In around 1500, Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese navigator and explorer, became the first European to ever see penguins. Birds that sat and walked vertically and were unafraid of humans. Because of their clumsiness on dry land he named them dumb birds. Since then, these animals have become part of the imagery of many cultures.

In recent decades we have seen them represented in films such as Happy Feet, Madagascar, Mary Poppins and Toy Story. In important documentaries like March of the Penguins. In TV shows like Pingu, Adventure Time and Shirokuma cafe. In videogames like Club penguin, Binary Land, Crash Bandicoot 2 and Donkey Kong Country. In logos, literary works, food products and even political symbols.

Penguins have always inspired empathy and affection, due to their naivety and clumsiness, as well as their striking appearance. But how much do you know about these aquatic, flightless birds?

Penguin facts and features

There are 19 species of penguin in the world. They inhabit the southern hemisphere of the Earth, with the exception of the Galapagos penguin. They are the only flightless birds adapted to diving. They use their wings to propel themselves along, they have denser, stronger bones to reduce buoyancy, and their legs are positioned further back, acting like rudders underwater.

They can hold their breath for a long time. In fact, the Emperor Penguin can dive for up to 18 minutes. They feed on fish, plankton, crustaceans and cephalopods, depending on the species, and their thick layer of blubber and feathers keeps them dry and insulates them from the cold. Penguins have sort of barbs inside their mouths that help them keep hold of their prey, as well as a special gland that allows them to remove the salt from the seawater they drink.

In spring, they spend several weeks on dry land molting. As their feathers change, they become less waterproof and lose weight. It is at this time when they take advantage of the opportunity to mate. Most penguin species are monogamous and in some cases it is the male who incubates the eggs while the females go off in search of food.

As for their characteristic black and white colour, when they swim, from above their dark colour mimics that of the ocean and from below predators confuse them with the shimmering surface of the water. Both their eyesight and hearing are very good. Some species form large colonies of hundreds of thousands of individuals, each capable of recognizing the “voice” of their partners and chicks, although some females sometimes “steal” chicks from other penguins when they lose their own.

 

PENGUIN SPECIES

Emperor and king penguins

These are the largest of all the penguin species. They belong to the genus Aptenodytes and are characterized by a long, pointed beak and warm colors on their heads.

Emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri)

The Emperor penguin is the largest of all, 120 cm tall and weighing up to 45 kg. They are endemic to Antarctica and can be recognized by the yellow and orange coloring on their chest and ears. In winter, they make a colossal effort to breed, walking great distances to reach their breeding grounds. There they will remain in massive colonies, huddling together to keep warm, and slowing rotating position to share the brunt of the cold Antarctic currents.

Emperor Penguin colony at Snow Hill in Antarctica. By vladsilver | Shutterstock.com
Emperor Penguin colony at Snow Hill in Antarctica. By vladsilver | Shutterstock.com

King penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus)

This bird is very similar to the Emperor penguin, although its ears patches are orange in color, its head is black and its body is grey and white. They inhabit the Antarctic, Falkland Islands, Prince Edward Islands and South Georgia. Some are also scattered around New Zealand and Australia. They are also the species of penguin that can dive deepest, in search of their favorite food: the lantern fish.

King Penguins in the Falkland Islands. By kwest | Shutterstock.com
King Penguins in the Falkland Islands. By kwest | Shutterstock.com

Crested penguins

This genus (Eudyptes) of penguin consists of 7 species and is the most abundant type of penguin, both in species and in number of individuals.

Southern and northern Rockhopper penguins (Eudyptes chrysocome and Eudyptes moseleyi)

These two species are very similar. The southern Rockhopper penguin is the smallest of the crested penguins, at just 55 cm tall. It is black and white with two tufts of yellow feathers above its eyes. It is more common than its northern relative, who is in danger of extinction. Both feed on krill and small crustaceans, squid, fish and octopus.

Rockhopper penguin, Eudyptes chrysocome, in the rock nature habitat, Sea Lion Island, Falkland Islands. By Ondrej Prosicky | Shutterstock.com
Rockhopper penguin, Eudyptes chrysocome, in the rock nature habitat, Sea Lion Island, Falkland Islands. By Ondrej Prosicky | Shutterstock.com

Fiordland and Snares penguins (Eudyptes pachyrhynchus and Eudyptes robustus)

These two species are very similar physically to the previous ones. They live in New Zealand. They have intense red eyes, thick beaks and a much more marked yellow crest than the other species. They also have a peculiar way of walking, tilting their heads forward and balancing with their flippers. The main difference between the two species is that Snares penguins have a pink area on their bodies without feathers.

Snares Crested penguins at The Snares Island, Sub-antarctic Islands, New Zealand | By Janelle Lugge | Shutterstock.com
Snares Crested penguins at The Snares Island, Sub-antarctic Islands, New Zealand | By Janelle Lugge | Shutterstock.com

Royal and macaroni penguins (Eudyptes schlegeli and Eudyptes chrysolophus)

Royal penguins live mainly on Macquarie Island. It is similar to the other crested penguin species but the lower half of its face is white. They can form colonies of up to 500,000 pairs during the breeding season. The Macaroni penguin is just like his relative, but with a black face.

