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A deep dive into the wonderful world of penguins

Heather Armentrout
January 2024
Gentoo penguins can swim up to 22 miles per hour

What do penguins eat? How do they communicate? And is there any reason why they look the way they do?

Get more information about penguins and discover interesting facts about their habitats, food habits, behavior, and physical characteristics as Heather takes you on a deep dive into the penguin world. Gain a greater understanding of conservation efforts around this magnificent and unique marine bird and a deeper appreciation of its role in the ecosystem.

A welcome note from Heather

Heather is a Zoological Manager at SeaWorld Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. She has worked with SeaWorld for over 23 years, caring for animals from the North Pole to the South Pole and places in between, including penguins, alcids, polar bears, walruses, beluga whales, seals, sea lions, foxes, flamingos, waterfowl, parrots, otters, sea turtles, dolphins, and a variety of other bird species, small mammals, reptiles, and insects. During her time with SeaWorld, Heather has hand-raised 9 different penguin species, namely Emperor, King, Adélie, Chinstrap, Gentoo, Macaroni, Southern Rockhopper, Magellanic, and Humboldt penguins, as well as working with 11 species (all of the above plus Little Blue and African penguins). She holds a Bachelor of Sciences in Biology from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and is a member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA).

Penguin habitats: where do penguins live?

When discussing penguin habitats, did you think of glaciers and icy Antarctic shelves? What if we told you that penguins are found in other places too! In fact, penguins are found throughout the Southern Hemisphere, in Australia, New Zealand, South America, Southern Africa, and as far north as the equator. The northernmost penguins can be found in the Galápagos Islands. However, Antarctica has the highest density of penguins, with 8 species living in Antarctica (mainly around the coasts) and on the subantarctic islands.

Factors influencing habitat

The penguin’s habitat is determined by multiple factors, including the bird’s inability to fly. This means they must live closer to food sources, such as seas filled with the organisms they feed on. They also tend to thrive in remote areas where predators are less likely to prey on them.

Penguins in warmer climates

Did you know that some penguins can also flourish in more tropical climates? The Galápagos penguin can survive in tropical waters largely due to the cold Cromwell and Humboldt ocean currents that lower the water temperature to a level that suits them.

The Galápagos penguin thrives in tropical climate
A King penguin feeding its young

Scientific facts about penguins

If you’re a budding zoologist, this section is for you. The scientific classification of penguins is as follows:

  • Class: Aves
  • Order: Sphenisciformes
  • Family: Spheniscidae

This classification covers all extinct and living penguin species.

There are 18 different living species of penguins, and scientists have identified a further 40 species that have gone extinct.

The 18 living species are:

Emperor penguin

Emperor Penguin

Aptenodytes forsteri - Antarctica

king penguin profile picture

King Penguin

Aptenodytes patagonicus - Subantarctic Islands

adelie penguin profile picture

Adélie Penguin

Pygoscelis adeliae - Antarctica and surrounding islands

gentoo penguin profile picture

Gentoo Penguin

Pygoscelis papua - Subantarctic Islands

chinstrap penguin profile picture

Chinstrap Penguin

Pygoscelis antarcticus - Antarctica Peninsula, South Atlantic islands, New Zealand

northern rockhopper penguin profile picture

Northern Rockhopper Penguin

Eudyptes moseleyi - South Atlantic and Indian Oceans

southern rockhopper penguin profile picture

Southern Rockhopper Penguin

Eudyptes chrysocome - Subantarctic Islands

macaroni penguin profile picture

Macaroni Penguin

Eudyptes chyrsolophus - Subantarctic Islands

royal penguin profile picture

Royal Penguin

Eudyptes schlegeli - Subantarctic Islands

Fiordland penguin profile picture

Fiordland Crested Penguin

Eudyptes pachyrhynchus - New Zealand

erect-crested penguin profile picture

Erect-crested Penguin

Eudyptes sclateri - New Zealand subantarctic region

snares island penguin profile picture

Snares Island Penguin

Eudyptes robustus - Snares Island (New Zealand subantarctic region)

yellow-eyed penguin profile picture

Yellow-eyed Penguin

Megadyptes antipodes - New Zealand

little penguin profile picture

Little Penguin

Eudyptula minor - Australia and New Zealand

Magellanic penguin profile picture

Magellanic Penguin

Spheniscus magellanicus - Southern coasts of Chile and Argentina, Falkland Islands

