Penguins | Polar Unbound


Everybody loves a penguin, the kleptomaniac of the Antarctic. Antarctica’s most common bird aren’t birds of a feather, however, as 7 different species are considered “Antarctic penguins” of the 17 penguin species found throughout the world. 

Of the 7 penguin species found in Antarctica, only 4 species are considered “true” Antarctic penguins as they breed on or near continental Antarctica: chinstrap penguin, emperor penguin, gentoo penguin, and the Adélie penguin. The other 3 species nest and live on Antarctic and sub-Antarctic islands: King penguin, Macaroni penguin, and the Rockhopper penguin. 

Despite their variations, Antarctic penguins have some adaptations in common to survive the frigid conditions. 

Penguin Waddle & Toboggan
While the penguin waddle may simply appear like a quirky, iconic gate, waddles from side to side is actually a big energy saver, conserving 80% more energy compared to a steadier walk. Penguins also “toboggan” on slippery surfaces, using their their claws and toes to push themselves forward on their stomachs. You wouldn’t be able to catch a penguin tobogganing by running. 

Penguins Bounce 
Small penguins can bounce up out of rough waves onto rocky shores without being injured, a side-effect of being so small and blubbery. 

Feet Up for Swimming 
Penguins keep their feet tucked in close to their bodies when swimming to minimize drag, though they occasionally drop a foot like a rudder or a brake, helping them make quick turns in the water. 

Preening isn’t Pretty 
Well, ok—preening can make a bird pretty. But that’s not all it does! Penguins fluff our their feathers to collect air among them, especially before hopping in the water. Preening helps sustain insulation while also reduce drag in the water, as released bubbles lubricate the penguin’s passage through the water. It also helps the penguins gain a burst of speed to burst out of the water—a helpful tool for escaping predators. 

Nest Skills
Most penguins—besides emperor and king penguins—built nests to protect and incubate their eggs. The nests are constructed to rise above the landscape so that melting snow or other environmental changes will not flood the nests. 

FUN FACT: Penguins often squabble over small stones used to nest, so kleptomaniac penguins often go around stealing nesting stones, re-claiming stones, and stealing them once again. 

Emperor Penguin


Emperor penguins may have partly earned their name as the largest of the penguin species, but they also warrant their name with their regal and staunch demeanor—possibly even the gold patches that crown their chest and heads.

Unlike Adélie penguins, who have a short nesting period, the emperor penguin has an incredibly long nesting period. It’s even more impressive when you consider that emperor penguins are the only penguins that breed during the Antarctic winter, meaning that long nesting period takes place during the Antarctic’s harshest conditions. 

When nesting, males tend to the newly laid eggs while females head off—sometimes over great distances—to hunt for extended periods. Emperor penguins are incredibly effective hunters.  At sea, emperor penguins can dive to 1,850 feet—deeper than any other bird—and stay under for more than 20 minutes.

During this time, males protect their eggs by balancing them on their feet and covering them with their brood pouch formed of feathered skin to keep them warm. During this 2-month interim, males eat nothing and lose up to 26 pounds protecting their egg. 

The mothers don’t stay away filling their bellies, however; they return after two months full of food to regurgitate for their chicks. While males then go off in search of a well-earned meal, mothers take their place protecting their newly hatched chicks with their brood pouches. 

Brood pouches aren’t the emperor penguin’s only adaptive behavior for surviving the Antarctic’s frigid conditions. To survive in the Antarctic’s fierce conditions, emperor penguins huddle together to block wind and preserve warmth, rotating positions from the exterior to the warmer interior. 

FUN FACT: Some emperor penguins never set foot on land, making them the only birds to do so. 

King Penguins


In the penguin court, king penguins are second only to emperor’s in size. Despite their secondary stature, king penguins received their name when 18th century European explorers thought they had discovered the largest penguin species out there. It wasn’t until 1844 that the emperor penguin’s existence was verified. Much like the emperors, king penguins sport some gold plumage around their neck and ears, making them some of the brightest penguins out there. 

King penguins live well north of the emperor penguins, keeping to the sub-Antarctic belt with breeding colonies found on Macquarie, Falkland, South Georgia, Prince Edward, Marion, Kerguelen, Heard and Crozet islands. There’s even been some new colonies popping up in Patagonia. 

Much like emperor penguins, king penguins don’t built nests during their breeding cycle but instead incubate the eggs with their feet. During the extended breeding period, king penguins are territorial. 

FUN FACT: Woolly, fluffy, brown coated king penguin chicks were mistaken for a completely different species in 19th century scientific books. 

