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Update #7

Update #1- Kids Say the Darndest Things :)

Stephanie Halamek Stephanie Halamek

Hi penguin lovers!

Dee and Rebecca, our penguin project researchers, forwarded me this email that they received from a very inquisitive first grader! He had some great questions about penguins and their habits! Of course, the first question was 'Why can't penguins fly, even though they have wings?" Don't you remember wondering the same thing when you learned about penguins?

Hi Yossi,

We're glad to hear that you are interested in penguins! Here are the answers to your questions:

1. Why can't penguins fly even though they have wings?

For penguins, all their food is in the ocean, so there is no need for them to fly. They do need to swim well. Their bodies are constructed differently from flying birds. Penguins have heavy bones, compared to flying birds which have hollow, light bones. These heavy bones allow them to stay under the water when swimming but make it impossible for them to fly. Also, penguin wings (called flippers) are strong and heavy and can help a penguin propel itself through the water but are too heavy for the penguin to fly in the air.

2. Why do penguins have black and white feathers?

Penguins have black feathers on their backs and wings and white feathers on their stomachs as a type of camouflage. The camouflage protects them from predators when they are swimming. If a predator such as an orca or a leopard seal swims under a penguin, it looks up and can’t tell the difference between the penguin’s white belly and the ocean surface, which is bright because of the sun shining down. If a predator flies or swims above the penguin, it looks down and can’t see the penguins because of the dark, black feathers on the penguin's back blend in with the dark, deep ocean water.

3. How do penguins swim so well?

Penguins are great swimmers because of the shape and strength of their bodies. Penguins keep their heads hunched into their shoulders and press their feet close to their body when they swim. This gives the penguin a streamlined shape, like the shape of a submarine or a fish. Their feet help them steer, like a rudder on a boat. Also, their wings are paddle-like to help them propel themselves through water. Their wing and chest muscles are strong and power them forward. Their heavy bones help keep the penguin under the water, instead of floating to the surface.

4. How do penguins go so deep in the ocean?

The bodies of penguins are different from ours in ways that allow them to dive to great depths. The smaller species penguins don't dive very deep in the ocean because their food is near the surface. Their dives only last around 2 minutes. Larger penguins, such as Emperor penguins can dive to greater depths. The maximum depth reached by an Emperor penguin was recorded at 564 meters (around 1,850 feet)! Diving deep in the ocean helps Emperor penguins catch food such as squid and fish that other diving animals can't get to because it's too deep for them. Emperor penguins are able to dive deeply because they can store 2.5 times more oxygen in their blood then we can. They also lower their heart rates to 5 beats per minute to conserve oxygen while they dive. Therefore, penguins are really good at storing and keeping enough oxygen to reach deep depths when they dive.

5. Why do penguins like to live together?

Penguins live together for company and protection. When a penguin is in the ocean, it might be alone, with no other penguins nearby. When it is time for penguins to lay eggs, they come back to a colony, usually the one where they were born. At the colony, all the penguins are together in the same spot, which makes it easier to find a mate. Most species of penguins lay eggs and raise their chicks in a nest or a scrape, a place scratched out of the dirt. In some places, their nests are spaced close enough together that a penguin in one nest could touch the bill of the penguin in the nest next to it. Living in a colony helps penguins protect their eggs and chicks from predators. Large flying birds such as skuas and gulls prey on penguin eggs and chicks. When the nests are close together in the colony, a flying predator has difficulty directing its attention to one nest and sneaking in without a penguin sounding the alarm. For penguins that live in harsh climates, like Antarctica, living in groups can help protect them from bad weather. Male Emperor penguins huddle together when they are incubating their eggs in the winter in Antarctica, where the temperature can reach -40 degrees Celsius. Emperor penguins huddle in groups and rotate who is on the outside of the group to help keep each other and their eggs warm.

Thank for your questions! Let us know if you have more. Another website with lots of penguin information is: Good luck with your project!

-The Penguin Project

Keep up the good work Rebecca and Dee, inspiring kids everywhere :) Science RULEZ!

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Project Scientists

Dee Boersma

Boersma's academic research is in the area of conservation biology and has focused on seabirds as indicators of environmental change.


I am a Magellanic penguin from Punta Tombo, Chubut, Argentina, working with the Magellanic Penguin Project.

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