Let's face it—penguins should just rule the world. Whether they’re doing conga lines on land, skinny dipping in the sea, or winning hearts on the big screen, these handsome birds can practically do anything (except fly, of course). But the sad fact is, penguins aren’t doing so hot in the wild: Of the 17 (or possibly 19) species across the world, five are endangered and eight are considered threatened or vulnerable, thanks to melting sea ice, overfishing, poaching, and other environmental dangers.
That's why every year on January 20, we celebrate Penguin Awareness Day. No one's quite sure how and when the holiday started, but the purpose is simple: Take some time to reflect on the coolness of penguins, and also come up with strategies to save them.
In honor of Penguin Awareness Day, here are 10 facts about these classy-looking birds:
1. Penguins have a special gland that filters salt out of their bloodstream, allowing them to gulp down mouthfuls of seawater while swimming. The salty brine is then pumped out of their nostrils, giving them a constant case of the sniffles and causing them to shake their heads a lot.
2. While all penguin parents are monogamous during mating season, Magellanic, Gentoo, and Royal penguins partner up for life. Their co-parenting skills are almost unparalleled in the bird world—they’ve even been seen “mourning” the loss of their chicks.
3. Weighing in at more than 77 pounds and standing at almost 4 feet, the Emperor Penguin earns its name and its title as the largest species of penguin today. These penguins have about 80 feathers per square inch, more than any other bird. Their well-crafted wetsuits help them survive during the annual march to their breeding grounds in Antarctica—sometimes more than 70 miles—in temperatures that can plummet to 40 degrees below zero.
4. In 2014, scientists discovered a prehistoric penguin species—known as the “Colossus Penguin”—that stood at almost 7 feet tall. The species was found in Antarctica, and is predicted to be about 37 million years old.
6. Though they might look funny walking on land, penguins are super slick with their flippers. “In the water they’re masters of their element, speeding through the depths with unbelievable power, as graceful as porpoises, as fast as sharks,” Audubon field editor and bird expert Kenn Kaufman says. The Gentoo Penguin is the fastest swimmer, reaching speeds up to 30 miles per hour, and the Emperor Penguin can hold its breath for up to 22 minutes while scavenging underwater.
7. The African Penguin has one of the most unique nicknames: Scientists often call it the “jackass penguin” because it makes a sound that resembles a donkey’s bray. The sounds may be a turnoff for humans, but they help the penguins communicate with other members of their colony.
8. Don’t believe everything you see on TV: Penguins and polar bears are never neighbors—except for maybe at your local zoo. Penguins only exist in the southern hemisphere, and polar bears are only found around the North Pole. The most northern penguin, the Galapagos Penguin, is found just below the Equator on the islands of Fernandina and Isabela.
9. The Macaroni Penguin got its name from 18th century British explorers, who noted its resemblance to fashionable dressers back home, called macaronis, who wore feathers in their hats. In the song “Yankee Doodle,” the line “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni” is a direct reference to this fashion trend. Mystery solved.
10. While most penguins nest in colonies, Yellow-eyed Penguins live in isolated pairs. And rather than bunking out in the snow, they dwell on the forest floors and grassy coastlines of New Zealand. In fact, only seven species of penguins are outfitted for winter—the rest reside in more tropical locations in South Africa and the far Pacific.
And in case one holiday isn’t enough for you, there's also World Penguin Day on April 25, which celebrates the Emperor Penguins’ months-long march across the Antarctic ice shelf. Until then, you can get your penguin fix by watching the dapper seabirds on explore.org’s live aquarium feed.