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Penguins (order Sphenisciformes, family Spheniscidae) are a group of aquatic, flightless birds living exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere. Highly adapted for life in the water, penguins have countershaded dark and white plumage, and their wings have evolved into flippers. Most penguins feed on krill, fish, squid and other forms of sealife caught while swimming underwater. They spend about half of their lives on land and half in the oceans.
Although all penguin species are native to the Southern Hemisphere, they are not found only in cold climates, such as Antarctica. In fact, only a few species of penguin live so far south. Several species are found in the temperate zone, and one species, the Galápagos penguin, lives near the equator.
The largest living species is the emperor penguin: on average adults are about 1.1 m (3 ft 7 in) tall and weigh 35 kg (77 lb) or more. The smallest penguin species is the little blue penguin, also known as the fairy penguin, which stands around 40 cm (16 in) tall and weighs 1 kg (2.2 lb). Among extant penguins, larger penguins inhabit colder regions, while smaller penguins are generally found in temperate or even tropical climates (see also Bergmann's rule). Some prehistoric species attained enormous sizes, becoming as tall or as heavy as an adult human. These were not restricted to Antarctic regions; on the contrary, subantarctic regions harboured high diversity, and at least one giant penguin occurred in a region not quite 2,000 km south of the equator 35 mya, in a climate decidedly warmer than today.
Penguins are superbly adapted to aquatic life. Their vestigial wings have become flippers, useless for flight in the air. In the water, however, penguins are astonishingly agile. Penguins' swimming looks very similar to bird's flight in the air. Within the smooth plumage a layer of air is preserved, ensuring buoyancy. The air layer also helps insulate the birds in cold waters. On land, penguins use their tails and wings to maintain balance for their upright stance.
All penguins are countershaded for camouflage – that is, they have black backs and wings with white fronts. A predator looking up from below (such as an orca or a leopard seal) has difficulty distinguishing between a white penguin belly and the reflective water surface. The dark plumage on their backs camouflages them from above.
Diving penguins reach 6 to 12 km/h (3.7 to 7.5 mph), though there are reports of velocities of 27 km/h (17 mph) (which are more realistic in the case of startled flight). The small penguins do not usually dive deep; they catch their prey near the surface in dives that normally last only one or two minutes. Larger penguins can dive deep in case of need. Dives of the large emperor penguin have been recorded reaching a depth of 565 m (1,854 ft) for up to 22 minutes.
Penguins either waddle on their feet or slide on their bellies across the snow, a movement called "tobogganing", which conserves energy while moving quickly. They also jump with both feet together if they want to move more quickly or cross steep or rocky terrain.
Penguins have an average sense of hearing for birds; this is used by parents and chicks to locate one another in crowded colonies. Their eyes are adapted for underwater vision, and are their primary means of locating prey and avoiding predators; in air it has been suggested that they are nearsighted, although research has not supported this hypothesis.
Penguins have a thick layer of insulating feathers that keeps them warm in water (heat loss in water is much greater than in air). The emperor penguin has the largest body mass of all penguins, which further reduces relative surface area and heat loss. They also are able to control blood flow to their extremities, reducing the amount of blood that gets cold, but still keeping the extremities from freezing. In the extreme cold of the Antarctic winter, the females are at sea fishing for food leaving the males to brave the weather by themselves. They often huddle together to keep warm and rotate positions to make sure that each penguin gets a turn in the center of the heat pack.
Calculations of the heat loss and retention ability of marine endotherms suggest that most extant penguins are too small to survive in such cold environments.[ In 2007, Thomas and Fordyce wrote about the "heterothermic loophole" that penguins utilize in order to survive in Antarctica All extant penguins, even those that live in warmer climates, have a counter-current heat exchanger called the humeral plexus. The flippers of penguins have at least three branches of the axillary artery, which allows cold blood to be heated by blood that has already been warmed and limits heat loss from the flippers. This system allows penguins to efficiently use their body heat and explains why such small animals can survive in the extreme cold.
They can drink salt water because their supraorbital gland filters excess salt from the bloodstream. The salt is excreted in a concentrated fluid from the nasal passages.
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