Right from movies, like Madagascar and Happy Feet, to logos and mascots, penguins have an important place when it comes to popular culture. Sadly though, people seem to know very little about these flightless birds, beyond the pop-culture penguins that is, and therefore, a reality check leaves you pretty disappointed. In a bid to help people do away with numerous myths about these flightless birds (with the ability to swim), we decided to compile some facts about them.
Facts About Penguins
Penguins are aquatic, flightless birds, which are exclusively found in the Southern Hemisphere; the only exception being the Galapagos penguin, which is found on the Galapagos Islands just to the north of the Equator. That must have come as a surprise, as many people have the misconception that penguins are only found in Antarctica. With such misconceptions prevailing among all age groups, any information which spreads awareness about these birds comes as a blessing in disguise for them.
As we mentioned earlier, many people have the misconception that penguins are only found in Antarctica and other cold regions in the vicinity. Even though it's true that the penguin population is restricted to the Southern Hemisphere, some species of this flightless bird are found in the relatively warmer regions which are quite close to the Equator as well. Like we said earlier, one of the best examples of the same is the Galapagos penguin, which boasts of being the only penguin that lives north of the Equator in the wild. Similarly, as many as ten penguin species live in the temperate zones of the planet. As far as their geographical distribution is concerned, they are found in Antarctica, Australia, New Zealand, South America, and South Africa.
Species and Subspecies
The number of penguin species on the planet, which is put somewhere between 17 - 20, has been a subject of debate of late, with some concerns being raised on the inclusion of the White-flippered penguin, Royal penguin, and the Rockhopper penguin as separate species in the list. The extant species of penguins are categorized into six sub-families: Great penguins (Aptenodytes), Brush-tailed penguins (Pygoscelis), Little penguins (Eudyptula), Banded penguins (Spheniscus), (Megadyptes), and Crested penguins (Eudyptes). The largest subfamily is that of the Crested penguins, which consists of nine subspecies. On the other hand, Great penguins, Little penguins, and the Megadyptes have two subspecies each.
Size and Appearance
One attribute that speaks volumes about the great deal of diversity that you get to see in this species, is their size. While the largest penguin, the Emperor penguin stands 3.5 - 4.0 feet tall and weighs a whopping 70 - 75 lbs, the smallest, the Little Blue penguin measures 16 inches in terms of height and weighs somewhere around 2.2 lbs. Some researchers are of the opinion that penguins support the Bergmann's Rule, which suggests that larger species are found in colder environment and smaller species are found in warmer regions, very well. As far as appearance is concerned, penguins are typically characterized by counter-shaded dark and white plumage, which works wonders when it comes to camouflage, and flippers, which are nothing, but modified wings.
Even though we often picture penguins walking/hopping on the ice clad land of Antarctica, the fact is that some penguin species spend more time in the sea than they do on the land. Their adaptations make it possible for them to spend hours together in freezing water, which happens to be the most important constituent of their habitat. As we mentioned earlier, it's a myth that penguins are only found in ice-clad regions of Antarctica. In fact, this may come as a surprise for many, but penguin species are found on every single continent in the Southern Hemisphere. Interestingly, penguin habitat is typically characterized by remoteness and absence of land predators; the latter being of utmost importance for the survival of these birds, considering that they can't fly.
Diet and Hunting
Their dietary habits differ from one species to another, which reduces the competition between species. Depending on their size, penguins feed on krill, squids, shrimp, fish, etc. While small species, such as Chinstrap penguins and Adélie penguins, resort to small organisms like krill and squids, larger species, such as Emperor penguins and King penguins, often resort to larger prey such as fish. The choice of food is also determined by the fact that they attack their prey, catch it by their bill, and swallow it. Their feeding habits are also governed by season in some species and availability of food in some. Fasting is yet another widely observed ritual in penguins, with some species fasting during the breeding season, and some, during the annual molting period.
- The Great penguins are believed to be the best swimmers of the lot, with the ability to clock an average speed of 6 - 7 mph.
- The eyes of these birds are specially adapted to make it possible for them to see underwater.
- Similarly, the fact that they have solid, dense bones helps them overcome the problem of buoyancy with ease.
- Diving is an important attribute in penguins, which comes handy when hunting wherein they go beneath their prey and launch an attack from below.
- Penguins have the ability to drink saline water, as they have special glands to facilitate filtering of the same.
- They have an average lifespan of 15 - 20 years, with most of the species attaining sexual maturity at 5 - 7 years.
- Only Crested penguins demonstrate sexual dimorphism, wherein males are robust as compared to their female counterparts.
As with most of the other members of kingdom Animalia, even penguins have had to bear the brunt of human interference in their natural habitat. Besides that, habitat destruction as a result of climate change, large-scale predation by terrestrial as well as marine animals, and lack of food are some factors which have affected penguin population. Even though only a few of the extant species have been declared endangered as of today, current trends don't really have a pleasant picture to depict in terms of their future.