A. One of the most amazing facts involves just how long ago penguins began evolving towards life in the water and lost their ability to fly. The oldest fossil of a penguin species dates from over 60 million years ago! This penguin had already lost the ability to fly. While it was not as well adapted to marine life as today’s penguins, it is definitely a penguin ancestor. Scientists speculate that these ancient penguins swam mostly on the top of the water. However, their wings had already evolved to be better used as flippers in the water and the bird could no longer fly.
B. When we look at fossil records, we find some amazing ancestors of the penguins we are used to seeing today. Emperor penguins are the largest penguins alive today. These birds can be up to 4 feet tall and can weigh 100 pounds. Giant penguin fossils have been found in New Zealand. These penguins lived 40 million years ago and were nearly 6 feet tall and weighed over 170 pounds! It may have been that there was an abundance of food available with few competitors, so the penguins grew larger.
C. Many children’s movies and cartoons feature penguins as prominent characters. Make no mistake, these cuddly-looking creatures eat only meat, and no vegetables. Penguins survive on a diet of mostly fish. They also consume other marine animals, including squid and octopus. This diet is partly a result of the region of the Earth they inhabit. Nearly all penguins live in the Southern Hemisphere, and many live in the Antarctic where there is little to no vegetation. Adult penguins can be preyed on by leopard seals and killer whales, or orcas.
D. Penguins have many special adaptations for living in cold weather. They have a thick layer of feathers that acts as insulation, and they can also control the flow of blood to their extremities, maintaining just enough blood flow to keep those body parts from freezing. A unique behavior of penguins demonstrates their ability to work together as a group to provide benefits to each individual. During the coldest months of winter, after the mother emperor penguin lays her egg, she goes hunting while the father stands over the egg to keep it warm.
E. For instance, when it comes to diving, emperor penguins are capable of diving to depths of 1,854 ft. in search of fish and squid to eat. To compensate for the extreme pressures at these depths – up to 40 times the pressure at the surface – emperor penguins have special adaptations. Their bones are solid instead of air-filled, like other birds, to reduce barotrauma. During deep dives, the emperor penguin’s heart rate drops to 15-20 beats per minute to conserve oxygen. The emperor penguin’s blood also has special properties.
F. It seems that penguins are tough inside and out. Their digestive system has unique features that allow the bird to survive and thrive in its marine lifestyle. Penguins have a supraorbital gland, which is a gland that filters out sodium chloride from the blood stream. In other words, the gland filters salt out of the blood. This allows penguins to drink salt water when they are thirsty! Don’t try that if you get stranded on a desert island, however – it would kill you!
G. Penguins are social animals, and they like to hang out! Emperor penguins live in colonies that number into the thousands, but interesting facts shock us with the real party-animals of the penguin order: macaroni penguins. Macaroni penguins can group in colonies of several hundred thousand birds at once! That’s not a party – that’s a festival! As a result of living in these large groups, penguins have adapted many unique vocalizations and displays to communicate with other birds. Male penguins have unique behavior when they huddle in heat packs to stay warm.