Penguin Profiles: 10 Fascinating Flightless Birds

Penguins on an Antarctic beach

Jo Crebbin / Shutterstock

Since the Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins" debuted, penguins have held a prominent place in popular culture. From books and movies to clothing and home décor, these adorable flightless birds can be found pretty much everywhere.

There are 17 to 20 different species of penguins in existence today, and they're found across the Southern Hemisphere — from the Galapagos Islands to Antarctica. Here, we take a look at several penguin species to learn more about the flippered birds that have captured our imaginations.

1
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Emperor Penguin

Photo: lin padgham [CC BY 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons

Reaching heights of 4 feet, the emperor penguin is the tallest of all penguin species. The bird lives in Antarctica, where it dives for fish, krill and crustaceans, and it can reach depths of 1,755 feet and stay submerged for up to 18 minutes. The Emperor penguin is best known for its annual journey to mate and feed its offspring, which was the focus of the documentary "March of the Penguins."

Famous fowl

In June 2011, an emperor penguin was found on a New Zealand beach consuming sand, which it had mistaken for snow. The bird underwent multiple surgeries to remove the sand, sticks and stones from its stomach. Following recovery, the bird, named "Happy Feet," was fitted with a tracking device and released into the Southern Ocean.

2
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Adelie penguin

Photo: wcpmedia/Shutterstock

Named after explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville’s wife, Adele, these penguins live on the Antarctic coast and can swim at speeds of up to 45 miles per hour. The birds are easily recognizable by the distinctive white rings around their eyes and the fact that they’re mostly black with a white belly — giving them an appearance close to the stereotypical image of penguins.

Famous fowl

In 1911, explorer George Murray Levick observed the Adelie penguins' breeding cycle and was shocked by their "sexual deviance." Homosexual acts, sexual abuse of chicks and attempts to mate with dead birds are recorded in Levick's paper "Sexual Habits of the Adelie Penguin," which was deemed too shocking for publication and was only recently discovered by London's Natural History Museum. Experts say the young penguins' actions are due to sexual inexperience.

3
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Humboldt penguin

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Humboldt penguins are native to Chile and Peru and nest on islands and rocky coasts, often burrowing holes in guano. The birds' numbers are declining due to overfishing, climate change and ocean acidification, and the animal is considered a vulnerable species. In 2010, Humboldt penguins were granted protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Famous fowl

In 2009, two male Humboldt penguins at a German zoo adopted an abandoned egg. After it hatched, the penguins raised the chick as their own. In 2012, one of the 135 Humboldt penguins at the Tokyo Sea Life Park in Japan scaled a 13-foot wall and escaped into Tokyo Bay, where it thrived for 82 days until it was recaptured.

4
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Yellow-eyed penguin

Photo: Michael Smith ITWP/Shutterstock

Native to New Zealand, these birds may be the most ancient of all living penguins, and they live long lives, with some individuals reaching 20 years of age. Habitat destruction, introduced predators and disease have caused the penguins' numbers to drop to an estimated population of 4,000. In 2004, a disease linked to a genus of bacteria that causes diphtheria in humans wiped out 60 percent of the yellow-eyed penguins chicks on the Otago Peninsula. And a new study published in the journal PeerJ shows that breeding penguins declined by 76 percent between 1996 and 2015. The species is endangered and may go locally extinct by 2043, according to the study.

Famous fowl

The yellow-eyed penguin, or Hoiho, appears on the New Zealand $5 note.

5
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Chinstrap penguin

Photo: seafarer/Shutterstock

Chinstrap penguins are easily recognizable by the black bands under their heads that give them the appearance of wearing helmets. They’re found in Antarctica, the Sandwich Islands and other southern island chains, where they live on barren islands and congregate on icebergs during winter. Experts consider these birds to be the most aggressive species of penguin - they even steal rocks from each other to improve their own nests!

Famous fowl

In 2004, two male chinstrap penguins at the Central Park Zoo formed a pair-bond and took turns trying to “hatch” a rock. A zookeeper later substituted the rock with a fertilized egg, and Roy and Silo hatched and raised the chick. A children’s book titled “And Tango Makes Three” was written about the penguins.

6
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African penguin

Photo: Bernhard Richter/Shutterstock

These penguins are native to southern Africa and are the only penguins that breed on the continent. In fact, their presence is how the Penguin Islands got their name. African penguins are also called "jackass penguins" because of the donkey-like sounds they make. The species is endangered, with fewer than 26,000 breeding pairs remaining.

Famous fowl

Buddy and Pedro, two of the Toronto Zoo’s African penguins, made headlines in 2011 when zookeepers announced that the pair-bonded male birds would be separated in hopes they would mate with females.

7
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King penguins

Photo: Cherryson/Shutterstock

King penguins are the second largest species of penguin and can grow to 3 feet tall. The animals live in Antarctica, which has an estimated population of 2.23 million pairs, and the penguins are well adapted to the extreme living conditions. The birds boast 70 feathers per square inch of their bodies and have four layers of feathering. Like most penguins, king penguins are able to drink saltwater because their supraorbital glands filter out excess salt.

Famous fowl

Nils Olav is a king penguin at the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland who serves as the mascot and colonel-in-chief of the Norwegian Royal Guard. In August 2008, the bird was knighted, an honor approved by the king of Norway.

8
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Little penguin

Photo: Libor Fousek/Shutterstock

The smallest species of penguin, the little penguin grows to an average height of 13 inches and can be found on the coasts of southern Australia and New Zealand. With about 350,000 to 600,000 of the animals in the wild, the species isn't endangered; however, people still go to great lengths to protect the birds from predation. In some parts of Australia, Maremma sheepdogs have been trained to guard penguin colonies, and in Sydney, snipers have been deployed to protect little penguins from fox and dog attacks.

Famous fowl

Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux operating system, was once pecked by a little penguin, which inspired him to use a penguin as the Linux mascot.

9
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Macaroni penguin

Photo: MZPHOTO.CZ/Shutterstock

The macaroni penguin is one of six species of crested penguin, those penguins with yellow crests and red bills and eyes. The birds are found from the Subantarctic to the Antarctic Peninsula, and with 18 million individuals, the animals are the most numerous penguin species in the world. However, widespread declines in population have been reported since the 1970s, which has resulted in their conservation status being reclassified as vulnerable.

Famous fowl

Macaroni penguins have proved to be popular cartoon characters and have appeared in “The Penguins of Madagascar” and “Happy Feet.”

10
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Galapagos penguin

Photo: Ben Queenborough/Shutterstock

This species of penguin is able to survive in the tropical climate of the Galapagos Islands due to the cool temperatures from the Humboldt Current. The third smallest species of penguin, the birds are particularly vulnerable to predation, and with an estimated population of around 1,500 birds, the species is endangered.

Famous fowl

As the only penguins in the world found north of the equator, all of the Galapagos penguins are famous in their own right.