When people think “Antarctica” probably one of the first things that
comes to mind are the black and white, flightless birds that are highly
adapted for life in the water: penguins!

As we travel through the thicker sea ice, we can see groups of Adélie penguins running around with their wings out and emperor penguins
stoically standing, just watching us go by.

Stoic emperor penguins and excited Adélie penguins in East Antarctica.

I received a LOT of requests to take a closer look at penguins and some
very good questions about them.

Let’s take a closer look at Penguins

Closer look at penguins
Soha, 3rd grade, wants to take a closer look at penguins.

Penguins are flightless, aquatic birds that live in the southern
hemisphere. They are highly adapted for life in the water: their wings
have evolved into flippers, unlike other birds they have heavy solid
bones and they have countershaded (a type of camouflage) black and white
feathers to help them avoid predators in the water. They have oily
un-wettable feathers and can hold their breath from 15-25 minutes
depending on the species. Some penguins can dive as deep as 275 feet!

ARCUS penguin photos
Adélie penguin, Photo by Tim Spuck (PolarTREC 2012), Courtesy of ARCUS; emperor penguin, Photo by Michael League (PolarTREC 2011), Courtesy of ARCUS; gentoo penguin, Photo by Nell Herrmann (PolarTREC 2012), Courtesy of ARCUS; and chinstrap penguins, Photo by Hadoram Shirihai, 2001.

Of the 17 species of penguins, while 7 species can been seen in
Antarctica—king, emperor, gentoo, Adélie, chinstrap, rockhopper, and
macaroni—only four breed on the Antarctic continent itself: Adélie,
emperor, chinstrap and gentoo. Some penguins make rock nests while
others incubate their egg on their feet, but of all the penguins, only
the emperor breeds in the middle of the Antarctic winter.

Closer look at penguins collage
Lots of great questions about penguins!

  • How do penguins survive in the winter and cold? Gabriel, 2nd grade

Though not all penguins live in cold environments, those that do are
specially adapted to stay warm. Penguins have soft down feathers and a
thick layer of fat, called blubber, to help them survive below freezing
temperatures. They also have highly specialized metabolisms and
circulatory systems that help them keep their body insulated and not
lose heat to the cold air.

  • How do penguins eat? And swim? – Melanie, 1st grade

Penguins swim through the water by flapping their wings, which work
like flippers. Penguins are graceful swimmers, reaching speeds of about
7.5 miles per hour (though speeds of 17 mph have been recorded!) while
looking for fish or krill to eat that they snap up with their sharp
beaks. Though as they look for food they also have to beware of killer
whales and leopard seals that might try and make a meal out of them.

  • Why do penguins walk funny and why don’t they fly? – Princessa, 2nd
  • How to penguins walk on in the ice? – Cindy, 2nd Grade
  • Why do penguins walk funny? – Emily, 1st grade

Sometimes we can spot penguins walking over the ice, or even sliding on
the ground on their bellies. It may seem to us that penguins walk funny,
but this is because their body is designed for swimming! Adult penguins
have no natural predators on land (only in the water) so there is no
need for them to run fast or fly, an ability they lost a long time ago.

  • How do penguins communicate? –Rodrigo, 1st

They communicate with vocalizations, squawks, songs, and calls. And
with visual behaviors and movements, parents and chicks can recognize
each other’s calls, even out of the thousands of other penguins around.

  • Can I play with a penguin? –Seth, 2nd grade

Unfortunately we cannot play with the penguins. They are wild animals
and we must let them be go about their lives. Even if a penguin walks
through our research area or research station we have to get out of
their way and let them keep walking!

Try it at Home

The shortest penguins in the world are little blue penguins, or fairy
penguins, from Australia that are about 16 inches tall.

The tallest penguins in the world are the emperor penguins in
Antarctica, which are about 3 and a half feet tall.

Peppermint Narwhal
Know Your Penguins guide by Peppermint Narwhal.

How tall are you compared to a penguin?

1) Grab a ruler, pencil and some post it notes and head to your nearest
2) Write the penguin names on your post-it notes. Don’t write on your
3) Using your ruler, measure the height of a penguin and mark it with
your post-it note. Remember, don’t write on your wall!
4) Now (you may want the help of a friend or parent for this), measure
your own height and mark this on the wall with a post-it note.

Antarctic Penguin Heights:
Emperor Penguin – 3 and 1/2 feet
King Penguin - 3 feet
Gentoo Penguin - 2 and 3/4 feet
Adélie Penguins – 2 and 1/4 feet
Chinstrap Penguins – 2 feet
Rockhopper Penguin – 1 and 3/4 feet
Macaroni Penguin – 2 and ¼ feet

Which penguins are you taller than? Are you shorter than any penguins?
Which penguin is closest to your height?

I’m only 1 and 1/5 feet taller than an emperor penguin!

Penguin height activity
How tall are you compared to penguins?


Martin Gaytan

Thank you for this fun post! My sisters name is Adela and we call her Adelie, just like the penguins! Do you know of any good videos or books on Adelie or Emperor penguins?

Dominique Richardson

Hi Martin! I'm glad you guys enjoyed the post. If you haven't already seen the movie "March of the Penguins," I would definitely recommend
that video to learn more about emperor penguins. I don't know of any
videos specifically about Adelie penguins, however the BBC has put out
some great documentaries about life in the polar regions and the life of
birds (as well as their series like Planet Earth and Life) that have
great episodes and sections on a variety of penguins and other animals
in the area!

Gabriel Gaytan

My mom used to think that penguins have black and whiteskin to reflect and deflect sunlight. We saw a show today that said it is because to create an illusion so predators will not eat them. Anyway what happens if a seal born in the water? Can it swim?

Dominique Richardson

Hi Gabriel. Yes, this illusion to predators is a type of camouflage called "counter shading." You can see it in many different animals that
live in the water from penguins to little fish to sharks and dolphins.
If you are above the animal looking down, the dark back of the animal
blends in with the dark water below. If you are below the animal looking
up, their light belly blends in the with lighter water above.
As for baby seals, mother seals need to haul out on the ice to give
birth to their babies. Depending on the type of seal, it can take from
hours to even months before for the baby seal takes its first swim. My
fellow PolarTREC teacher--Alex Eilers--came to Antarctica to study
Weddell seals last fall and I'd definitely recommend checking out her
journal and activities if you'd like to learn a lot about seals. You can
find her under the "Locate a Team Member" button!