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Picture of Emperor Penguins

public domain by Josh Landis

Picture of Emperor Penguins

Penguins (order Sphenisciformes, family Spheniscidae) are an order of aquatic, flightless birds living in the Southern Hemisphere.

Species and habitats

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The total of extant species is a source of debate. The numbers of penguin species recorded vary between 16 and 19. Some sources consider the White-Flippered Penguin a separate Eudyptula species, although today it is widely considered a subspecies of the Little Penguin. Similarly, it is still unclear whether the Royal Penguin is solely a colour morph of the Macaroni penguin.///

Feeding its young in Antarctica : Adelie Penguin


Adelie Penguin feeding its young in Antarctica

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Also possibly eligible to be treated as a separate species is the Northern population of Rockhopper penguins (Davis & Renner, 2003). Although all penguin species are native to the southern hemisphere, they are not, contrary to popular belief, found only in cold climates, such as Antarctica. In fact, only a few species of penguin actually live so far south. Three species live in the tropics; one lives as far north as the Galápagos Islands (the Galápagos Penguin) and will occasionally cross the equator while feeding.

The largest species is the Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri): adults average about 1.1 meters (3 ft 7 in) tall and weigh 35 kilograms (75 lb) or more. The smallest penguin species is the Little Blue Penguin (also known as the Fairy Penguin), which stands around 40 cm tall (16 in) and weighs 1 kilogram (2.2 lb). Generally larger penguins retain heat better, and thus inhabit colder regions, while smaller penguins are found in temperate or even tropical climates.

Most penguins feed on krill, fish, squid, and other forms of sea life caught while swimming underwater. They spend half of their life on land and half in the oceans.

When mothers lose a chick, they sometimes attempt to steal another mother's chick, usually unsuccessfully as other females in the vicinity assist the defending mother in keeping her chick.

Penguins seem to have no fear of humans, and have approached groups of explorers without hesitation.

Chinstrap Penguin from Antarctica


Chinstrap Penguin from Antarctica


The evolutionary history of penguins is poorly understood, as penguin fossils are rare. The oldest known fossil penguin species are the Waimanu, which lived in the early Palaeocene epoch of New Zealand, about 62 million years ago. While they were not as well adapted to aquatic life as modern penguins (which first emerged in the Eocene epoch 40 million years ago), Waimanu were flightless and loon-like, with short wings adapted for deep diving.

These fossils prove that prehistoric penguins were already flightless and seagoing, so their origins probably reach as far back as 65 million years ago, before the extinction of the dinosaurs. Penguin ancestry beyond Waimanu is not well known, though some scientists (Mayr, 2005) think the penguin-like plotopterids (usually considered relatives of anhingas and cormorants) may actually be an early sister group of the penguins, and that penguins may have ultimately shared a common ancestor with the Pelecaniformes.

Traditionally, most extinct species of penguins have been placed in the paraphyletic sub-family called Palaeeudyptinae. However, more recently, is is becoming accepted that there were at least 2 major extinct lineages, one or two closely related ones from Patagonia and at least one other with pan-Antarctic and subantarctic distribution. For a complete list of these genera, see below.


(updated after Marples, 1962)


  • Family Spheniscidae
    • Waimanu
    • Subfamily Palaeeudyptinae (New Zealand giant penguins, fossil)
      • Palaeeudyptes
      • Archaeospheniscus
      • Anthropornis
        • Nordenskjoeld's Giant Penguin, Anthropornis nordenskjoeldi
      • Pachydyptes
      • Platydyptes
      • Anthropodyptes - tentatively assigned to this subfamily
    • Subfamily Paraptenodytinae (Patagonian stout-legged penguins, fossil)
      • Paraptenodytes
      • Arthrodytes
    • Subfamily Palaeospheniscinae (Patagonian slender-legged penguins, fossil)
      • Palaeospheniscus
      • Chubutodyptes
    • Subfamily Spheniscinae (modern penguins)
      • Aptenodytes
        • King Penguin, Aptenodytes patagonicus
        • Emperor Penguin, Aptenodytes forsteri
        • Ridgen's Penguin, Aptenodytes ridgeni (fossil)
      • Pygoscelis
        • Gentoo Penguin, Pygoscelis papua
        • Tyree's Penguin, Pygoscelis tyreei (fossil)
        • Adelie Penguin, Pygoscelis adeliae
        • Chinstrap Penguin, Pygoscelis antarctica
      • Eudyptes
        • Rockhopper Penguin, Eudyptes chrysocome
        • Fiordland Penguin, Eudyptes pachyrhynchus
        • Snares Penguin, Eudyptes robustus
        • Royal Penguin, Eudyptes schlegeli
        • Erect-crested Penguin, Eudyptes sclateri
        • Macaroni Penguin, Eudyptes chrysolophus
      • Megadyptes
        • Yellow-eyed Penguin, Megadyptes antipodes
      • Eudyptula
        • Little Penguin (Blue or Fairy Penguin), Eudyptula minor
        • White-Flippered Penguin, Eudyptula albosignata
      • Spheniscus
        • Spheniscus predemersus (fossil)
        • African Penguin (Jackass or Blackfooted Penguin), Spheniscus demersus
        • Magellanic Penguin, Spheniscus magellanicus
        • Humboldt Penguin, Spheniscus humboldti
        • Galápagos Penguin, Spheniscus mendiculus
    • Not asssigned to a subfamily (all fossil)
      • Crossvallia
      • Dege
      • Delphinornis
      • Duntroonornis
      • Insuza
      • Korora
      • Marplesornis
      • Marambiornis
      • Mesetaornis
      • Nucleornis
      • Pseudaptenodytes
      • Wimanornis


