Charismatic and oh-so-adorable, penguins are one of the most beloved species on earth. But, how much do you actually know about these flightless birds? Here are 5 fun facts about penguins:
1. Penguins Are Fast Swimmers
Those penguins might look super cute waddling around on land, but in the water, they’re truly in their element. Penguins are sea birds, so they rely on the ocean for food. Over the years, their bodies have evolved away from being able to fly in exchange for being one of the best swimming birds on the planet.
Every species of penguin swims at a slightly different speed. But, the fastest penguin of them all - the Gentoo - can zip around under the water at speeds up to 22 miles per hour (35.4km/h).
This speed is essential for a sea bird, like a penguin, whose only predators live in the ocean. While on land, adult penguins in the Antarctic have no natural predators. But, in the ocean, they need to be ready to catch their food and escape hungry predators, like leopard seals and orcas.
2. Almost All Penguins Live In The Southern Hemisphere
Most scientists agree that there are between 17 and 20 species of penguins. But, all of them live predominantly in the southern hemisphere.
While there are some penguins that only live south of the Antarctic Convergence, the vast majority of penguins species actually live in relatively warm climates. However, even then, penguins are mostly confined to the southern half of the planet.
The exception? The Galápagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus), which occasionally waddles far enough north to make it into the northern hemisphere.
3. Penguins Lose All Their Feathers At Once
A bird’s feathers are incredibly important. For a bird that doesn’t fly, like the penguin, feathers are essential for staying warm and dry both on land and in the water.
Over time, though, a bird’s feathers wear down. A bird’s feathers bend, break, and simply lose their effectiveness. So, each year, birds go through a process called molting where they lose their old feathers and gain new ones.
However, with the exception of penguins and other flightless avians, birds need their feathers to fly and hunt. So, most birds will gradually lose their feathers and grow new ones so that they are always able to find food.
Penguins are different. When penguins need a new coat, they go through a process called “catastrophic molting,” where they lose and regain all their feathers over the course of 2-3 weeks.
During this time, penguins need to stay on land until they have their new feathers. While they are molting, penguins can’t hunt or feed, and they’re burning a lot of energy so they can get new feathers and get back in the water.
The vast majority of penguins molt just once per year. But, the Galápagos penguin actually loses all of its feathers twice a year. This is because the sun and the heat at the Equator break down penguin feathers much more quickly than the cold of the Antarctic.
4. We Can Count Penguins From Space!
Okay, well not exactly. But, we can actually see the size of penguin colonies from satellite imagery.
How, you might ask? Well, it turns out that the vast majority of penguin species live in colonies. These tightly packed colonies and the fact that penguins don’t use toilets mean that penguin poop (aka guano) ends up covering the landscape.
This pink-colored guano is actually visible on satellite imagery. So, scientists have figured out a way to measure penguin colony sizes based solely on the size of the guano stain on a satellite photo. Using this method, scientists were actually able to figure out that there are twice as many emperor penguins as we once thought!
5. A Penguin’s Black And White Pattern Has a Purpose
While we might think that a penguin’s tuxedo look is just because they want to look cute, this black and white pattern is important to their survival. By having black backs and white bellies, penguins are better able to camouflage in the water.
Confused? Well, consider this: An adult penguin is in the most danger when it’s in the water. If a penguin is swimming, having a black back will make it blend in with the depths of the ocean to a predator that’s looking down. A while belly, though, will camouflage the penguin with the brightness of the sun and sky to a hungry leopard seal that’s looking up.
So, these tuxedos are more than just a fashion statement. They’re an essential part of a penguin’s ability to survive in an otherwise inhospitable ocean environment.