9 Fun Facts About Penguins

Learn new and remarkable facts about this beloved emblem of the Antarctic.

May 6, 2023By Donna Hobson
fun facts about penguins

Penguins have a reputation for being one of the friendliest and best-dressed birds in the world. Popular in the media and famed for their impressive water-based abilities, the penguin is one of Earth’s most recognizable animals.

Still, there is much we don’t know about this flightless bird. For example, do you know why they are black and white? How can they hold their breath for over 20 minutes? Or what the difference between a raft and a waddle is? Continue reading to find out all these answers and more.

A Raft or A Waddle?

group waddle of adelie penguins
Image Source: What is a Group of Penguins Called? (Complete Guide) | Birdfact

The most popular group names - or collective nouns - for penguins are colonies, huddles, or rookeries. But this name can change depending on where the penguins are situated and what they are doing at the time. For example, penguins swimming in the water are referred to as a raft, while those walking on land are a waddle.

Kings Of Romance

romantic penguins love cuddle
Image Source:Japan's aquarium penguins lead complicated lives of feuding, love -- and incest | CNN

Most penguins (like 90% of all bird species) practice monogamy and choose a mate for life. To woo their female companions, the males often collect gifts, such as rocks, which they then present to their lady. She can use these rocks to build a nest, making it a practical (as well as romantic) gesture.

And if we’re looking for romance, it’s hard to go past the “ecstatic displays” of the Marconi penguins. While the fathers look after the chicks, the mother wanders off in search of food. When they return, the male shows his delight and affection by puffing out his chest, shaking his head from side to side, and vocalizing.

Masters of Disguise

humboldt penguin black and white

Penguins are famous for their distinctive black-and-white appearance, but these colors provide more than cute coloration; they also help the penguin evade predators. When penguins swim through the water, their black backs help them to blend in with the dark hue of the ocean, making it more challenging for air-based predators to spot them. Meanwhile, the white belly helps them to blend with the brightness of the ocean’s surface as other predators look upward from the murky depths.

Neither Friends nor Foes of Polar Bears

polar bear hugging a penguin
Image Source: National Geographic photo of a polar bear hugging a penguin : dalle2 (reddit.com)

Despite what cartoons tell you, penguins and polar bears never cross paths in the wild. That’s because most penguins reside in the Southern Hemisphere (while polar bears live in the Arctic). The only species of penguin that ever travels north of the equator is the Galapagos Penguin. Interestingly, the penguins of Antarctica have no predators on land.

Different Species, Different Size

little penguin in New Zealand
Image Source: Little penguin | Kororā | New Zealand Birds Online (nzbirdsonline.org.nz)

There are 18 recognized species of penguin; The largest is the emperor penguin which can grow up to 45 inches tall. Still, fossils from New Zealand show that the Emperor wasn’t always the largest penguin - once upon a time, some 30 million years ago, human-sized penguins once walked the Earth.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Little Penguin, which is only 12-14 inches (or one foot) tall. These cute little penguins live along the coasts of New Zealand and Australia and love spending time frolicking in the waves of the Pacific.

Deep Divers

emperor penguin diving in ocean
Image Source: Penguins Call Underwater | Hakai Magazine

Penguins breathe oxygen through the air just like we do, which means they have to hold their breath each time they dive. On average, they last for around 3-6 minutes as they dive down to about 200 m below sea level. Still, they can hold their breath for up to 22 minutes and dive down to 565 m.

These exceptional birds can achieve this feat because they have a good level of control over how their body uses oxygen. For example, they can starve specific muscles to give them an extra “shot” of oxygen, helping them to dive to greater depths. But when swimming closer to the surface, penguins can send oxygen to their muscles to stop them from getting tired.

Their Bones Are Made for Sinking

African penguin swimming underwater
Image Source: https://www.pinterest.nz/pin/381469030914978383/

While most birds possess hollow bones that reduce their mass and help them stay airborne, the penguin has dense bones that allow it to sink. This facilitates better diving abilities and helps these water birds to search for food. Penguins also create a waterproof oil that helps to insulate their body and improve hydrodynamics (their swimming ability)

The fastest penguin species is the Gentoo penguin which can swim at up to 36 km/h, which is four times faster than any human has ever achieved.

They Aren’t Scared of Humans

penguins walking among humans
Image Source: ‘Penguin Town’ review: Adorable birds star in frothy Netflix docuseries - Chicago Sun-Times (suntimes.com)

One of the reasons penguins are so popular is thanks to their friendliness toward humans. Scientists believe the main reason is that penguins feel safe on land. Penguins don’t face land-based predators in their natural habitats, so as long as we’re not in the ocean, they don’t feel much fear toward us.

A Population in Decline

king penguins of Antarctica
Image Source: King Penguin | Facts, pictures & more about King Penguin (oceanwide-expeditions.com)

The playfulness of penguins brings joy to people worldwide. Still, sadly these cute creatures are facing a decline, with ten species currently listed on the IUCN Red List as vulnerable or endangered. The primary cause of this decline is ocean pollution and changing environments caused by climate change. Other threats to penguins include overfishing, invasive predators, and industrial development. Still, there are several things we can do to help penguins thrive in our oceans once more:

  • Ensure you purchase fish from sustainable sources
  • Reduce the number of plastic products you buy
  • Recycle as much as you can and dispose of waste responsibly
  • Reduce the amount of meat you consume
  • Adopt a penguin or donate to charities that are helping support sustainable environments for penguins
  • Learn about penguin conservation and use your voice to make a difference
Donna Hobson
By Donna Hobson

Donna believes that keeping a pet is the key to a happy life. Over the years, many creatures have passed through her home - Sooty the cat, Millie the rabbit, Stuart (Little) the guinea pig, and Trixie the tortoise, alongside her pet goldfish, Zippy, who lived to the grand old age of 24 years! She currently resides with her black kitten Jinx and an aquarium full of fish and snails to entrance them both. When she is not looking after her pets, Donna enjoys researching and writing the answers to all your pet-related wonders.