facts about penguins

Penguins are an iconic part of the wildlife across Antarctica and the Southern Hemisphere. With the help of our resident penguin expert, we've answered the 14 most frequently asked questions about these loveable birds.

1 mins read

Penguins are one of Antarctica's more iconic residents, and with roughly 12 million living on this frozen continent: from the cute little penguin families waddling over the ice to majestic penguins standing tall and proud with their distinctive yellow markings and black feathers resembling a tailcoat. However, it's not just in Antarctica that you can find these lovable animals - they can be found all across the Southern Hemisphere as far north as the Galapagos Islands or as east as Australia and New Zealand. We sat down with our resident Penguin Expert, Rob Lidstone-Scott B.Sc. Biology and M.Sc. Ecology, to bring you 14 weird and wonderful facts about penguins.

Your top penguin questions answered.

1. Are penguins birds?

Yes, penguins are birds - although they swim and cannot fly. In common with other birds, they have feathers and lay eggs. The penguins' feathers are stiff and closely overlay each other to create an isolating layer, which traps air beneath it and protects against the harsh Antarctic weather.

2. Where do penguins live?

Penguins make their homes in different climates, depending on the type of penguin. However, all penguins live in the Southern Hemisphere – there are no penguins in the Arctic. From the most northerly Galapagos penguin (which may venture north of the equator) to the Emperor and Adelié penguins which only breed in Antarctica.

3. How big are penguins?

Like other animals, penguins vary in size. The tallest is the aptly named Emperor penguin of Antarctica at 1.2 metres, whilst the smallest is again the aptly named Little penguin of New Zealand which is less than 40cm tall. The six largest penguin species all live in the Antarctic or within the Antarctic Circle.

4. What do penguins eat?

Penguins are carnivorous, eating fish, krill, squid, octopus, and other small sea creatures. Broadly speaking, smaller penguins consume mainly krill and smaller fish, whereas larger penguins consume larger fish, squid, and octopus. Male Emperor penguins will go without food for up to 115 days, whilst they incubate the single egg on their feet through the harsh Antarctic winter.

5. Why are penguins black and white?

Apart from the descriptively named little blue penguin from Australasia, most penguins are black and white, as it gives camouflage from above (against predators) and below (against prey). Occasionally, the black & white theme fails as in the example of ‘Lucy’ – she is leucistic, a genetically-determined lack of dark pigment making her weirdly pale.

6. Do penguins lose their feathers?

Unlike most birds who molt (lose feathers and regrow them) a few at a time throughout the year, penguins lose all their feathers at once – this is known as ‘catastrophic molt’. As their feathers provide insulation, they are unable to go out to sea and hunt for food, so instead they stand around looking thoroughly miserable while the new feathers grow.

Gentoo Penguin on Damoy Point in Antarctica. Credit: Andreas Kalvig Anderson

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7. How deep do penguins dive?

Penguins are incredible swimmers and can stay submerged for up to 30 minutes, but typically dive for around 5 minutes. Emperor penguins regularly dive to depths of between 100m and 200m, the deepest dive ever recorded was at 565m, lasting 22mins.

8. How fast do penguins swim?

Don't let the famous penguin walk fool you, these iconic birds are fast in the water. Whilst underwater penguins can swim at about 4-7mph, but closer to the surface, these speeds increase. Gentoos are the fastest swimming penguins, reaching speeds of 36km/h (22mph).

9. Do polar bears eat penguins?

This is a common misconception for these two iconic polar animals. Since there are no penguins in the Arctic and no polar bears in the Southern Hemisphere, both animals have never met in the wild. Therefore penguins don’t get eaten by polar bears.

10. What is a group of penguins called?

Penguins breed in colonies, sometimes called ‘rookeries’ – a reference to the term for slums in Dickensian Britain. Some colonies are so large, that they were first discovered by satellite, like the 2 million-strong Chinstrap penguin colony on the South Sandwich Islands. The 1.5 million Adelié penguins colony on the Danger Islands, was first spotted by satellite because of their poo.

11. Do penguins live in nests?

It’s only Gentoo penguins that build a nest, using pebbles and a few old feathers. Pebbles are a major currency in Gentoo courtship – a steady supply of pebbles is much better than a bunch of roses! Pebbles can be acquired through legitimate labour, however, some resort to a life of crime stealing from another nest or a passing pebble-carrying penguin as two popular shortcuts.

12. How long do penguins take to hatch?

This varies by species, the Emporer penguins of Antarctica incubate for around 55 days. Both parents protect the egg from harsh conditions, by carefully resting the egg on their feet under a protective abdominal fold. Whilst Gentoo penguins have a shorter incubation period of around 34/37 days, using their nest to protect the egg from both predators and the weather

13. How many species of penguins are there?

There are 18 species of penguin – sort of! Some scientists have suggested that the Gentoo penguin is not a single species, but rather 3 or 4 species. There is a size difference between the larger birds on the Falklands and the smaller Gentoos on the Antarctic Peninsula; birds from the north are on average 700g (1.5lb) heavier and 10cm (3.9in) longer than the southern birds. The southern Gentoos also reproduce two months quicker than their northern cousins – useful in the short Antarctic summer.

14. Do penguins mate for life?

Penguins are mostly monogamous or perhaps, more correctly, serially monogamous – they form a couple for a season but may have a different mate in the following year. The magnificent king penguins are only 29% faithful from one year to the next. Some species are more faithful - a pair of Magellanic penguins have been recorded together for 16 years, heading towards their silver wedding anniversary. Chinstraps & Gentoos appear quite faithful, joining up with last year’s mate 82% and 90% of the time.

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Penguins perched on the ice of Cuverville Island, Antarctica. Credit: Espen Mills / HX Hurtigruten Expeditions

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