Penguins are flightless birds that are so ungainly on land that a group of them is called a waddle. The only time penguins fly is when they’re submerged in water.
Once in their natural, aquatic surroundings, penguins are transformed into graceful, elegant birds that speed through the water with grace and agility comparable to any flying bird.
Can Penguins Fly?
Penguins have adapted to life in the water, sacrificing the ability to fly. Scientists believe the penguin’s predecessors could fly as efficiently as other birds.
But, as they became more adept at diving and swimming, they became flightless birds that depend on the ocean for survival.
Penguins still fly, just not the same as other birds. This video shows Emperor penguins flying out of the water.
How these birds, weighing between 49 and 99 lb, defy gravity in this way remained a mystery for many years. It was only in 2012 that scientists discovered their secret.
Before exiting the water, emperor penguins first rest on the surface of the water, preening themselves. As they do so, they collect air bubbles in the “fine downy mesh at the base of their feathers.”
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Once this process is complete, the penguin dives back down into the water. As the water pressure increases, the trapped air reduces in volume. The penguin pulls each feather towards its body, locking in that compressed air.
As they prepare for their exit, the penguins speed up towards the water’s surface. As they do so, the trapped air expands and pours out of their feathers, creating a stream of bubbles behind them.
These bubbles form a lubricating layer of air around the penguin that reduces drag and enables the penguin to accelerate to speeds over twice as fast as their usual swimming speed. This propulsion enables this flightless bird to to take to the air finally.
Why Can’t Penguins Fly?
Penguins are capable of incredible feats. They can dive up to depths of 1,850 feet, swim at speeds of over 30 kph, and survive temperatures of -40℉. But, unfortunately, these skills have come at the expense of flying.
Scientists believe penguins evolved from flying birds that took to the water in search of prey. This process of evolution began some 65 million years ago and saw penguins gradually “transition from flying birds to wing-propelled divers.”
At some point in this process, they probably resembled the modern-day petrel or razorbill, using their wings for both flying and swimming.
Although flying has its advantages, it comes at a high cost. Not only does flight require a lot of energy, but it also means the bird must maintain certain physical attributes. These include large chest or pectoral muscles and large breastbones.
Having these can reduce the bird’s opportunities in other respects so, if the bird doesn’t need to fly to feed or avoid predation, it’s cheaper for it to lose the ability to fly.
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Another problem the penguin faced was how to maintain the physical attributes needed for flight while also maximizing their swimming and diving abilities.
By sacrificing the ability to fly, penguins liberated themselves from those restraints. They could now increase in weight as being airborne was no longer a priority. Their wings could also become shorter and heavier, making them more efficient in the water.
These adaptations culminated in the penguin developing a more hydrodynamic body shape, albeit one with a thick layer of blubber that makes flight a thing of the past.
Other physical adaptations include denser bones and stiffer wing joints, as well as scalelike, waterproof feathers that provide good thermal insulation and improved “visual sensitivity.”
Did Penguins Ever Fly?
The consensus is that penguins descended from flying birds but others argue that “modern penguins did evolve from non-flying birds.”
Some of the oldest penguin fossils have been found in New Zealand and date back some 60 million years.
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Known as the Waimanu manneringi, this bird had already lost the ability to fly and developed short, stocky wings more suited to diving than flying.
While this proves that the penguin’s more recent ancestors were already grounded, it doesn’t dispute the fact that their earlier predecessors were able to fly.
What Bird Looks Like a Penguin but Can Fly?
Any black and white bird that stands reasonably upright could be mistaken for a penguin, and that describes every member of the Alcidae family.
This bird family dates back 40 million years and includes all auks, guillemots, murres, and puffins. Unlike the penguin, all these birds can fly as well as dive.
Most of the birds that resemble penguins belong to this family, although the booby and the puffin are exceptions to that rule.
#1 Little Auk
The little auk measures just 7 inches tall but, despite its diminutive size, is fast and agile in the water.
Unlike the penguin, little auks are naturally buoyant and use this weightlessness to shoot up to the water’s surface, capturing small fish along the way.
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During breeding, the little auk turns almost entirely black, losing most of its characteristic white feathers. At this time, little auks establish large colonies on the rocks and cliffs along the water’s edge.
Here, they build nests very similar to those of the penguin and lay eggs on a bed of pebbles.
As with penguins, auks share parental responsibilities, with both being responsible for incubating the egg and raising their young.
Unlike penguins, little auks have an extendable pouch beneath their beaks which enables them to carry more food back to the nest.
#2 Common Murre
With a black back and white belly, the common murre looks a lot like a penguin – until it starts flying, that is. But, then, the common murre gives us an idea of what penguins were like before their lost the ability to fly.
Like the penguin, the common murre has a large body to its wing size, making it more adept in the water. But, unfortunately, that also means it has “to work harder to fly,” than other birds.
Common murres are resident in areas similar to those where penguins live. They can be found in the North Atlantic and North Pacific oceans but, unlike penguins, they completely avoid the southern hemisphere.
Penguins spend up to 75% of their lives in water, and the razorbill isn’t far behind them, despite being able to fly.
