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February 2020

How Do Penguins Swim So Well?

King Penguins swimming in the ocean

How Do Penguins Swim So Well?

By Sian Liversage

Emperor Penguin using its fast swimming speed to propel out of the water. Image © National Geographic by Paul Nicklen.

The unusual aquatic lifestyle of penguins has determined their shape, colouration, what they eat, where they go on land, how they breed and overall their geographic range and distribution.

Chinstrap Penguin swimming in the ocean (Source: Penguins International photo library)

Body Adaptations for Penguin Swimming Speed

Just by looking at a penguin, it is clear to see that their bodies have been specially adapted for swimming. They have developed a streamlined body shape that reduces drag when they are in the water; a shape which has also been adopted by fish and marine mammals. Their wings (called “flippers” on penguins) and feet also serve a purpose. Although their flippers are not much use on land, they function like propellers when underwater, allowing them to move forward and increase their speed dramatically. Whilst swimming, their webbed feet get tucked away near the tail to be used to navigate through the water. 

All penguin bodies are covered in oily feathers, which create a water-tight layer and allows the water to flow smoothly over their bodies, thus reducing drag. But this is not the only thing a penguin’s body can do.

There’s a secret to how penguins can swim so fast through the water

Back in 2012, marine biologists discovered the mystery behind how Emperor Penguins rocket through the water. The conclusion of this was down to the stream of bubbles left in the penguin’s wake. Thanks to their miniscule feather filaments, penguins can trap air under their feathers. It was discovered that when Emperor Penguins fluff these tiny feathers underwater, they release bubbles that will then reduce the density of the water surrounding them. These bubbles act like a lubricant to reduce drag, just like an Olympic swimmer’s swimsuit. With this extra boost, these penguins can double or triple the speeds at which they usually travel, so this adaptation can help to propel individuals onto land or help with avoiding a predator. 

In addition to help from bubbles, a penguin’s blood will help them to stay underwater for longer. The blood is primarily made up of haemoglobin, which helps to carry extra oxygen around the body, and myoglobin is found in their muscle tissue, allowing oxygen to be stored, therefore helping them to breathe underwater for enough time to hunt.

Penguin Swimming Techniques

Not only have these birds evolved and adapted perfectly to being in the water, but they have also developed incredibly successful swimming techniques too. Most species of penguin will swim together, in a small or a large group, when looking for food. Sometimes penguins may swim below the surface and dive for a couple minutes and then resurface. For long journeys, however, many penguins use a technique known as “porpoising”; a very similar technique used in marine mammals. This is when a penguin will propel forward out of the water, allowing them to catch a breath as they do so. When penguins do this, they can increase their speed by a substantial amount (See video above).

Some colonies have a danger zone around the surrounding edges of their site, where predators are often waiting for an opportunity to catch a meal. Those penguins that have these danger zones, will often porpoise as soon as they enter the water to give themselves a good chance to escape any danger. Therefore, this technique is ideal for predator avoidance but can also be used for travelling long distance to find food.

Royal penguin. Adult porpoising. Macquarie Island, December 2015. Image © Edin Whitehead by Edin Whitehead www.edinz.com

Conclusion

Despite penguins being birds that have lost the ability to fly, who come across somewhat clumsy on land, they have shown to be one of the most successful aquatic birds based on their adaptations and techniques when swimming. The more research is conducted, the more we are astonished at their capabilities. They are certainly a species that should not be underestimated!

Did you know about the amazing way penguins swim and how they adapt? Let us know what you learned.  And please help us to continue to provide you with penguin news articles by donating to Penguins International.

Read more about penguins in some of our other blogs:

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References:

  1. Davis, L. Renner, M. 2003. Penguins. T & AD Poysner, London. 
  2. New York Daily News. 2012. Scientists solve mystery of penguins’ incredibly fast underwater swimming speed: a secret layer of bubbles. Webpage: https://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/mystery-penguin-fast-swimming-discovered-article-1.1188268
  3. Penguins Blog. How fast can penguins swim? Webpage: https://penguinsblog.com/how-fast-can-penguins-swim/

Sciencing. 2017. How do Penguins Swim? Webpage: https://sciencing.com/penguins-swim-4567568.html

Spheniscidae Superlatives – Penguin Best of the Best

Emperor Penguin with Mount Erebus

Spheniscidae Superlatives – Penguin Best of the Best

By Megan Spofford

Do you remember the section of the high school yearbook that displayed classmate’s photographs and the various superlatives they had been voted for? Well, take a look at Penguin International High’s 2019 Yearbook and see which superlative each species has been awarded!