Royal Penguins (Eudyptes schlegeli) at Sandy Bay on Macquarie Island, Sub-antarctic Islands, Australia. By Janelle Lugge | Shutterstock.com
Royal Penguins (Eudyptes schlegeli) at Sandy Bay on Macquarie Island, Sub-antarctic Islands, Australia. By Janelle Lugge | Shutterstock.com

Erect-crested penguins (Eudyptes sclateri)

These penguins breed on the Antipodes and Bounty Islands of New Zealand and are endangered. What differentiates them from other species of crested penguins is the color of the iris. Instead of intense red it is reddish black, and its yellow crest remains vertical, giving them a very characteristic appearance and their name.

Erect-Crested Penguin: Found only on Bounty Islands and the Antipodes Islands east of New Zealand. By Charles Bergman | Shutterstock.com
Erect-Crested Penguin: Found only on Bounty Islands and the Antipodes Islands east of New Zealand. By Charles Bergman | Shutterstock.com

 

Little penguins

Two species belong to this genus (Eudyptula). They are the smallest of all penguins, with short beaks and pink legs in contrast to their black claws.

Little blue penguins (Eudyptula minor)

This species is about 40 cm tall and has a white, bluish plumage. Its beak is small and dark. They always live in colonies and go fishing in groups in order to better defend themselves against possible predators.

Little Penguins in Featherdale Wildlife Park in Australia. By Natalia Pushchina | Shutterstock.com
Little Penguins in Featherdale Wildlife Park in Australia. By Natalia Pushchina | Shutterstock.com

White-flippered penguins (Eudyptula albosignata)

This species is 10 cm shorter than its smallest relative and weighs just 1.5 kg. It can be identified by characteristic white markings on its wings.

White-flippered penguins (Eudyptula minor albosignata). Imagen from TripAdvisor (Pohatu Penguin Habitat)
White-flippered penguins (Eudyptula minor albosignata). Imagen from TripAdvisor (Pohatu Penguin Habitat)

Yellow-eyed penguins

It is the only species (Megadyptes antipodes) left alive of its genus (Megadypes). They are medium sized, about 68 cm tall, and weigh about 8 kg. The distinguishing of this species is its yellow eyes. They have a yellowish, brown to black coloring on their heads. Unlike most species of penguin, they build their nests in dense vegetation.

A closeup portrait of an endangered Yellow Eyed Penguin. By Michael Smith ITWP | Shutterstock.com
A closeup portrait of an endangered Yellow Eyed Penguin. By Michael Smith ITWP | Shutterstock.com

Penguins of the genus Pygoscelis

This genus includes small penguins without crests. It consists of three existing species and three that have already become extinct. They have an average size of 70 to 80 cm. They inhabit South America, the southern islands of New Zealand, the sub-Antarctic islands and the Antarctic continent.

Gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua)

Their heads and backs are black, their bellies are white, and they have a white band above their eyes that joins at the top of their heads. Their beaks are red with black on top.

Gentoo penguine with chicks in the nest. By Alexey Seafarer | Shutterstock.com
Gentoo penguine with chicks in the nest. By Alexey Seafarer | Shutterstock.com

Chinstrap penguins (Pygoscelis antarctica)

They have white bellies and throats, black backs and dark beaks. They have a black line that goes around the throat, which gives this species its name.

Chinstrap penguins in love. By jeremykingnz | Shutterstock.com
Chinstrap penguins in love. By jeremykingnz | Shutterstock.com

Adélie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae)

Their heads and backs are black. Their belly is white and they have a white ring surrounding their eyes. The beak is reddish, with white markings. They are very similar to the Gentoo penguin besides the white markings above the eyes.

Group of cute Adelie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae). By Mario_Hoppmann | Shutterstock.com
Group of cute Adelie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae). By Mario_Hoppmann | Shutterstock.com

Penguins of the genus Spheniscus

This family of birds is made up of 4 living species and many others that have already become extinct. All species have a black stripe that runs around their belly, over white feathers. They are medium sized with white or pink markings on their faces. These penguins are not Antarctic and are the most northern living species.

African Penguins (Spheniscus demersus)

This is the only species that inhabits the African continent. They have pink markings on their faces to dissipate heat, and black and white stripes that run across their belly and head. They are adapted to warm and tropical climates.

African penguins. South Africa. By Sergey Uryadnikov | Shutterstock.com
African penguins. South Africa. By Sergey Uryadnikov | Shutterstock.com

Galapagos penguins (Spheniscus mendiculus)

As their name suggests, these penguins are endemic to the Galapagos Islands. In fact, it is the only species that lives above the equator. In terms of size, they’re the second smallest species after the White-flippered penguin. They have the same stripes as the other species in the family, but are more blurred, with a mostly black head.

A Galapagos Penguin standing on a rock (Spheniscus mendiculus). By Ben Queenborough | Shutterstock.com
A Galapagos Penguin standing on a rock (Spheniscus mendiculus). By Ben Queenborough | Shutterstock.com

Humboldt penguins (Spheniscus humboldti)

They are inhabitants of the Pacific Ocean, along the coast of Peru and Chile. These birds have a black beak with a pink, fleshy area that meets around the eye. They have stripes on their belly and head like those within the same genus.

Humboldt penguin portrait. By dean bertoncelj | Shutterstock.com
Humboldt penguin portrait. By dean bertoncelj | Shutterstock.com

Magellanic Penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus)

They differ from the other species in the pink color above the eye, which is joined to a large white stripe that runs along the side of the head and joins at the throat.

Five magellanic penguins on the sea shore. By Ekaterina Pokrovsky | Shutterstock.com
Five magellanic penguins on the sea shore. By Ekaterina Pokrovsky | Shutterstock.com

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