Lloyd Spencer Davis is one of the world’s leading penguin experts and Antarctic explorers, as well as an award-winning photographer and author. His latest book, A Polar Affair, tells the story of Gregory Murray Levick, the early 20th-century zoologist who discovered the sometimes-scandalous love lives of penguins. After much pearl-clutching, Levick’s research was hidden, leaving Davis to make the same discovery a century later—though with a much better sense of humor than his Victorian predecessor.
Here are Lloyd Spencer Davis’ 14 most interesting penguin facts.
1. Penguins are never found living with polar bears near the North Pole, as cartoonists would have us believe. Penguins are creatures exclusively of the Southern Hemisphere.
2. However, penguins are not found inhabiting only areas of snow and ice. While Adélie penguins do breed in Antarctica, closer to the South Pole than any other species of birds, Galapagos penguins breed right on the equator in the Galapagos Islands, and other species of penguins are distributed across the latitudes in between.
3. Indeed, penguins are the world’s only “one-hundred-degree” birds. Emperor penguins breed on sea ice in Antarctica during the winter, when temperatures can drop below -60°C (-76°F), while Humboldt penguins breed in the deserts of Peru and Chile, where temperatures can exceed 40°C (104°F).
4. It’s the penguins’ feathers, more so than their fat, that insulates them. The feathers are short and stiff, with a series of hooks that lock them together like Velcro, trapping a layer of air next to their skin: evolution’s version of a “dry suit,” which allows penguins to endure long periods in cold water while still maintaining warm body temperatures that are similar to our own.
5. All penguins are flightless, but they evolved from flying ancestors just over 60 million years ago. Along with the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs about 66 million years ago, plesiosaurs and other top marine predators disappeared. This turned the sea into a virtual dinner plate of fish and crustaceans for any animals that could dive deep enough to get them. However, diving abilities are correlated with body size, and while bigger, heavier birds with shorter, stiffer wings can dive deeper, these are exactly the opposite requirements for flight, when light bodies and large, flexible wings are an asset.
6. Little penguins, which are found in Australia and New Zealand, are the world’s smallest penguins and weigh about 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) soaking wet. This is close to the threshold for a diving bird, when its body mass becomes incompatible with flight. Indeed, the smallest penguin fossils indicate they were also about 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds), so this was probably about the size at which the transition from flying diving birds to flightless diving birds took place, and penguins evolved.
7. Freed of the constraints that flight had placed on the body sizes of their flying ancestors, penguins quickly evolved into a variety of larger forms. In 2018, a giant penguin fossil was found in New Zealand that was 1.6 meters (5 feet, 3 inches) tall and weighed about 80 kilograms (176 pounds).
8. Emperor penguins are the largest living penguins, standing up to 1.2 meters tall (just shy of 4 feet), with males weighing up to 37 kilograms (82 pounds) at their fattest. They can dive to depths of over 600 meters (1,969 feet), and while they typically dive for less than 10 minutes, the longest recorded dive is over half an hour.
9. New Zealand is the penguin capital of the world. The first penguin fossil was discovered in New Zealand, as were the oldest penguin fossils, the biggest penguin fossils and the most fossil species of penguins. It seems likely that penguins evolved in the New Zealand region, and even today, there are more species of penguins living in New Zealand’s territorial waters than any other place on Earth.
10. While many more species of penguins existed in the past, scientists are not even sure how many species there are living in the world right now. The best current advice is that there are 19 species, but advances in genetics are dramatically changing our understanding of penguins. For example, Royal penguins, which breed on Macquarie Island and were long thought to be a separate species, have recently been proven to be nothing more than white-faced versions of Macaroni penguins. On the other hand, Rockhopper penguins, which breed on islands around sub-Antarctic, now appear from DNA analyses to constitute three separate species.
11. Regrettably, science is unequivocal about one aspect of penguins: Penguins are in trouble throughout the world. More than two-thirds of penguin species are threatened or endangered, and the populations of all but a few species are decreasing—some, rapidly so. You can help by supporting the New Zealand Penguin Initiative and the Global Penguin Society.
12. Penguins swim and dive over vast areas of the ocean to find the fish, squid and krill they need to breed successfully. On a single feeding trip, they may travel tens or even hundreds of kilometers (which is a heck of a lot in miles, too). In the case of King penguins, during the winter, parents may travel over thousands of kilometers (even thousands of miles) to seek food, leaving their chicks home alone and forced to go without food for up to five months!
13. Penguins do not mate for life. Even though there may be some advantage to retaining a successful partner, the imperative to breed during the window when conditions are favorable, combined with the challenges of finding a partner from one season to the next, means that in many species, divorce rates are high. Not only that, but some penguins are not averse to a little infidelity on the side, even if they do remain with a partner.
14. Penguins are our sentinels of the sea. Anything that causes penguins to spend longer at sea to find food reduces their ability to feed their chicks and increases the chances of breeding failure. This makes penguins our marine “canaries in the coal mine.” By monitoring their breeding success and trips at sea, we can use them as environmental probes to tell us about the health of our oceans. The news is bad. Penguins are showing us that global warming, overfishing, pollution and disturbance from us are ruining their world and ours. The good news is that if we take notice of them and act fast, we can save the penguins, and they will have saved us.
For more penguin facts, check out: PenguinWorld.com.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of A Polar Affair.