Rarest Penguin

Yellow-eyed Penguin – You won’t find many of these birds around, because they are unfortunately the most endangered of the penguin species. The IUCN Red List classifies the Yellow-eyed Penguin as endangered with only 2500-3500 adult individuals of the species, and they inhabit only a small range of land. Additionally, population status shows a decreasing trend. This assessment was last completed in August 2018

A rare Yellow-eyed Penguin
(Source: Penguins International photo library)

Best Make-up

Royal Penguins get best make-up, because they are the only species of penguin with white “cheeks.” It almost looks as though they have applied powder!

Photo credit: ARKive

Coolest Penguin

Adelie Penguins (along with Emperor Penguins) spend their entire lives on the Antarctic continent. The most southerly colony of penguins is made up of Adelies.

Bullies

It’s a shame that this penguin is the most common in the wild, because they are also the meanest! Macaroni Penguins are known for being terribly territorial and aggressive, which is what qualified them for this superlative.

 

Fastest Swimmers

Unconfirmed reports clock Gentoos in at a whopping 22 mph (or 35 kph) in the water, making them the fastest swimmers out of all of the penguin species. 

 

Best Divers

Emperor Penguins have the record for longest dive time of all penguins, but they also hold the record for the deepest dive of all birds. Tracking devices that record diving depths and times were attached to Emperor Penguins while they hunted, and data showed that the average diving depth was between 100-200 m. However, the deepest dive for an Emperor Penguin was recorded at 565 m. Furthermore, the longest record for Emperor Penguin breath-holding was at 22 min. (It’s important to note that this record is on the extreme end of the spectrum, with average Emperor Penguin dive times being much lower around 3-6 minutes.)

 

Marathon Swimmers

Fiordland Penguins are another species that had tracking devices attached to individuals, and the data those devices revealed was that in a period of 8-10 weeks, Fiordland Penguins had traveled 7000 km roundtrip to hunt for food! This incredibly long journey allowed Fiordland Penguins to hunt as much as possible so they could bulk up, and be ready for molting. Some scientists question whether this has always been a natural route for Fiordland Penguins, or if limited food resources have caused the bird to adapt to more extreme migratory patterns.

Best Beard

Chinstrap Penguins are easily recognizable by the black band that swoops under their necks from each side of the head. No other penguins have this distinctive marking. Do we call it a beard, or a goatee?

Photo credit: ARKive

Gravity-Defying Eyebrows

While there are 7 different penguins that have crest features, the Erect-crested Penguin has one that sticks straight up over its head! The other crested species have longer crests that droop down to the sides.

Best Vocal Group

These birds that belong to the genus Spheniscus, are sometimes called the Banded Penguins not because they are in a rock group together, but because of the distinctive band they have  running across their chests. These 4 species also have the loudest vocalizations, which sound like a donkey braying. The quartet includes the African, Humboldt, Magellanic, and Galapagos Penguins.

The Late Bloomer

The breeding cycle for the King Penguin is longer than that of the other species, with it taking 13-16 months for a full cycle to occur. Because this cycle is longer than one year, there are always chicks of various ages in a King Penguin colony.

Night Owl

Well, I guess technically this one would be a Night Penguin. The Little Penguin is the only species that is truly nocturnal!  

Plain Jane

There is always one of these in the group, and it’s not a bad thing! The Snares Penguin blends in with the rest of the crowd of crested penguins and penguins that are endemic to New Zealand.

Prettiest Eyes

Both Southern and Northern Rockhoppers take this award as they uniquely have red-colored eyes that stand out against the black feathers surrounding them.

Southern Rockhopper Penguin — Doesn’t it have beautiful eyes??
(Source: Penguins International photo library)

With such a unique array of characteristics, it’s no wonder that people easily fall in love with this charismatic animal. Thanks for taking a look at our penguin superlatives!

Wow, who knew about all these penguin awards! Let us know if you think there should be more or a different penguin species should win one of these categories. And please help us to continue to provide you with penguin news articles by donating to Penguins International.

Read more about penguins in some of our other blogs:

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References

 

  1. About Little Penguins, Penguin Foundation Phillip Island, https://penguinfoundation.org.au/about-little-penguins/.
  2. “Banded Penguins (Genus Spheniscus).” INaturalist.org, https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/3811-Spheniscus.
  3. BirdLife International 2018. Megadyptes antipodes. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T22697800A132603494.                                                                                                                                    http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2018-2.RLTS.T22697800A132603494.en. [Downloaded on 01 September 2019.]
  4. “Emperor Penguins Diving and Travelling.” Australian Antarctic Division: Leading Australia’s Antarctic Program, Australian Government, Department of the Environment and Energy, Australian Antarctic Division, 24 Sept. 2014, http://www.antarctica.gov.au/about-antarctica/wildlife/animals/penguins/emperor-penguins/how-deep-can-they-dive.
  5. Evans, Tessa. “Fiordland Penguins Swim up to 80km a Day.” Scimex, Scimex, 29 Aug. 2018, https://www.scimex.org/newsfeed/fiordland-penguins-swim-up-to-80km-a-day.
  6. “Gentoo Penguin.” National Geographic, National Geographic, 24 Sept. 2018, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/g/gentoo-penguin/.

