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  • At first glance, there isn’t much of a family resemblance between penguins and other birds. In fact, in many ways, penguins seem closer to fish! They are flightless, have flippers and spend more than half their time in the water. But despite their differences, they have the key features of birds such as feathers, no teeth and a beak. And while they may not fly in the air, when watching them swimming, it is like they fly through the water. Penguins flap their flippers just like wings to gain speed and shoot through the water due to their streamlined shape.

    Penguins eat krill and fish – chasing their food means they have to be able to swim quickly and dive deep. The emperor penguin can dive to depths of 550 metres (that’s five rugby fields) in search of food, holding its breath for up to 20 minutes as it dives and swims. Even the smallest penguin – the little blue penguin, which we have in New Zealand – can dive to 60 metres and hold its breath for around 2 minutes. After this amazing breath-holding and swimming, penguins will then leap out of the water – the one time they look to be flying in the air – as they take a breath or aim for land.

    Antarctica is home to a number of different species of penguin, each one unique.

    Emperor penguin

    Standing around a metre tall, the emperor penguin deserves its name. These are the largest of the penguins – not just in Antarctica, but in the world. If you’ve seen the movie Happy Feet, it is the emperor penguins that sing, and this is how they learn to recognise each other – by learning the sound of their mate’s singing voice.

    Happy Feet, the emperor penguin found at Peka Peka beach and cared for at Wellington Zoo, was transported to the Southern Ocean aboard the NIWA vessel Tangaroa and released on 4 September 2011. See the Happy Feet release video from NIWA.

    Adelie penguin

    Although the smallest of the Antarctic penguins, what they lack in size they make up in sheer volume – estimates of population size range from two to five million Adelies inhabiting Antarctica’s water edges. Although smaller than their emperor cousins, these penguins are still able to dive to depths of around 500 metres, although most feeding expeditions see them diving just a couple hundred metres.

    Macaroni penguin

    With the look of a rock star, these penguins have bright yellow tassels, making them stand out in a crowd. And a crowd is what they are! Macaroni penguins are the most numerous of the world’s penguins, with an estimated 12 million pairs! These guys breed not just in Antarctica but also the sub-Antarctic islands. During the breeding season, two eggs are laid. The first is always undersized and once the second egg is laid, the original egg is kicked out of the nest and ignored. Despite numerous theories, no one has yet been able to work out why the first egg is ejected.

    Related content

    The Penguin Watch citizen science project has been set up to help scientists establish valuable baseline data about the numbers, locations, habits and health of penguins in a range of Southern Ocean sites. Read about another project Counting penguins from space.

    Check out our collection of great articles and resources on penguins on Pinterest.

    Useful links

    Read this article from The Conversation on how a new species of extinct penguin has been discovered that were 6 ft tall and what started the downsizing trend.

    Discover more about penguins on the Department of Conservation website.

    The 2019 issue of the Level 3 School Journal, Fantastic penguins is full of amazing penguin facts. If there is not a copy at your school, School Journals can be ordered from the Down the Back of the Chair website. Access to these resources is restricted to Ministry-approved education providers. To find out if you are eligible for a login or if you have forgotten your login details, contact their customer services team on 0800 660 662 or email

      Published 4 September 2008, Updated 17 December 2019 Referencing Hub articles
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