Though penguins live only on the southern end of the planet, they rule hearts the world over. The funny, flightless birds are fascinating to observe and relatable social animals as they waddle about their colonies interacting with neighbors. Some species, such as Emperor Penguins, manage to survive in hostile conditions, such as Antarctic snowstorms in the dead of winter; others fend off fierce predators such as orcas and leopard seals. The small superheroes seem able to do practically anything—except fly, of course.
But the sad fact is: Penguins aren’t doing so hot in the wild. Of the 18 species across the world, half are considered threatened or endangered by BirdLife, thanks to climate change, overfishing, poaching, and other environmental dangers. These are big problems but they're worth solving if it means keeping penguins around. Here are the first ten of a long list of reasons why.
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 a chick.
3. Weighing in at more than 77 pounds and standing at almost four-feet tall, the Emperor Penguin earns its name and its title as the largest species of penguin alive 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, when they sometimes walk 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 seven-feet tall. The species was found in Antarctica and is predicted to be about 37 million years old.
5. Adélie Penguins have particular taste: They build nests from tiny pebbles left behind by receding glaciers. At their Antarctic colonies they are often seen walking long distances with a pebble in their mouth—the perfect addition to their nest collection.
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.