Penguins are superbly adapted to an aquatic life. Their wings have become flippers, useless for flight in the air. In the water, however, penguins are astonishingly agile. Within the smooth plumage a layer of air is preserved, ensuring buoyancy. The air layer also helps insulate the birds in cold waters. On land, penguins use their tails and wings to maintain balance for their upright stance.

All penguins have a white underside and a dark (mostly black) upperside. This is for camouflage. A predator looking up from below (such as an orca or a leopard seal) has difficulty distinguishing between a white penguin belly and the reflective water surface. The dark plumage on their backs camouflages them from above.

Diving penguins reach 6 to 12 km/h, though there are reports of velocities of 27 km/h (which are more realistic in the case of startled flight). The small penguins do not usually dive deep; they catch their prey near the surface in dives that normally last only one or two minutes. Larger penguins can dive deep in case of need. Dives of the large Emperor Penguin have been recorded which reach a depth of 565 m (1870 ft) and last up to 20 minutes.

Royal Penguin

The Royal Penguin (Eudyptes schlegeli) inhabits the waters surrounding Antarctica. Royals look very much like Macaroni Penguins, but have a white face and chin instead of the Macaronis' black visage. They are about 70 cm (28 in) long and weigh about 6 kg (13.2 lbs). Royal penguins breed only on Macquarie Island and, like other penguins, spend much of their time at sea, where they are assumed to be pelagic. They are not to be confused with the similar named king penguin or emperor penguin.

Penguins either waddle on their feet or slide on their bellies across the snow, a movement called "tobogganing", which allows them to conserve energy and move relatively fast at the same time.

Penguins have an excellent sense of hearing. Their eyes are adapted for underwater vision, and are their primary means of locating prey and avoiding predators; in air, conversely, they are nearsighted. Their sense of smell has not been researched so far.

They are able to drink salt water safely because their supraorbital gland filters excess salt from the bloodstream. The salt is excreted in a concentrated fluid from the nasal passages.

Penguins have no external genitalia. Consequently, chromosome testing oder PCR on scats must be done in order to determine a penguin's sex.

Mating habits

Some penguins mate for life, while others for just one season. They generally raise a small brood, and the parents cooperate in caring for the clutch and for the young.

Male bonding behaviour

Emperor Penguin


Emperor Penguin



The Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) is the tallest and heaviest of all living penguin species and is endemic to Antarctica. The male and female are similar in plumage and size, reaching 122 cm (48 in) in height and weighing anywhere from 22–37 kg (48–82 lb).


Fish form the bulk of its diet, which can include crustaceans, such as krill, and cephalopods, such as squid. In hunting, the species can remain submerged up to 18 minutes, diving to a depth of 535 m (1,755 ft). It has several adaptations to facilitate this, including an unusually structured haemoglobin to allow it to function at low oxygen levels, solid bones to reduce barotrauma, and the ability to reduce its metabolism and shut down non-essential organ functions.


The Emperor Penguin is perhaps best known for the sequence of journeys adults make each year in order to mate and to feed their offspring. The only penguin species that breeds during the Antarctic winter, it treks 50–120 km (31–75 mi) over the ice to breeding colonies which may include thousands of individuals. The female lays a single egg, which is incubated by the male while the female returns to the sea to forage; parents subsequently take turns foraging at sea and caring for their chick in the colony. The lifespan is typically 20 years in the wild, although observations suggest that some individuals may live to 50 years of age.


