With Penguin Awareness Day on 20th January, it’s time to find out how much you really know about the gorgeous flightless seabirds with the black bodies and white bellies…
Where are penguins found?
Penguins live primarily in the Southern Hemisphere, below the equator. Would you believe that there are between 17 and 19 species of penguin? Most, including Emperor, Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins reside in chilly Antarctica (making their thick layer of blubber and tightly-packed, oily feathers ideal!) but some species can be found in New Zealand and Australia, and Galápagos and African penguins (sadly endangered) are sub-Antarctic island-dwellers.
Anatomy of a penguin
Penguins vary wildly in shape and size and grow up to around 16 to 45 inches in height. The distinctive colouring of a penguin acts as camouflage, helping it to remain unseen by predators in the water whilst searching for its carnivorous diet of small, fish, crab, shrimp and squid.
Penguins cannot fly but are as excellent at swimming underwater as any fish! Instead of wings, a penguin’ flippers and webbed feet can propel its sleek and streamlined body through the sea at a speed of up to 15 miles per hour. It’s an amazing sight to see a penguin ‘porpoise’, or propel its body out of the water as it swims.
On land, penguins waddle walking upright with their bodies angled fowards. When snow conditions are right, however, polar penguins will ‘toboggan’ or slide along the ice on their bellies.
In extreme temperatures, penguins huddle together in colonies of thousands or even millions. Aside from providing warmth this also protects from predators.
Penguins lay their eggs and raise their chicks ashore, with most staying with the same mate for many years. There are usually just one or two eggs laid at a time. Both parents take turns keeping their eggs warm and protecting the chicks when they hatch.
For a few weeks each year, thousands of baby birds form a crèche and wait together while their parents make the journey out to sea to forage for food. In the case of the emperor penguin, the female spends around two months feeding at sea whilst the chick is completely dependent on dad for warmth and protection. Until the female returns, dad can provide his offspring with a secretion from his oesophagus to keep the chick alive.
When mother and father return, penguin chicks listen for the specific and unique audio frequency of their parents’ call, allowing them to reunite in a large, noisy crowd. Once both parents have alternately spent weeks feeding at sea, the pair then takes turns caring for their little one, keeping it warm and feeding it regurgitated krill, fish, and squid.
What threats are penguins facing?
Penguins face a number of very serious threats, from predators to plastics.
Overfishing – African penguin population numbers have declined hugely due to the collapse of sardine and small bait fish stocks. There are also fears that in Antarctica, the krill fishery has the potential to decimate the numbers of chinstrap and gentoo penguins, amongst others.
Plastic pollution – Ingestion of plastic debris prevents penguins from digesting real food. It also allows penguins to be poisoned by industrial toxins from seawater, causing neurological disorders and cancer. It is estimated that by 2050, almost every species of seabird will be accidentally eating plastic waste.
Climate change – In Argentina, studies have shown rainstorms and extreme temperatures to be major causes of death for penguin chicks. A chick’s fluffy down only provides insulation when it is dry. Climate change also slashes the amount of food that penguin parents can find to bring back to the nest.
What can you do to help?
There are many ways in which we can indirectly support health oceans and penguins in trouble – without being south of the equator! These include:
- Only eat seafood that comes from well-managed, sustainable fisheries – always check for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) symbol on packaging when buying fish.
- Cut back on how much plastic you buy, and be sure to recycle and properly dispose of what you have. Many supermarket chains in the UK have now imposed reductions in plastic packaging.
- Slash your carbon footprint – you can eat less meat, fly less often, and take public transport where possible. It’s also important to support politicians with an interest in climate change and who work to stop catastrophic global warming – research your local MP’s values and act accordingly.
- Donate to organisations undertaking penguin-friendly work such as the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) and Oceana – you could even ‘adopt’ a penguin!