clock menu more-arrow no yes

Penguins, explained

Baby penguins
Baby penguins
(Wolfgang Kaehler LightRocket)

Today is World Penguin Day. Truth be told, this is an incredibly silly holiday. We should be honoring this majestic beast every day of our lives. Alas, we only have Penguin Awareness Day in January and World Penguin Day in April.

In order to promote awareness and appreciation, we've created a brief guide to this magnificent animal:

1) What is a penguin?

A penguin is a glorious, flightless bird that is arguably the king of the seas. All penguins are part of the family Spheniscidae, which is divided into 18 species, including the emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri), the Galapagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus), and the macaroni penguin (Eudyptes chrysolophus).

Macaroni penguins. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)

The popular consensus among scientists is that these majestic animals began taking to water some 60 to 65 million years ago. In 2006, researchers uncovered penguin fossils from a species called Waimanu, which led them to believe that modern birds lived around the time of dinosaurs and survived the conditions that killed off the dinosaurs.

"We are absolutely sure that they come from early Paleocene time, the time that immediately followed the extinction of dinosaurs," Ewan Fordyce, a paleontologist told National Geographic at the time. "We can use that quite ancient penguin to argue [that] all the other modern [bird] groups — many of the other modern groups at least — [arose] back in Cretaceous times contemporaneous with the dinosaurs."

Today, penguins are found in the southern hemisphere. A lot of them live in the frozen wastes of Antarctica. But there are more sensible penguins that live in places like the Pacific coast of South America and Australia:

(The Encyclopedia of Animals: a complete visual guide, by Fred Cooke and Jenni Bruce
/Wiki Commons)

Penguins range in height from about 10 inches (the little blue penguin) to 44 inches tall (the emperor penguin).

2) Penguins are really cute, right?

Yes.

But because humans are humans, we've tried to quantify the penguin's cuteness in normal human terms. That's why you'll often see references to penguins wearing tuxedos. But the penguin's cuteness transcends human formalwear. Like take a look at these Adelie penguins:

(Getty Images)

The penguin's handsome coat is actually crucial to its survival. Like sharks and other (lesser) animals of the sea, penguins have dark backs and pale bellies so that predators swimming above them have a harder time picking them out from the ocean's dark depths and predators swimming below them have a harder time picking out against the sunlight. This is called countershading:

That coat is also oily. Penguins produce an oil that waterproofs their feathers to help insulate their bodies and make it easier to swim through the water.

3) Are all penguins cute?

I refuse to perpetuate unrealistic standards of avian beauty. All penguins are beautiful.

That said, penguins can go through periods where they aren't very pleasing to the eye:

"Don't look at me," the penguin on the right said. (Getty Images)

This is called a "catastrophic molt," where a penguin loses all of its feathers, then re-grows them. Other birds molt at various times during the year, Smithsonian magazine points out, but penguins do it for a two- to three-week period. Penguins cannot swim during their catastrophic molt, so they bulk up, get fat, and just relax while they look ugly. Good advice to live by.

4) Do penguins know how to love?

(VANDERLEI ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images)

Pop culture has explored this question extensively. From March of the Penguins to And Tango Makes Three, humans have been playing with the idea of penguins, perhaps even gay ones, feeling love.

After all, why else would two emperor penguins march to some corner of Antarctica, brave temperatures of 70 degrees below zero and lashing 100 mph winds, swim through leopard seal-infested waters, and all that other stuff, just so they can give birth to another generation of penguins?

Critics believe that we're projecting our humanness on nature.

What we know is that there are penguins who are monogamous for life or are serially monogamous for a season. (Contrary to popular belief, emperor penguins do not mate for life.) We know that both parents tend to the chicks. And we know that mates bow to each other, and it's really adorable.

But there are also instances, as Sea World points out, where penguins can act in ways that don't seem like good parenting:

In the Eudyptes genus, the second-laid egg and the subsequent chick is usually the larger of the two and usually the survivor. It typically hatches first or at the same time as the chick from the first-laid egg. The first-laid egg is often kicked out of the nest by the adults prior to hatching time.

And to be honest: is it really fair to hold penguins to our standard of love when humans themselves have shown they don't even know what that is?

5) Are penguins popular?

In comparison to other cute animals, penguins outrank several pretenders. My colleague Sarah Kliff, an otter apologist, tried to convince me that penguins had their moment, and that people had moved onto otters. She was dead wrong:

Google Trends

6) Why do penguins need sweaters?

(ANNA ZIEMINSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Back in 2002, there was an oil spill in Tasmania. Conservationists put penguins in sweaters so they wouldn't eat the oil off of their feathers. In the wake of the disaster, people knit and donated over 15,000 sweaters.

Penguin charities, as my colleague Dara Lind explains, probably don't need sweaters now.

7) What horrible things happen to penguins?

(Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images)

The biggest threat to penguins is climate change. According to Pew Charitable Trusts, 12 of the 18 species of penguin are threatened by climate change. Last year, new research published in the Nature Climate Change journal claimed that the nearly one-fifth of the population of emperor penguins could disappear by the end of the century. Penguins are also threatened by humans in the form of population and overfishing.

In terms of the food chain, animals like sharks, seals, leopard seals, and killer whales consider penguins a meal.

One of the most bizarre nature tales involving penguins happened last year. Researchers found out that Antarctic fur seals have been attempting (some have been successful) to have sex with penguins. There is actual video of the act, but it makes you want to curl up into a ball and wish the world away.

8) Are penguins clumsy?

(Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Yes. These majestic birds have, on occasion, shown their lack of agility on land, despite being able to swim gracefully in the water. We can learn a lot from the way a penguin walks, actually.

Penguins walk with all their weight on their front leg. This helps them walk on ice without slipping. Humans, in contrast, split their weight evenly and thus end up slipping more. Ergo, if you walk like a penguin, you will not slip as much.

(Tablet Infographics)

9) If I don't like penguins, am I a monster?

(Photo By DEA / C. DANI I. JESKE/De Agostini/Getty Images)

I probably wouldn't disclose this information out loud, lest ye be judged.