Gentoo Penguins


Their bright red-orange bill, pronounced white eye patches and peachy feet make gentoo penguins easy to spot and distinguish from their other white-and-black suited brethren and Antarctica’s relatively monochrome environment. 

Though not as big as the towering emperor and king penguins, the gentoo penguin is the penguin kingdom’s third largest member and can weigh in at 12 pounds and reach up to 30 inches. It’s also the northernmost penguin of its cousins—the chinstrap and Adélie. Also unlike the chinstrap and Adélie, the gentoo sticks close to their breeding colonies throughout the year. 

Gentoo penguins can be found throughout the Antarctic Peninsula and on many sub-Antarctic islands, though the largest populations can be found on South Georgia Island, the Falkland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. They prefer coastal plains and protected cliffs and valleys—areas free of ice—where their colonies can contain as few as a couple dozen pairs to several thousand. 

FUN FACT: Gentoo penguins can dive faster than any other diving bird, reaching up to 22 miles per hour underwater.


Macaroni Penguins


The most numerous of the world’s penguins, the macaroni penguin can be found in many regions beyond the Antarctic, where they inhabit subantarctic islands as well as a small portion of the Antarctic Peninsula. You’ll know if you spot a macaroni penguin: they have a large, red-brown bill, pink feet and orange crests that tuft out like eyebrows in need of a trim.  

Macaroni penguins are social, vocal and colonial, and they form nesting colonies on rocky cliffs numbering in the hundreds of thousands. When nesting, macaronis have a strange habit of laying two eggs, the first egg much smaller than the second egg. Despite the two eggs, macaronis only raise one chick, and the small egg rarely hatches, and only does so if the larger egg is gone. Scientists are still working on the “how” and “why” of this egg-laying trick. 

FUN FACT: Macaroni penguins were named after the immense, powdered wigs dandies sported in the 18th century—a hairstyle forever memorialized in ‘Yankee Doodle’—of which their eyebrows were reminiscent. 

Chinstrap penguin


Named for the signature black band of feathers running from their cheeks to under their chin seemingly holding their black hats on, chinstrap penguins are the smallest of their closest relatives, the Adélie penguin and the Gentoo penguin. Estimates also have them as the Antarctic’s most abundant penguin, with a populated of an estimated 8 million. 

Chinstrap nests can be found on higher, rocky, ice-free slopes—even on some precarious spots they reach by using their claws and beaks. Like many other penguins, chinstraps return every year to the same colony to nest, and often settle down very close to the same nest site made up of small stones. 

Most of the breeding colonies are found around the Antarctic Peninsula on the Scotia Arc, including South Orkney, South Shetland, South Sandwich and South Georgie Islands. Every winter, chinstrap penguins migrate north and stay at sea until the next breeding season. 

FUN FACT: If you see a chinstrap penguin colony, you might be overwhelmed by a sea of black and white: some colonies can number in the hundreds of thousands. 


Rockhopper Penguins


It’s the southern rockhopper penguin who makes its way to the Falkland Islands and the subantarctic islands, its habitat preference clearly identified by its name. Much like macaroni penguins, rockhopper penguins are adorned with crests jutting out of their eyebrows and forehead. However, the rockhopper is ornamented with thin, spiky yellow and black crests. They are the smallest of the crested penguins, however, and have distinctive ruby red eyes sitting underneath their yellow plumage. 

Rockhoppers gather to breed in vast colonies numbering in the hundreds of thousands, where they then built burrows in tally grassy areas near the shoreline. Though the breeding times can vary, rockhoppers return to the same breeding ground every year—and often to the same nest and mate. Rockhoppers, like other crested penguins, lay a smaller first egg and a second larger egg, with the first laid eggs usually being lost during incubation. 

FUN FACT: The rockhopper penguin’s vulnerable population is in decline, with some research showing that populations have declined more than 30% in the past few decades. 



Adélie penguins look awfully dapper with their black heads and back, white front and white eye-ring. They also have elongated feathers on the back of their heads that can be raised to form a small plume. 

These true Antarctic penguins breed further south than any other penguins, so they’re highly adapted to those chilly temperatures. Of course, breeding in the harshest conditions means they also have the briefest breeding season, with males waddling many miles from the open water to reach the breeding grounds in preparation of a cursory courtship and short nesting time. Despite their short nesting time, Adélie’s are devoted parents: both male and female share egg and chick duties until the chicks are about 2 months old. 

Adélie penguins are also quite mobile, in water and on land. In water, Adélie penguins can travel around 185 miles round-trip in search of a meal, and on land can waddle over 30 miles from the inland nests to reach the open Antarctic waters. 

FUN FACT: Adélie penguins make their chicks work for their dinner: chicks must chase their parents before getting their vomited up meal of krill.