“King Penguins.” Australian Antarctic Division: Leading Australia’s Antarctic Program, Australian Government, Department of the Environment and Energy, Australian Antarctic Division, 20 Mar. 2018, http://www.antarctica.gov.au/about-antarctica/wildlife/animals/penguins/king-penguins.

The Usefulness of Penguin Poo

penguin poo, what is special about penguin poo, why is penguin poo valuable, scientific investigation of penguin poo, why is there so much penguin poo on the snow

The Usefulness of Penguin Poo

by Jodie King

Let’s talk about poo. All animals produce it but there’s something rather special about penguin poo. Guano is excrement produced specifically from bats and seabirds (poop), including the 18 species of penguin that waddle around the Southern Hemisphere of our planet.

What’s so special about penguin poop?

Many species of penguin including Humboldt Penguins use guano to build their nests. They scrape out layers of soil and poo using the claws on their feet to create burrows. These burrows offer protection for themselves and their chicks from the elements and any potential predators. However, not only is penguin poo a brilliant resource for penguins, it has been highly sought after for use by humans. 

Guano is normally used as a fertiliser as it is very high in nitrogen but has even been used to manufacture gunpowder! It was highly sought after during the early 19th century before the use of synthetic fertilizers, and was primarily extracted from Peru, the home of the Humboldt Penguin.

While using penguin poo is highly resourceful, the collection of guano can be devastating for penguins, as it destroys potential sites for nesting. Parent penguins are forced to create small scrapes on the surface of the substrate which provide little to no protection for their vulnerable chick.

There’s a lot of penguin guano in a penguin colony. Let’s face it, penguins poop a lot!
(Source: Penguins International photo library)
Want to see just how much penguins actually poop? Check out this video. But we’ll warn you, there’s a lot of penguin pooping going on here! Not for the faint of heart.

What’s being done to fix this problem of penguin guano harvesting?

Despite this, it’s not all doom and gloom. Researchers have been investigating whether areas which have been overharvested for guano can be provided with manmade nest boxes. They have even gone to great lengths to investigate which types of material can mimic a natural African Penguin burrow the best, providing the appropriate levels of warmth and humidity. Additionally, to tackle the problem directly, sustainable guano harvesting has been introduced and walls have been erected around the nesting seabirds to protect them from the guano trade2.  In some areas the penguins even have their own guards.

BUT this isn’t all penguin poo is useful for!

Penguin poo is also valuable for science and penguin conservation

Analysing guano can tell us vital information about penguins and their conservation. 

What you probably didn’t know is that we have been monitoring penguins from space for over 30 years. In 1984, a NASA scientist called Mathew Schwaller suggested that satellites could be used to investigate penguin colonies3. Initially, scientists focused on surveying the Adélie Penguin, a species which only resides in Antarctica. This species has a diet which is mostly made up of krill (which makes their guano bright pink!), but might also make them vulnerable due to human fishing activities. Simplifying a highly complex method, the penguin guano and nesting materials can be distinguished from surrounding substrate using satellites. Using this comparison technique, new penguin colonies can be discovered on remote islands which have little or no access for people and would otherwise not have been found. And we can even look at estimating the number of penguins in the colony to track the abundance pattern4. The wonderful thing is, as technology improves, the image resolution increases and the ability to obtain information is far easier and much more superior.

Many penguins use guano to help build their nests or burrows.
(Source: Penguins International photo library)

Scientists are actually investigating penguin poo quality!

Investigating poo quantity (from space!) not only tells us about the number of penguins currently in the colony, but can also give a glimpse into the abundance of penguins throughout history. These colony estimates can then be compared to information such as food availability or environmental changes in the same years to establish whether there are any trends in colony declines or increases. On the other hand, it can be used to help provide this information and indicate the condition of the marine ecosystem as the penguins rely on an abundance of fish and small crustaceans to survive. 

A wonderful example of this in action can be seen by researchers Roberts et al. (2017). Using the 84.5g of guano that a Gentoo Penguin produces each day, they investigated the impact of volcanic eruptions on the penguin colony size from an impressive 8,500 years ago!5

Put simply, penguin poop is wonderful stuff. It not only provides penguins with a nest to shelter from the elements and to raise chicks, but offers humans with a highly effective way to fertilise crops. Even more than that, it provides a wealth of information about many penguin species and can even act as an indicator for the diversity of wildlife around them.

Penguin guano actually provides valuable information to researchers.
(Source: Penguins International photo library)

Did you know how useful penguin poo can be? Please let us know what you learned. And please help us to continue to provide you with penguin news articles by donating to Penguins International.

Read more about penguins in some of our other blogs:

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Useful references:

1. Bonnie R., