Why do penguins look like they do? What’s with the formal attire?
Some experts speculate that their color might protect them from predators as well as camouflage them while hunting. (From above, the dark back blends with the dark water below. From underwater, the light belly looks like the reflective water surface and bright sky above.) Dark feathers might also absorb more sun for warmth.
Why flippers instead of wings? Swimming is more important than flying to penguins. Though penguins seem awkward on land, they’re extremely agile in the water partly because of their flippers, which propel them forward, and their legs, which act like rudders when swimming. Their flippers and short tail also help penguins balance during upright walking.
Penguins are amazing swimmers and divers. Emperors and Kings can swim at speeds of 6 mph (9 km) while fishing, and even faster when a predator is on their tail. Emperors have been recorded in deep-sea dives of 1860 feet (565 m) for up to 20 minutes. Small penguins don’t dive as deep or long (only 1-2 minutes).
Because they don’t have to fly, polar penguins can pack on the pounds for much-needed insulation. Their blubber keeps them warm and also serves as long-term energy storage. Penguins are kind of like walking refrigerators, only with the cold on the outside.
Bigger is better when it’s cold, and polar penguins are big, heavy birds. A bigger penguin has a smaller surface area to volume ratio, and therefore it has less relative area through which to lose heat.
Their feathers aren’t for flying either. Their smooth plumage provides waterproof insulation in that it traps air against their bodies, plus it gives them extra buoyancy in cold seas.
Even a penguin’s feet are perfectly adapted for cold weather. Here’s how:
Muscles that operate a penguin’s feet are located deep in the warm areas of its body. Tendons connect these muscles to their feet and move them like puppet strings. Flippers have a similar design. Penguins have a built-in heat exchange system. Warm blood traveling from the body to the feet or flippers passes by the cold blood entering from the extremities. This process warms the blood that’s moving in from the feet or flippers to the penguin’s core. Therefore, the cold blood coming in is warmed up so its impact on the penguin’s internal temperature isn’t so great.
What’s that mean? Their extremities function regardless of the temperature as long as the animals maintain a normal internal body temperature.
Take a tip from a penguin: tipping keeps you warmer. Actually, it’s more like leaning. To reduce the amount of heat lost through contact with the cold snow, penguins rock back on their heels, lean on their tail feathers, and hold their toes up off the ground. The result is minimal loss of heat through conduction. Ingenious!
Penguins also know how to keep cool. On warm days, they shed heat through the undersides of their flippers, their legs and their feet. They’ve been seen belly-down on the snow with flippers and feet raised in their version of the yoga Cobra position. Certain undignified penguins even resort to fluffing their feathers and panting like dogs.
If you ask a penguin to open its mouth and say “ahhhh,” you’ll notice that it has no teeth. Penguins actually catch their food whole, using their beaks. Instead of teeth, they have little backward spines like tiny fishhooks in their mouths to keep their prey from escaping.
Finally, their physique could be an adaptive quality to make us love them more. As a species, humans manage to kill all kinds of adorable animals. But a penguin’s remarkable resemblance to your great uncle Stan might make you blink twice before pulling the trigger.