Humboldt penguin profile picture

Humboldt Penguin

Spheniscus humboldti - Peru and Chile coasts

african penguin profile picture

African Penguin

Spheniscus demersus - Southwestern African coast

Galapagos penguin profile picture

Galápagos Penguin

Spheniscus mendiculus - Galápagos Islands and off the Equador coast

Is the penguin a mammal? No.

Despite its appearance and inability to fly, the penguin is not a mammal, it is emphatically a bird.

Penguins are birds that can't fly

What do penguins eat?

These quaint and endearing birds have fascinating feeding and dietary habits. They are skilled predators and their preferred prey is fish, krill and squid. These preferences vary by penguin species and location. Penguins in the Antarctic and subantarctic areas consume more krill and squid, while those in the Northern parts feed on fish. Size is also a factor - some small penguins may eat krill, while some larger penguins prefer squid and fish.

Penguins also seem to swallow stones - yes, stones - intentionally. Many different species have been known to have stones in their stomach contents and there have been several credible accounts of penguins seeking out and ingesting multiple stones at a time. Scientists have hypothesized that this is to make them less buoyant when they dive in search of food. The stones may also serve to make them feel fuller and less hungry or help to break down the exoskeletons of the crustaceans they consume, which is mainly hypothesized in chicks.

Hunting methods

How do penguins find their food? Penguins swim or dive to catch their prey using their bills. The penguin’s powerful jaw prevents the prey from escaping, while its mouth and tongue have sharp spines that help with gripping and ingesting. Often, groups of penguins have been known to work together to hunt amidst large schools of fish. Some species of penguins also forage for krill and fish on the seafloor or underside of rocks.


Interestingly, penguins also go through long periods of fasting, particularly when they are breeding or molting (shedding their feathers). These fasting period can last for 2-3 months - Emperor penguins for instance can go without food for as long as 120 days during the breeding season. How do penguins stay alive without food? The answer is quite wonderful: penguins have a layer of fat that provides them with energy during their prolonged fasts.

Adélie penguin picking up pebbles
Humboldt penguins hunting for food
Penguin characteristics at a glance
Yellow-eyed Penguin at the beach
The rare New Zealand Yellow-eyed penguins make private nests in the forest, rather than nesting in colonies

Penguin adaptations decoded

What is an adaptation in scientific terms? According to the National Geographic Society, “An adaptation is any heritable trait that helps an organism, such as a plant or animal, survive and reproduce in its environment.” Or to put it more simply, adaptations are the unique characteristics animals develop that allow them to adapt and survive in the surroundings they are in.

We’ve already touched on a few penguin adaptations above, such as its shape, which helps it swim, and its coloring, which protects it from predators. Here are a few other ways in which penguin bodies are adapted to help them survive and thrive:


  • Other than the streamlined, fusiform shape, penguins also tuck their heads into their shoulders and hold their feet close to their bodies, to create less resistance while swimming.
  • Their wings are in fact flippers that they can use to “fly” through the water
  • Their upper body and pectoral muscles are stronger to help them cut through water and battle any resistance
  • Unlike flighted birds penguins have heavier, denser bones that help them fight buoyancy and dive easier

Drinking seawater

  • Penguins can ingest salt water with no harmful effects because they have specially adapted glands under their eyes that expel excess salt in fluid form. This collects on the penguin’s bill and is shaken off.

Regulating body temperature

  • Penguin feathers are designed to overlap without any gaps, preventing air or water from penetrating to the layer beneath