Penguins: Sphenisciformes

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PENGUINS: Sphenisciformes



Penguins have large heads and long bodies. They resemble humans when they waddle around on their two webbed feet. Their short feathers, which provide excellent insulation against the cold water and air temperatures, are black on their backs and white on their chests, giving the appearance of a tuxedo. Their wings are stiff flippers that help them navigate the ocean waters.

Species vary in size, so penguins can weigh less than 3 pounds (1.1 kilograms) or as much as 88 pounds (40 kilograms). They can stand less than 18 inches (45 centimeters) high, or almost 4 feet (115 centimeters) tall. Males are somewhat bigger than females, but look similar otherwise.

Penguins cannot fly and their bones are much more solid and heavy than those of most birds. This is an adaptation that allows them to dive for food. Penguins differ from other birds in that, except for a patch on their bellies, their entire bodies are covered with feathers. Birds usually have feathers growing only in certain sections of skin.


The Galápagos penguin lives just north of the equator, but all other species live in the southern half of the world. Although many equate the penguin with Antarctica, more than half of the seventeen penguin species are never seen there.


Although penguins spend most of their time diving for food, they do venture on land to rest, breed, and raise their young. Breeding colonies are usually near the shore, though some species move as far as 2 miles (3 kilometers) inland. Some breeding habitats are in snow, while others are on tropical islands.


Penguins eat squid, fish, and crustaceans such as crabs and shrimp. What they prefer depends on the species. When they are hunting prey, penguins dive deep and stay underwater for long periods of time. Depending on the species, they can stay underwater for less than a minute up to eighteen minutes at depths ranging from 98 feet (30 meters) to 1,755 feet (535 meters).


The social penguin likes to live in groups of various sizes. They are rarely without each other's company and so have developed behaviors that allow them to live harmoniously for the most part. When they do fight, penguins use their flippers for hitting and their bills are used like swords.

Most penguins are somewhat monogamous (muh-NAH-guh-mus; have one mate), though they have been known to "divorce" and find new mates when a new breeding season begins. They engage in mating rituals and are able to find their mates in a crowd based on these rituals as well as by voice. Penguins are ready to breed between the ages of two and five years, with the female being ready somewhat earlier than the male.


  • The feathers of penguin chicks aren't weatherproof, but those of the adults are.
  • Macaroni penguins got their name because of the feathers on their head, which make them look like the well-dressed men of eighteenth-century London who were the focus of the song "Yankee Doodle Dandy."
  • Since their nests aren't very protective, female penguins eat more clams and mussels during the breeding season to elevate their calcium levels. This extra calcium makes their eggshells thicker.
  • Penguins can swim at speeds of up to 15 miles per hour (24 kilometers per hour)!
  • A penguin has more than seventy feathers per square inch (6.5 square centimeters) of skin.

Depending on the species, penguins lay one to three eggs. The incubation period lasts from thirty-three to sixty-four days, and chicks will hatch at the same time or within one day of each other. Once born, parents take turns caring for the chicks and hunting for food. The food-provider eats the prey, then regurgitates (re-GER-jih-tates; vomits) it for the chicks to eat. Once the chicks are old enough to eat and take care of themselves, parents continue to protect them.

Though adult penguins have no land predators, they do fall prey to sharks, leopard seals, sea lions, and killer whales. On land, chicks and eggs are often eaten by other birds.

In the wild, penguins can live up to twenty-five years.


Historically, penguins were killed for food and the extraction of the oil that lay in their fat. The oil was used for lighting and fuel. Penguins are easy prey because they are not afraid of humans and so are easily captured. In the days of the explorers, it was common for the adventurers to kill three thousand penguins a day for food.

Despite protection, penguins are still illegally hunted for use as bait and as a food source.


Twelve species are included on the 2003 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The Galápagos, erect-crested, and yellow-eyed penguins are Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction; seven species are Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction; and two are Near Threatened, in danger of becoming threatened with extinction.


Physical characteristics: The largest of the seventeen species, the emperor penguin, measures 39.4 to 51.2 inches (100 to 130 centimeters) in height. The male weighs 48.3 to 88 pounds (21.9 to 40 kilograms), while the female weighs 44.5 to 70.5 pounds (20.2 to 32 kilograms). The head, chin, and throat are black and there are bright yellow patches on the ears. The upper bill is black, the lower bill is pink, orange, or light purple.

Geographic range: Antarctica and nearby islands. The emperor is the only penguin that stays on the Antarctic continent year-round.

Habitat: Emperor penguins live in the frigid Antarctic waters and breed on sea ice sheltered by ice cliffs.

Diet: These birds eat small fish and crustaceans such as shrimp. Emperors are the deepest divers, and one researcher reported a dive that reached 1,755 feet (535 meters). The longest dive time on record is eighteen minutes. This species can spend sixty to seventy days at sea at one time, searching for food.

