Penguins

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Order: Sphenisciformes
Family: Spheniscidae
Life Span: 6 - 20 years depending on the species
Population: 20 million worldwide
Species Status: Least Concern - Endangered

Fun Factoid

Did you know? There is even a species of Penguin who live in the Galapagos Islands! They are called Galapagos Penguins.

Welcome to the world of Penguins! These adorable creatures are more than just cute and there are 18 different species of Penguin around the world today. The first Penguins evolved over 60 million years ago around New Zealand. Due to the lack of predators in the area, Penguins had no evolutionary need for flying, making them one of the few kinds of flightless birds on Earth, which also include the Ostrich, Emu, Kākāpō, and the extinct Dodo bird. Today Penguin species live on every continent within the Southern hemisphere and, depending on the species, they can weigh anywhere from 3.5 pounds to almost 90 pounds! The smallest Penguin species, the Little Blue Penguin, stands around 12 in tall, while the largest species, the Emperor Penguin, can stand as tall as 4.5 ft!

Geography

Fun Factoid

Did you know? Another name for the Little Penguins of New Zealand is the Fairy Penguin!

Although we think of Penguins as Antarctic animals, they actually live on every single continent in the Southern hemisphere. Only two species of Penguin live exclusively in Antarctica, and those are the Emperor and Adélie Penguins. Species like the Macaroni, King, Gentoo, and Chinstrap Penguins live around the Subantarctic islands and the Antarctic peninsula. Other species, like the Galapagos Penguins live on the islands of the Galapagos, and are the closest living Penguins to the equator, where it can be quite warm. There are a few other Penguin species who live in slightly warmer climates, which include Magellanic, Humboldt, and African Penguins. Many Penguins also live around Australia and New Zealand, which include the Little, Fiordland, Snares, Erect-crested, and Yellow-eyed Penguins.

What are Penguins?

Penguins are very recognizable thanks to their characteristic flight-lessness and adorable waddle, but there are some other unique features that make a Penguin a Penguin. Penguins are aquatic birds, meaning they spend as much time in the water as they do on land, and they are very graceful swimmers. Penguins glide through the water thanks to their streamlined bodies, long flippers, and smooth waterproof feathers. Since Penguins are in cold water all the time their feathers are very important. Adult Penguin feathers are very thick and are waterproof thanks to a special oil. Waterproof feathers help keep the Penguins warm and dry, even while hunting for fish in the ocean. Penguins are also unique from other birds because, unlike flying birds, Penguins have no need for hollow bones. Penguins are specially adapted for cooler temperatures, which can be seen in their squat bodies. Penguins waddle since their legs are very small and close to the body to conserve warmth.

Fun Factoid

Did you know? Penguins have knees! You may not be able to see them because of their squat bodies, but they are hidden among their fat and feathers.

Behavior

Penguins are very social animals and tend to sleep, feed, and often hunt in groups called colonies. These colony numbers can sometimes reach up to many thousands of Penguins gathering, especially during the breeding season. Within each Penguin colony, you will have Penguins of all ages. From very old adults, all the way to young chicks, all living in the same group. Penguins are generally very calm and are rarely aggressive towards other penguins, or even people. During each breeding season, Penguins will find one mate and stay with them through the whole season, however, Penguins might find new mates after that season.

Fun Factoid

Did you know? That largest Penguin colony is made up of half a million Chinstrap penguins in Antarctica!

Diet

Fun Factoid

Did you know, some Penguins can eat over two pounds of fish per day!

Penguins are carnivorous meaning they eat meat, and more specifically fish, squid, and krill. Penguins are agile hunters in any environment and must be fast to catch small prey using their sharp beaks. Penguins don’t have teeth and can’t chew, so they eat mostly small fish like anchovies, sardines, cod, and others. Krill, small crustaceans, are another important part of their diet, which hold a lot of important nutrients for Penguins and have a lot of protein. Penguins tend to hunt with other Penguins and when it is not breeding season, they usually hunt every day. When it is hatching season and Penguins are sitting on eggs, Penguins can sometimes go over two months without eating. Male emperor Penguins can even go up to four months while sitting on their eggs!

Reproduction

All Penguins have a breeding season where they migrate to their breeding grounds and pick a mate who they will stay with through the season. Once a Penguin pair has bred and laid an egg, they begin trading the duty of keeping the egg warm, or incubating it, until it hatches. Penguins tend to only lay two eggs for each breeding season and for larger Penguins they only lay one. For Emperor Penguins the incubating duty falls on the male Penguin who will sit on the egg to keep it warm, without eating, sometimes for up to two to four months while the female Penguins go out to sea to feed. Once the chick hatches, and the female Penguin returns, the male Penguins will then trade the duty and leave to go feed themselves for a few weeks. Each time the parents return, the Penguin chicks are fed from regurgitated krill, fish, and squid. The parent Penguins will continue to trade parenting duties until the Penguin chick has a thick enough coat to gather with other Penguin chicks in large groups to keep warm. Depending on the species, Penguin chicks are ready to molt, which means they lose their baby feathers, between a few weeks up to months later, and grow their waterproof adult feathers. Once they have their new coat, they are free to explore and start hunting on their own.

Fun Factoid

Did you know? Some Penguin species can raise up to three different broods of chicks each breeding season.

Threats

Penguins all over the world face threats such as habitat encroachment, climate change, overfishing, pollution and more. Penguins living in cold areas, such as Emperor, Adélie, Chinstrap, Macaronis, Gentoos, Rockhoppers, Megallanics, and King Penguins face the threats of warmer temperatures, which will not only change their food’s distribution, but they are not evolutionarily equipped for warmer temps. Other Penguins who live in slightly warmer climates, such as the African, Galapagos, Little, and others will also feel the effects of changing temps. Penguins are also threatened by overfishing of their food sources. Fish like anchovies and sardines, and even crustaceans like Krill, are being overfished where not enough are being left to feed the Penguin populations around them. Another threat includes plastic that gets into natural environments. This can be deadly for Penguins and can be ingested or even wrapped around them. Other threats include pollution or oils which can ruin Penguin’s waterproof feather coating, or invasive predators like foxes in Australia which have been preying on the Penguins there.

Population

Most Penguin populations are currently declining with about half of the species being listed as Vulnerable or Endangered. Currently, the most endangered Penguin species are the Yellow-eyed Penguins of New Zealand and the African Penguins on the coast of Southern Africa. Populations in these species have dropped almost 70% over the past 30 years. Other endangered species include the Galapagos, and Rockhopper, while many others are labelled as Threatened, Near Threatened, and Vulnerable. The most endangered species, such as the Yellow-eyed and African Penguins are struggling due mostly to food shortages from climate change, loss of habitat, net entanglement, and even new predators. Luckily, there are things you can do to help.

How to Help

Penguins are adorable and important creatures around the world, and here are some ways you can help keep Penguin populations healthy.
Always throw trash away in proper areas. When trash such as plastics, fishing lines, and nets get into the environment, they often cause terrible harm to animals. Penguins are very susceptible to entanglement and ingesting trash, never litter!
Choose seafood that you know has been caught sustainably! Penguins are badly affected by unsustainable fishing practices, which can lead to starvation, and cause them to be caught in the fishing nets. Only purchase seafood that you know has been caught using Penguin safe practices.
Encourage the protection of Penguin habitat! These places need to be protected so Penguins have a safe place to be. So much of Penguin habitat, especially in warmer climates, is being developed and needs to be protected.
Educate others! Spread your knowledge of Penguins and help others learn about the different ways they can help the Penguins around the world.

Fun Factoid

Did you know? Penguins are the fastest swimming birds, hitting speeds up to 22mph!