13 amazing facts about penguins

BBC Wildlife Magazine has teamed up with British Antarctic Survey to bring you 13 fascinating facts about penguins.

Emperor penguins on Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. © Paul Souders/Getty

How many species of penguin are there?

There are 18 species of penguin and they are found in a variety of countries, primarily in the southern hemisphere although Galápagos penguins can sometimes be seen north of the equator.

  • King – Aptenodytes patagonicus
  • Emperor – Aptenodytes forsteri
  • Adélie – Pygoscelis adeliae
  • Chinstrap – Pygoscelis antarctica
  • Gentoo – Pygoscelis papua
  • Little – Eudyptula minor
  • Magellanic – Spheniscus magellanicus
  • Humboldt – Spheniscus humboldti
  • Galápagos – Spheniscus mendiculus
  • African – Spheniscus demersus
  • Yellow-eyed – Megadyptes antipodes
  • Fiordland – Eudyptes pachyrynchus
  • Snares – Eudyptes robustus
  • Erect-crested – Eudyptes sclateri
  • Southern rockhopper – Eudyptes chrysocome
  • Northern rockhopper – Eudyptes moseleyi
  • Royal – Eudyptes schlegeli
  • Macaroni – Eudyptes chrysolophus

Penguins are also found in South Africa, Chile, Peru, Galápagos Islands, New Zealand, Australia and a number of sub-Antarctic islands.

The Galápagos penguin is the only penguin that lives north of the equator in the wild. © Donyanedomam/Getty
The Galápagos penguin is the only penguin that lives north of the equator in the wild. © Donyanedomam/Getty

How was the penguin named?

The name penguin was originally given to an unrelated bird species – the now-extinct great auk, which was a large, flightless, black and white bird.

Adélie penguins are named after the wife of Jules Dumont d’Urville, the French Antarctic explorer (he also named Terre Adelie/Adelie Land after her).


How do emperor penguins keep warm during the Antarctic winters?

The emperor penguin is the only species that spends the harsh Antarctic winter on land – the males protect their eggs from the cold ice by keeping them on their feet. The females are off at sea during much of this time.

Emperor penguins are able to cope with this cold as they have the highest density of feathers of any bird species – 100 feathers per square inch!

Emperor penguins on ice on Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. © Paul Souders/Getty
Emperor penguins on ice on Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. © Paul Souders/Getty

Do penguins get frozen feet?

Penguins lose a lot of heat through their feet and flippers, so they have a highly developed vascular system to minimise this heat loss. However, this adaptation could cause penguins to overheat in areas of higher temperatures. Thus species in warmed places, such as South Africa, have large flippers and bare areas on their faces.


How do scientists count penguins?

Scientists can undertake population counts of penguins in inaccessible areas by using high-resolution satellite imagery. They are able to differentiate between birds, ice, shadow and guano (penguin poo).


Which are the tallest and smallest penguin species?

The biggest species is the emperor penguin (main picture) at 1.2m tall, whilst the smallest species is the blue penguin (also known as the little or fairy penguin) at just over 0.3m tall.

The blue penguin is the smallest extant penguin species. © Boy Anupong/Getty
The blue penguin is the smallest extant penguin species. © Boy Anupong/Getty

Fossil records show that there were at least 25 species of penguin and some were larger than the emperor penguins. One species, known by the scientific name of Anthopornis nordenskjoldi, was 1.7m tall!


How are penguins adapted to swimming?

Many bird species are adapted to flying by having hollow bones, whereas penguins have dense bones, which makes diving easier.


How deep can penguins dive?

Penguins can dive to depths of over 250m, although most dives will be within the top 10m of water. The deepest dive ever recorded is by a female emperor penguin who dived to 535m!


How fast can penguins swim?

The fastest species of penguin is the gentoo penguin, which can swim at up to 22mph.


What do penguins eat?

Penguins eat a variety of seafood such as fish, squid and crustaceans. The smaller penguins usually feed on krill.

Climate change is likely to affect the numbers of krill, and thus affect the penguins as well. Since the 1970s, krill density in some areas has decreased by 80 per cent.


How are penguins adapted to saltwater?

Due to eating so much seafood, penguins need to be able to cope with the high amount of salt in the saltwater. They have a gland located just above their eye called the supraorbital gland, which filters the salt from their bloodstream. This is then excreted through the bill, or by sneezing!


Do penguins moult?

Penguins undergo a process called catastrophic moulting, when they replace all of their feathers in the space of a few weeks. During this time, they cannot enter the water so they need to have accumulated enough fat to fast through this period. Most birds replace their feathers gradually over the course of the year, while penguins have to go through this process all at once.


What species are penguins most closely related to?

The closest relatives to penguins are petrels, albatrosses and divers.


British Antarctic Survey (BAS), an institute of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), delivers and enables research in the Polar Regions with staff based in Cambridge, Antarctica and the Arctic, to advance our understanding of Earth as a sustainable planet.  Find out more about their work: www.bas.ac.uk