Behavior and reproduction: Emperor penguins breed in colonies. The female lays her egg and takes off to feed at sea. The egg is balanced on the father's feet, where he will protect it with his brood pouch for about sixty-five days. He withstands blizzards and icy temperatures for over two months and eats nothing the entire time.

Mothers return soon after the chicks hatch and parents take turns feeding and caring for the babies. Chicks leave the colonies at around five months of age.

Emperor penguins and people: When people think of penguins, it's usually the image of an emperor penguin that comes to mind. These birds are great attractions for the ecotourism industry (tourism that tries not to impact the environment while supporting local human populations).

Conservation status: These birds are not threatened. ∎


Physical characteristics: Both sexes are about 27.9 inches (71 centimeters) in height. Males weigh 8.2 to 14.1 pounds (3,720 to 6,410 grams) and females weigh 7.0 to 12.6 pounds (3,180 to 5,700 grams). Macaroni penguins have long yellow and orange feathers growing from the middle of their foreheads that look like eyebrows. The head and cheeks are black or dark gray, and the back is black. The breast, belly, and rump patch are white. Their eyes are dark red.

Geographic range: Macaroni penguins are found on Antarctica and neighboring islands. They remain in subantarctic waters during non-breeding season.

Habitat: Macaroni penguins nest on steep terrain with little or no vegetation.

Diet: They eat crustaceans, squid, and fish.

Behavior and reproduction: Macaroni penguins breed in large colonies of up to more than one hundred thousand birds. They're noisy during breeding season, and it is by their individual calls that mates are able to recognize one another.

The female lays two eggs in her shallow nest, which is made by scraping in mud or gravel. The second egg, which is larger than the first, is usually the only one to survive. Parents take turns warming and protecting the egg. Within four to five weeks, the chick is born, and it survives on regurgitated food for the first month. In about ten weeks, they head out on their own.

At sea, adult penguins must be on the lookout for Leopard seals, killer whales, and sea lions. On shore, eggs and chicks are eaten by petrels, skuas, and gulls.

Macaroni penguins and people: Humans are actually the biggest threat to these birds due to the overhunting of krill, which is their primary food source.

Conservation status: This species is listed as Vulnerable due to habitat loss and pollution. ∎


Physical characteristics: Although both sexes measure 28 inches (71 centimeters), the male weighs more (5.9 to 9.0 pounds [2.7 to 4.1 kilograms]) than the female (6.4 to 10.6 pounds (2.9 to 4.8 kilograms]). This penguin has two black strips across its white chest. The cheeks and cap are brownish black, and the white under parts are speckled with black. The brown eyes look out over a short black bill. Feet are pink with black spots.

Geographic range: This bird lives in central Chile and Argentina, south to Cape Horn and the Falkland Islands. Magellanic penguins migrate (travel to another region seasonally) from April to August. Those at the tip of South America travel as far north as Peru and Brazil.

Habitat: Magellanic penguins breed on islands in flat areas as well as on cliffs. They feed close to shore during breeding season.

Diet: This bird prefers schooling fish and squid.

Behavior and reproduction: Like other penguins the Magellanic species breeds in large colonies. They often return to the same nesting site year after year. This bird nests in burrows where possible, in ground nests when not. Both sexes build the nest and share all incubation and parenting duties. The chick from the second laid egg is less likely to survive than its older sibling. The chicks are fed regurgitated food every two to three days.

Magellanic penguins and people: Once hunted for meat and skins, this penguin is a major attraction for ecotourists at Punta Tombo in Argentina.

Conservation status: Magellanic penguins are listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN. Oil pollution is the biggest threat to this species, though their numbers are still in the millions. ∎



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Naveen, Ron.Waiting to Fly: My Escapades with the Penguins of Antarctica. New York: HarperTrade, 2000.

Schafer, Kevin. Penguin Planet: Their World, Our World. Hopkins, MN: Northword, 2000.

Swan, Erin Pembrey, et al. Penguins: From Emperors to Macaronis (Animals in Order). Franklin Watts, 2003.


Stricherz, Vince. "Penguins Ingest Mollusk Shells to Obtain Calcium for Thicker Shells." University of Washington News (May 11, 2004). Online at (accessed on May 12, 2004).

Web sites:

Antarctica and Southern Ocean Coalition. (accessed on July 14, 2004).

Defenders of Wildlife. (accessed on July 14, 2004).

"Emperor Penguins Fun Facts." National Geographic Kids. (accessed on May 12, 2004).

"Longevity and Causes of Death." Seaworld. (accessed on May 12, 2004).

"Magellanic." The Penguin Taxon Advisory Group. (accessed on May 12, 2004).

"Magellanic Penguin." San Francisco Zoo. (accessed on May 12, 2004).

"Spheniscidae-Penguins." EarthLife. (accessed on May 12, 2004).

"Wildlife of Antarctica: Macaroni Penguin." Antarctic Connection. (accessed on May 12, 2004).

"The World of Penguins." Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). (accessed on May 13, 2004).

World Wildlife Fund. (accessed on July 14, 2004).