Why Are There No Penguins In The North Pole?

By July 16, 2019 No Comments
where do penguins live

Why Are There No Penguins In The North Pole?

by James Platt

If you asked a group of people where penguins live, you’d inevitably have a few say that pengiuns live in the North Pole. As we know this isn’t true, but it does beg the question: Why are there no penguins in the North Pole? And for that matter, the entire Northern Hemisphere?

What is the scientific research on why penguins live where they live?

There doesn’t seem to be much scientific research on the matter, so it must be explained using what is known about penguins around the world and then given the best answer possible. There are 18 species of penguins, of which 7 of them live in the Antarctic such as the Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) and King Penguins (Aptenodytes Pategonicus). The Yellow-eyed Penguin (Megadyptes antipodes) and Royal Penguin (Eudyptes schlegeli) are 2 of 6 species in Australia and New Zealand. There is one African Penguin (Spheniscus demursus) and 3 species that inhabit the Americas with the Galapagos Penguins (Sphendiscus mendiculus) living just slightly in the Northern Hemisphere, living so close to the equator.

Penguins live (almost) entirely in the Southern Hemisphere

With so much variety among penguin species it seems strange that they never moved farther north and filled more ecological niches as they did in the Southern Hemisphere. They found a home on the Australian and African continents where temperatures can be as hot as anywhere on earth, so temperature isn’t as much of an issue as most people may think. King or Emperor Penguins may not find the heat as easy to deal with as they are still adapted for the harsh environment of the Antarctic. However, the Galapagos Penguins, Little Penguins (Eudyptula minor) and African Penguins can withstand much hotter temperatures and could theoretically make the shift farther north.

Galapagos penguins
Figure 2: Volt Collection/Shutterstock

Looking at the Galapagos Islands, they are surrounded by hundreds of miles of open ocean. The larger varieties could swim that far if they were searching the Southern Ocean for food, but the smaller Galapagos Penguin doesn’t have a chance of swimming to Costa Rica or El Salvador which is why they have remained isolated to the islands (Heath and Randall, 1981). The same goes for the Snares Penguin (Eudyptes robustus) and Fiorland Penguin (Eudyptes pachyrhyncus) along with all the other species in Oceania if they were to move up through Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.

Some species may be adapted to the heat, but they are not adapted to move fast on land, so they will only stick to the coast and won’t often move north unless they are forced to. A behavioural study investigated how the African Penguin deals with heat and they spend most of their day in the ocean and only return to land in the late afternoon (Frost et al, 1976). At night, they are much less likely to move farther north in search of territory as it is more dangerous at that time. In South Africa and Namibia, the African Penguin also has a lot more predators to be wary of, making any move farther north a risky one. In the Antarctic, when the penguins are on the ice they have no real threats from predators, so they have not evolved much protection against land predators. But on these other continents they can be real threats, especially to the chicks.

In Antarctica, penguins and their nest sites are left relatively untouched by humans and they are left to breed and live in peace. African Penguins have been pushed to the brink by humans taking their guano for fertiliser and trampling their burrows (Trathan et al, 2014). Many of the southern island species were hunted for oil until the last century. So, life outside of the Southern Ocean isn’t great for many of the species. It might be that penguins couldn’t survive any more outside pressure from humans and any populations that have successfully moved farther north were pushed to extinction before they could gain a proper foothold in the area.

All these reasons combine to make a compelling case for why there are no penguins in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s likely since penguins won’t move over large distances on land, they struggle to find new territory farther north. Any that do make it are likely either scared off by curious humans or killed by predators as they will make an easy meal for many land predators. The Galapagos Penguins probably won’t make it any farther due to their geographic location being so far from anything else. If they were on the other side of South America then they very well could have used their adaptation to hot climates and island hopped all the way to North America through the Caribbean and Cuba.  The closest thing to a penguin that did live in the North Pole was the Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis) and was subsequently hunted to extinction in the 1800s. Just as the Dodo (Raphus cucullatus) had no fear of humans because they hadn’t ever faced predators, the Great Auk suffered the same fate. So maybe its better if penguins stay South and remote for now.

Royal Penguins
Figure 3: Sonja Ross

What do you think? Is there another reason they haven’t moved farther north? Leave us a comment. Also, please help us continue to learn more about penguins by donating to Penguins International.

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Frost, P., Siegfried, W. and Burger, A. (2009). Behavioural adaptations of the Jackass penguin, Spheniscus demersus to a hot, arid environment. Journal of Zoology, 179(2), pp.165-187.

HEATH, R. and RANDALL, R. (1989). Foraging ranges and movements of jackass penguins (Spheniscus demersus) established through radio telemetry. Journal of Zoology, 217(3), pp.367-379.

Trathan, P., García-Borboroglu, P., Boersma, D., Bost, C., Crawford, R., Crossin, G., Cuthbert, R., Dann, P., Davis, L., De La Puente, S., Ellenberg, U., Lynch, H., Mattern, T., Pütz, K., Seddon, P., Trivelpiece, W. and Wienecke, B. (2014). Pollution, habitat loss, fishing, and climate change as critical threats to penguins. Conservation Biology, 29(1), pp.31-41.

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