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Do Penguins Fly? | Penguin 101

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We get this question a lot at the Aquarium: "Do penguins fly? They're a bird, right?" And the answer is: "Yes, penguins fly—but not through the air!" Penguins are expert swimmers and use their paddle-like wings to fly through the water. Penguins are shaped like a football and extremely hydrodynamic, allowing them to slip through the sea fast enough to catch their fishy prey! Aviculturst Kim breaks down these amazing avian adaptations for a life spent mostly in the water.

A staff and fan favorite, these stout little birds are endlessly entertaining as they preen, feed, sleep, waddle and swim. For a penguin, almost 75% of its life can be spent in the water—and that means having adaptations to do so successfully. Because these birds feed mainly on slippery schooling fish, they need to be faster than the food they're trying to catch.

Rigid front flippers are a penguin's powerhouse, forcefully propelling them through the water like little tuxedoed torpedoes. A streamlined, fusiform body shape reduces drag, and keeps penguins hydrodynamic.

To further reduce drag, penguins have short, interlocking feathers—unlike the long, wide feathers of their airborne cousins, meant to catch the wind. These feathers also work to insulate and waterproof, keeping penguins warm in their native chilly waters. On land, they face the opposite problem; they can overheat in hot sun. To keep their cool, they pant and pump blood to parts of their bodies with less insulation—their wings, faces and feet—where excess heat can escape.

Towards their rear, webbed feet act as rudders to direct penguins as they jet through the water, allowing them to make sudden sharp turns in pursuit of their prey (or if a predator gives chase to them).

Internally, penguin bones are much denser than the hollow, sponge-like bones of other birds, decresing their buoyancy and helping them dive. This also means that penguins tend to be fairly heavy for a bird—African penguins on average weigh between six and eight pounds (2.5-4 kg).

All of our African penguins are part of a Species Survival Plan for threatened African penguins. The program, managed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), maintains the genetic health of more than 800 African penguins throughout the 50 AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums.

African penguin populations have undergone a steep decline in the past century. As recently as the early twentieth century, breeding pairs numbered nearly one million—but by 1956, the population plummeted to around 141,000 pairs. Today, it's estimated that around 25,000 breeding pairs exist in the wild.

One factor is overfishing, which has left Africa’s only penguins with less food. Climate change may also be playing a role since warmer waters cause what fish there are to move elsewhere, out of the penguins’ swimming range. They're vulnerable to other threats, too—a single oil spill along South Africa’s coast has the potential to affect thousands of penguins.

We're working together with the AZA's Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) program and organizations like the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) to make sure this critically endangered species has a healthy future.

You can join us in protecting this charismatic and important animal at home by eating sustainably-source seafood and reducing your carbon footprint, and by supporting ocean-friendly policies and organizations working to save African penguins.


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