Where does the name penguin come from?

How many species of penguin are there?

Where are the most species of penguins found?

Do penguins spend most of their time in the water?                  

How deep can penguins dive?

Can penguins fly?

How do penguins stay warm?

What do penguins eat?

What are penguins’ main predators?

Do most penguins mate for life?

Do most penguins breed at the same colonies each year?

What are penguin nests made of?

Why do some penguins carry their eggs on their feet?

How do penguins protect their chicks?

What colour are King penguin chicks?

How long does a penguin live?


1. Where does the name penguin come from?

There are several theories. They include:

  • From the Latin pinguis, meaning 'fat' or 'fish'.
  • A name given by Spanish sailors because of the quantity of fat (penguigo) found on them.
  • There is a Welsh claim from the words pen gwyn meaning 'white head'.
  • Not recorded in English before 1588, when it was called the 'pin-wing' with reference to its rudimentary 'wings' – the same name that was applied to the now extinct Northern Hemisphere great auk.
  • Named after a large white rock on an island in Newfoundland known as White Head.

For more detail on the origin of the penguin name go to: www.askoxford.com/asktheexperts/faq/aboutwordorigins/penguin

2. How many species of penguin are there?

They are the largest family of flightless birds in the world with 18 species.

Emperor Penguin* Aptenodytes forsteri
King Penguin Aptenodytes patagonicus
Gentoo Penguin Pygoscelis papua
Adelie Penguin* Pygoscelis adeliae
Chinstrap Penguin* Pygoscelis antarctica
Rockhopper Penguin Eudyptes chrysocome
Fiordland Penguin* Eudyptes pachyrhynchus
Snares Crested Penguin* Eudyptes robustus
Erect-crested Penguin* Eudyptes sclateri
Macaroni Penguin Eudyptes chrysolophus
Royal Penguin Eudyptes schlegeli
Yellow-eyed Penguin Megadyptes antipodes
Little Penguin Eudyptula minor
White-flippered Penguin Eudyptula albosignata
African Penguin Spheniscus demersus
Humboldt Penguin Spheniscus humboldti
Magellanic Penguin Spheniscus magellanicus
Galapagos Penguin Spheniscus mendiculus

* recorded as a vagrant in the Falkland Islands.

To find out about a giant fossil penguin discovered in 2007: www.guardian.co.uk/science/2007/jun/26/fossils.uknews?gusrc=rsst&feed=science

3. Where are the most species of penguins found?

Countries with the most penguin species are the Falkland Islands (5) and New Zealand (8). About 1 million live in the Falkland Islands. All penguins live in the Southern Hemisphere. The most widely distributed penguin in the Antarctic is the Gentoo penguin. Only two are restricted to the Antarctic: Emperor and Adelie.

4. Do penguins spend most of their time in the water?

Yes. Some penguins stay in the water for as long as 5 months, swimming thousands of miles. They can even sleep in the water. They come ashore to breed, moult and grow new feathers.

 5. How deep can penguins dive?

The Emperor penguin holds the record for the deepest dive at 535 metres (1,755 feet). King penguins have been known to dive to 323 metres (1,059 feet) and Gentoos 210 (688 feet). Most dive for between 2 and 5 minutes.

6. Can penguins fly?

No. They flap their wings in the water just like flying birds but their wings are too small and their bodies too heavy to fly. Their wings are strong and firm so they act like paddles in the water.

A Rockhopper penguin takes a flying leap into the sea

7. How do penguins stay warm?

Penguin feathers are densely packed over their whole body surface. These provide oily waterproofing which is very important in maintaining insulation against cold and wet. A layer of fat also provides insulation, and can be up to 3 cms thick. This is particularly important for over-wintering King penguin chicks.

8. What do penguins eat?

They get all their food from the sea feeding mostly on krill, squid and small fish. At the peak of the breeding season the 5 million Adelie penguins nesting on Lawrie Island catch 9,000 tonnes of krill and small fish daily. They also drink salty water from the sea and have special glands to remove the salt in a liquid form. It flows down grooves in a penguin’s beak and drips off the end.

9. What are penguins’ main predators?

Gulls, turkey vultures, striated caracaras, giant petrels, sheathbills and particularly skuas take eggs and chicks. It is estimated that a penguin rookery of 100,000 penguins can support only 10 pairs of marauding scavengers. Gulls and ibises in South Africa can devour up to 40% of jackass penguin eggs.

Leopard seals attack adelies, chinstraps, gentoos and rockhoppers and occasionally kings and emperors. There are 100,000 of these animals off the Antarctic coast taking a considerable toll of penguins every year, but penguins can swim faster and often outmanoeuvre them. In the Falklands, sea lions prey on adult penguins near the coasts while Killer whales and fur seals take the occasional penguin too.

Penguins are however most threatened by man. Pollution from chemicals, marine debris, oil spills, commercial fishing and global warming are all affecting their lives

10. Do most penguins mate for life?

Some species do! Penguins that have nesting sites have higher fidelity to their partners as it acts as a meeting location each summer. Some penguins pairs have been known to stay together for 11 successive seasons. A study of adelie penguins estimated the ‘divorce rate’ at 17%. For the king and emperor penguins, birds find new partners often as they do not have nests and instead use their feet to incubate the eggs.

11. Do most penguins breed at the same colonies each year?

Yes, and often return to the same territory within the rookery. The males arrive first to establish the nest site – which may have to be fought over and defended. If separated, they recognise their partner by voice. Holding on to the same next site each year means a good chance that the same partner will return.

12. What are penguin nests made of?

Gentoo penguin nests can be bulky piles of diddle-dee (a low growing shrub native to the Falkland Islands), but where plants are scarce, nests are often piles of stones. Magellanic penguins dig burrows up to 2m (6 feet deep) and contruct nests of diddle dee or tussac grass inside. Rockhoppers and Macaroni penguins just make a shallow depression in the soil.

Gentoos can use more than 1,700 stones to make one nest.

Gentoo penguin nest building
Photo: Alan Henry.

13. Why do some penguins carry their eggs on their feet?

Kings (and Emperors) do not build a nest. Their single egg is incubated beneath a fold of skin, resting on their feet. Incubation here takes about eight weeks.

14. How do penguins protect their chicks?

They form crèches with the young birds gathering together in groups. This behaviour protects the young birds from aerial predation (particularly skuas, gulls, turkey vultures and caracaras). For Emperors crèches are essential to protect against extremely low temperatures.

15. What colour are King penguin chicks?

Unlike their handsome parents, they are covered in a thick brown coat. They need this to keep warm throughout the winter months because they take 10 –12 months to fledge.

16. How long does a penguin live?

Up to 25 years. Individuals have been recorded still breeding at 17 – 20 years of age. Some birds do not join the breeding population until they are 9 years old. A penguin in captivity at Edinburgh Zoo lived to be at least 28 years old.