They forage in the open oceans of the North Atlantic where they hunt for sand lance, herring, and other prey species.
Like the other members of the Alcidae family, the razorbill is predominantly black with a white belly, webbed feet, and a blunt bill. The bill features a distinctive white stripe that newly hatched chicks will tap on to ask for food.
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There are three species of puffin all of which prefer cold water environments in the northern hemisphere.
The Atlantic puffins are native to the Atlantic Ocean, while the horned and tufted puffins occupy the North Pacific Ocean.
Also known as the sea parrot, the puffin resembles the penguin more closely than almost any other bird.
They share the same upright stance and black and white plumage. Although puffins can fly, they spend much of their time in or close to the water.
Puffins are a lot smaller than penguins, weighing a little over one pound, compared to the little penguin, which weighs over twice that.
Puffins have specially adapted beaks that enable them to hold fish it’s already caught while hunting for more.
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Between the spines on the puffin’s palate and his raspy tongue, these seabirds can carry up to 62 fish in their mouths at any one time, although 10 is a more common load.
There are six types of boobies, some of which resemble the penguin more closely than others.
The brown and blue-footed boobies have black and white feathers that could confuse them with penguins if it weren’t for the fact that one has blue feet and the other a distinctive yellow beak.
Unlike penguins, boobies rely on their large, webbed feet to propel themselves through the water, saving their long, narrow wings for flying.
To catch their prey, boobies will dive from heights of “up to 80 feet,” diving down as far as 65 feet as they hunt for anchovies, sardines, mackerel, and other fish.
How Fast can a Penguin Swim?
Most penguins swim at a speed of around 6.5 to 7.9 kph, occasionally reaching a top speed of approximately 12kph. The exception to this rule is the gentoo penguin which uses its paddle-shaped flippers to reach speeds of 35 kph.
In contrast, the little or fairy penguin is decidedly sluggish in the water, rarely exceeding speeds of 1.6 kph.
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How Many Species of Penguin are There?
Although most scientists agree that there are currently 18 species of penguin in the world, it’s a surprisingly controversial subject. Up until a few years ago, there were only 17 species, namely:
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- Erect Crested
- Little Blue
- Yellow Eyed
In 2006, the rockhopper penguin was split into two distinct species, with the southern hemisphere rockhoppers and those in the north being distinguished as the northern rockhopper.
Even though this distinction is still under debate, scitnists are beginning to question whether there aren’t more subspecies out there.
According to some, there are over 20 species of penguin, but to get to that figure, you need to see the fairy penguin are distinct from the Australian little penguin, and the rockhopper belongs to three geographical categories instead of two.
Are Penguins Endangered?
Some penguin populations are thriving, while others are facing possible extinction.
Climate change, industrial fishing practices, oil spills, and disease have all taken a toll on the world’s penguin population, with some species, like the Galapagos penguin, struggling to survive.
The African penguin, for example, has suffered “significant population declines” and could well be extinct today if it weren’t for targeted conservation efforts.
Likewise, both the Galapagos and yellow-eyed penguin populations are struggling to overcome the threats posed by non-native predators, like ferrets, dogs, and cats.
Do Penguins have Teeth?
Penguins don’t have teeth as humans do. All you’ll find inside their mouths is a tongue, but that tongue has been specially adapted to the job of both tongue and teeth.
A pegnuin’s tongue is lined with ridges or spikes that correlate to a series of grooves in the roof of the penguin’s mouth.
These ridges are similar to the papillae on a human’s tongue but, unlike ours, all the penguin’s ridges face backwards.
This creates a kind of one-way system inside the penguin’s mouth so, once a fish is in there, the only direction open to it is down the hatch.
How Many Feathers does a Penguin Have?
Studies suggest that emperor penguins have more feathers than any other species of bird.
By salvaging emperor penguin carcasses from Antartica, scientists were able to figure out that these birds have somewhere between 5.8 to 13.5 feathers per square centimeter.
That would mean “that the full-body would have 144,000 to 180,000 total feathers.” Compare that to other birds of a similar size, like the whistling swan which has just over 25,000, and you can start to understand how emperor penguins survive in such frigid environments.
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Penguins are endlessly fascinating and extremely entertaining. They may waddle on land, but underwater they become streamlined diving machines.
At some point during their evolution, penguins were faced with a difficult decision – whether it would be better for their survival to fly or to swim. For a bird adapted to an underwater environment, the energy costs of flying are extremely high and require significant sacrifice.
If the penguin had retained the ability to fly, it would have lost much of its underwater agility and speed. It would also have had to compete with other flying birds for food and resources.
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By giving up flight and using their wings as flippers, penguins opened up a whole new world of potential food sources which is, quite possibly, why they’re still around today.
With the human threats and the pressures of climate change making life for some penguin populations increasingly tough, there’s every possibility that penguins will take to the skies again at some point in the future, although that would require some extensive remodeling!
Nicky is a British adventurer and animal lover who spends her time exploring the natural world and writing about her experiences. Whether on horseback, underwater, running, hiking or just standing with a fishing rod in hand, she embraces everything her adopted home of South Africa has to offer.