Penguins: The Monogamous Tuxedoed Birds That 'Fly' Underwater

penguins
A group of Emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) on Snow Hill Island on the Antarctic Peninsula. The mother protects her chick by holding it off the ice on her feet. Raimund Linke/Getty Images

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Could penguins be any cuter? I mean, c'mon. Whether the Little Blue penguins of New Zealand – the world's smallest with an average height of 12 inches (33 centimeters) – or the Emperor penguins found marching around Antarctica (average height 44 inches or 112 centimeters), they're universally adored. Decked out in their tuxedo-like feathers, they can't fly but they zip around on their bellies in the snow and swim like Michael Phelps competing for another gold medal. Jenn O'Dell, a curator of mammals and birds at the Georgia Aquarium and part of the team that cares for the aquarium's flock of African penguins, let us in on a few more fun facts about this beloved bird.

'Genres' and Geography

There are up to 26 different species of penguins. In the wild, they all live in the Southern Hemisphere on four continents – Africa, South America, Australia/New Zealand and Antarctica, typically places where the water is very cold. There is an exception. The endangered Galapagos penguin lives in the Galapagos archipelago, which is right on the equator.

Feathery Forcefield

African penguins have incredibly small feathers and there are lots of them – about 8,200 feathers per square inch! That number will vary according to penguin species and size.

"Their feathers act like a barrier to the water they're swimming in," says O'Dell. "The feathers are important to their survival because they're swimming in really cold water. If they didn't have that barrier they wouldn't survive."

In addition to the density of the feathers, penguins also use oil from a uropygial gland, sometimes called a preen gland, located at the base of their tail, to preen or waterproof their feathers. "When they're swimming in the ocean, no water ever touches their skin," says O'Dell.

Monogamous Mates

Most penguins will breed monogamously for life and return to the same breeding place. However, O'Dell says she and other researchers have seen mated pairs split up and form new pairs for no discernable reason. African penguins breed year-round with peak times in November and March. They typically lay two eggs that are incubated for about 40 days. Males and females are both engaged in incubating, tending and feeding the chicks after they hatch.

Nesting Notes

Most penguins do not balance the eggs on the tops of their feet while incubating their eggs, as seen in the movie "The March of the Penguins." That's something done primarily by Emperor penguins because of the brutal Antarctic cold. Other penguin species may build a burrow or scrape together nesting material – rocks, mud, sticks or grasses – where they lay their eggs.

The 'Catastrophic Molt'

Imagine having to go through an annual life cycle where you double your weight, lose all the hair on your body and then grow new hair. That's what penguins do every year.

"The catastrophic molt is a two-and-a-half-week process during which they lose all their feathers and grow new ones back," says O'Dell. "It's a natural thing they go through but it is physiologically stressful. In advance of molting, they will come close to doubling their body weight because they won't swim or hunt. That way, during that time when they're losing the feathers and growing them back, they've got enough reserves to get them through."

O'Dell says molting typically happens around the same season each year for African penguins, with some outliers. "You can probably find a molting penguin at any time of the year," she says, "But the majority will molt with the rest of the flock."

Penguins Are Receptive Learners

Handlers at the Georgia Aquarium occasionally wanted their African penguins to take part in educational or interactive programs but they weren't sure how well they would take to instruction. Turns out penguins are pretty smart cookies. "When we started incorporating a more formalized training program with them, they learned incredibly fast," says O'Dell. "Like most animals they are responsive to operant conditioning and positive reinforcement. The way they respond to people has a lot to do with their history, where they came from, their interaction here and the training process." O'Dell says that like other animals, including many species of birds, penguins can form strong attachments to specific trainers.

Conservation Status? It's All Over the Map

With so many penguin species, the conservation status runs the gamut from those that are of "least concern" like the Adelie and the "vulnerable" Macaroni which live and breed in Antarctic waters, to "endangered" Northern Rockhopper penguins, found in the more temperate South Atlantic and Indian Oceans, on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

African penguins are also endangered on the IUCN Red List. "Their numbers have decreased 90 percent over the last 100 years," says O'Dell. "There are only 16,000 breeding pairs left. There's speculation that this species of penguin could be extinct within our lifetime, possibly in the next 15 to 20 years without significant changes."

The problems are mostly man-made. In addition to competing with humans for the same fish, O'Dell says their prey has also moved. "The penguins have to swim farther to get food and by the time they get back to their chicks, they've digested everything," she says. "They don't have anything to feed their young."

"Georgia Aquarium has committed to the species in a lot of different ways. There are people from our team, from vet services, who support the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) to help with rescue, rehab and release of African penguins and other seabird species, and fund research projects to get the African penguin population growing in the right direction again."