What is a penguin?

Penguins are a group of flightless, aquatic birds.

Flightless means that they cannot fly in the air like most other birds.

Aquatic means they spend lots of time in the water. The wings of penguins are called flippers. Penguin flippers are adapted for swimming and diving – underwater, penguins maneuver and glide by moving their flippers up and down.

Although penguins spend most of their time in the water, they do come on land to breed, nest, care for their young, and molt (shed their feathers). Penguins have different ways of moving on land, including waddling, hopping, and sliding on their bellies (in snowy places).

Where do penguins live?

Penguins and polar bears do not live in the same place! Polar bears live in the Northern Hemisphere.

Penguins live mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, in waters around Antarctica, South America, Southern Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. There is a group of penguins called Galápagos penguins that live on the Galápagos Islands, a chain of islands that straddles the equator.

These Adélie penguins are a famous resident of Antarctica. They live only in Antarctica:
These penguins appear as little specks on this large iceberg:
South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic Ocean is home to many penguins, including these gentoo penguins …
And a massive colony of king penguins:
King penguin colony
These African penguins live in the waters around Southern Africa:
These Galápagos penguins live on the Galápagos Islands, a group of islands off the coast of mainland Ecuador:

What do penguins look like? Let’s meet a few close up!

There are at least 18 species of living penguin, possibly more. (See our penguin quiz!) Let’s meet a few:

Emperor penguin

This is the largest living penguin, standing up to 1.2 meters (47 inches) tall.

Ian Duffy from UK, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Adélie penguin

Credit: NOAA

King penguin

King penguin chick

Gentoo penguin

Gentoo penguin chick

Galápagos penguin

Chinstrap penguin

African penguin

Little (blue) penguin

JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/), CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What do they eat?

Penguins eat a variety of fish – which fish they eat depends on where they live. Penguins also eat squid, and krill (little crustaceans that live in the oceans).

What eats them?

In the water, penguins are preyed on by marine predators including seals, sharks, and orcas (killer whales). Adult penguins don’t have natural predators in places like Antarctica or on remote islands. But on land, African penguins may be preyed on by feral cats, leopards, and other carnivores. Penguin eggs and chicks may be vulnerable to predation by some birds, including petrels.

Penguins are social animals!

Penguins are highly social birds – they live in groups called colonies. Much of the time penguins swim and hunt in groups. When they breed, penguins form pair bonds. The pairs mate and both parents help to care for their chick, regurgitating food for it to eat.

The largest penguin colony has about 1 million breeding pairs of chinstrap penguins! King penguins sometimes have huge colonies of 200,000 or more pairs. Other types of penguins – such as African penguins or little penguins – may have smaller colonies numbering in the thousands of breeding pairs.

Credit: Australian Antarctic Program

Take our penguin quiz!

Celebrate penguins

All images by Mongabay, unless otherwise noted.