20 fascinating facts about penguins

BBC Wildlife Magazine has teamed up with British Antarctic Survey to bring you 20 amazing facts about penguins. 

Adélie penguins

Adélie penguins © pilpenkoD / Getty


1. 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
  • Galapagos - 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

2. 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.

3. 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). 

4. 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. 

5. The 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 Snow Hill Island © Peter Fretwell / British Antarctic Survey


6. Penguins lose a lot of heat through their feet and flippers, so they have a highly developed vascular system to minimise this heat loss.

Read more about this adaptation in our Q&A section

7. 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.

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

9.  The rarest species of penguin is thought to be the Galápagos penguin.


Galapágos penguin © Goddard Photography/Getty


10. 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).

11. The biggest species is the emperor penguin at 4 foot tall, whilst the smallest species is the blue penguin (also known as the little or fairy penguin) at just over a foot tall.


Blue penguin (also known as little or fairy penguin) © gunnerl / Getty


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

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

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


Gentoo penguin © Steve Allen Photo / Getty


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

16. 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!

17. 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%.

18. 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 170 cm tall!

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

20. 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.


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


View more photos of penguins in these photo galleries: 

Penguins: Close Encounters - by David Tipling

Penguins in the Falkland Islands

Sub-Antarctic penguins gallery - by Ole Jørgen Liodden

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