Penguins – not just cute but also clever!

“Antarctica, an inhospitable wasteland, but even here, on the Earth’s frozen bottom, we find life. And not just any life: penguins. Joyous, frolicking, waddling, cute and cuddly life. Look at them, tumbling onto their chubby bum bums”, describes the narrator in the famous DreamWorks Animation movie “Penguins of Madagascar”. With their distinctive coloration and their adorable waddling gait penguins quickly became popular all over the world, their cute and clumsy appearance on land got them millions of fans – but penguins are so much more than that! 

The oldest known penguin fossil dates back about 60 million years ago – over the course of time, they have adapted perfectly to the harsh environments they are living in. “The charismatic birds weren’t always flightless aquatic acrobats: Evolving from flying to swimming demanded an almost entirely new set of skills, body shapes, and functions”, explains Rebecca Dzombak, a journalist for National Geographic.

Nowadays there are 18 recognized species of penguin, all of which are well fit to live in marine environments. One of their most distinctive physical features is their plumage, which is typically black and white or gray and white. This coloration serves to camouflage them both from above, where predators like eagles and skua can spot them against the snow, ice, rocks, and beach, and from below, where they can blend in with the dark water against the light of the sky.

Another key adaptation that penguins have evolved over time is their streamlined body shape. This makes it easier for them to move through the water and hunt for fish, their primary food source. Their body shape makes it possible for Gentoo Penguins to reach a speed of 35 kph! Penguins are also able to store oxygen in their muscles, allowing them to stay submerged for long periods of time as they search for prey. New research has revealed how the Emperor Penguin is able to dive to depths of over 500m and stay underwater for up to 27 minutes – in comparison the current men’s world record holder is Stephane Mifsud of France with a time of 11 minutes and 35 seconds.

Despite living in some of the coldest and harshest environments on Earth, penguins have developed several strategies to stay warm. One of these is a thick layer of insulating feathers and blubber to help them retain heat. The most impressive one though is huddling, in which they gather in large groups to share warmth and conserve energy. With this technique, the ambient temperatures of huddles can reach up to 20 degrees Celsius – from temperatures as low as -60 degrees to 20 degrees above zero! (And even better, in the center of huddles temperatures up to 37.5 degrees Celsius can be reached.) So, as you can see, penguins are representatives of the ultimate sharing-is-caring-mentality when it comes to staying warm. 

Perhaps one of the most interesting things about penguins is their social behavior in general. Penguins exhibit a remarkable level of social intelligence, with well-established social structures and hierarchies. Penguins are social birds and live in large colonies, ranging from a few hundred to thousands of individuals. These colonies are often located near the coast or on ice shelves, where there is easy access to food and water. Many species form tightly bonded pairs that mate for life, raising their young together in communal nesting sites. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs and caring for the chicks, which can take several months before they are able to fend for themselves. They are fiercely loyal to their mates and offspring and work together in large groups to survive and thrive. They even have established roles and responsibilities within their social groups, such as guard duty or nest-building, and will come to the aid of fellow penguins in need.

One of the most impressive displays of penguin intelligence can be seen in their communication skills. Penguins have a complex vocal system that allows them to communicate with each other in a variety of ways, from long-distance calls to individualized “signature whistles” that help them identify and locate their mates or offspring. They can even use dance-like movements to communicate, such as the famous “penguin proposal dance” that males sometimes perform to woo potential mates. This sophisticated communication system is a testament to their intelligence and adaptability.

Another way penguins demonstrate their cleverness is through their problem-solving abilities. These birds are known for their resourcefulness and can often adapt to changing circumstances in order to survive. For example, when food is scarce, penguins have been known to travel long distances to find new sources of nourishment, or to switch their diets to include different types of prey. They can also be quite resourceful when it comes to protecting their young from predators or harsh weather conditions, using their bodies to create shelter or hiding places.

Penguins are also adept at learning from their surroundings and the behaviors of other penguins. For example, penguins living in areas with lots of human visitors have been observed learning to recognize specific individuals and their routines and can even modify their behavior based on these observations. Additionally, penguins have been known to adopt new behaviors or techniques for surviving in their environment, such as using ice floes as transportation or shelter.

Unfortunately, many species of penguin today are threatened by human activities such as overfishing and climate change. To preserve these remarkable birds for future generations to enjoy, it is important that we take steps to preserve their habitats and minimize our impact on the environment.

Angelina Berndt


“La marche de l’empereur” (2005)

“Penguins” (2019)

“Pinguine: Leben am Limit” (2020)

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