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In early February 2004 the New York Times reported a male pair of Chinstrap penguins in the Central Park Zoo in New York City were partnered and even successfully hatched a female chick from an egg. Other penguins in New York have also been reported to be forming same-sex pairs.

This was the basis for the children's picture book And Tango Makes Three. The couple about whom the book was based, Roy and Silo, would see further interesting developments in their relationship when in September 2005, Silo left Roy for a female penguin, only to come back to Roy in a few weeks.

Zoos in Japan and Germany have also documented male penguin couples. The couples have been shown to build nests together and use a stone to replace an egg in the nest. Researchers at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, found twenty such pairs at sixteen major aquariums and zoos in Japan. Bremerhaven Zoo in Germany attempted to break up the male couples by importing female penguins from Sweden and separating the male couples; they were unsuccessful. The zoo director stated the relationships were too strong between the couples.


Penguin is thought by some to derive from the Welsh words pen (head) and gwyn (white), applied to the Great Auk, which had a conspicuous white patch between the bill and the eye (although its head was black), or from an island off Newfoundland known as "White Head" due to a large white rock. This may be, however, a false etymology created by Dr John Dee in his book on Prince Madoc of Wales, supposedly one of the discoverers of America. By this Dee hoped to cement Queen Elizabeth I's claim, as a Tudor, to the New World. Penguins live nowhere near Newfoundland, nor do they generally have white heads, however Great Auks did and look remarkably like penguins.

According to another theory, the original name was pen-wing, with reference to the rudimentary wings of both Great Auks and penguins. A third theory is that penguin comes from the Latin pinguis (fat). This is a theory, because of two other Germanic languages: Dutch 'pinguďn' and German 'Pinguin' both have the 'i' vowel too. While it has been replaced by an 'e' in the English spelling, it can still be heard. By simply looking at the word's pronunciation and comparing that to the Dutch and German words, one could assume a common Latin borrowing into these Germanic languages - after the first Germanic sound shift (500-200 BC) that makes a PIE 'p' into a 'f', of course. However, a Welsh 'i' is often mutated to an 'e' in the English language so the Welsh origin is still a strong theory.

Penguins and polar bears

Despite what commercials and other sources may show, the likelihood of a meeting between a penguin and a polar bear without human intervention is vanishingly small. This is because the two species are found on opposite hemispheres. Polar bears inhabit the northern hemisphere, while penguins mainly inhabit the southern hemisphere. This is a misconception that is fuelled by popular culture such as movies and television. A prominent example of this takes place in a holiday 2005 ad campaign by Coca-Cola featuring the partying penguins and the polar bears watching from afar.

Penguins in popular culture

Penguins are popular around the world primarily for their unusually upright, waddling pace and (compared to other birds) lack of fear towards humans. Their striking black and white plumage is often likened to a tuxedo suit and generates humorous remarks about the bird being "well dressed".

Perhaps in reaction to this cutesy stereotype, fictional penguins are occasionally presented as grouchy or even sinister. The popular Sanrio character Badtz Maru is an example, being cute yet somewhat surly. One of the most well known penguins in children's' TV is Pingu, characterised by his red scarf and bundle on a stick over his shoulder. The 1960s television cartoon character Tennessee Tuxedo would often escape the confines of his zoo with his partner, Chumley the walrus. Also, the webcomic Fluble features an enormous penguin conspiracy run by numerous diabolical, if often inept, penguins.

In the children's movie Madagascar, the penguins are cast as spies. In the animated series "Wallace and Gromit" a penguin called Feathers McGraw disguises himself as a chicken with a red rubber glove. In the animated "Toy Story 2" a rubber penguin named Wheezy also featured-and once again was a sweet and friendly character. Penguins are often portrayed as friendly and smart as well. Another example is in the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, which features a warm-water penguin named Pen Pen. Tux the penguin is the official mascot for Linux. Also, in Avatar: The Last Airbender, a popular sport is penguin sledding, which is catching a penguin and using it like a toboggan.

Penguin is also the name of a villain in the comic series Batman and its TV show and movie spinoffs, and is usually seen wearing a tuxedo type outfit in order to fit the name.

The documentary March of the Penguins (2005) details a year in the life of a colony of Emperor Penguins mating, giving birth, and hunting for food in the harsh continent of Antarctica. It won the 2005 Academy Award for Documentary Feature.

References and Notes

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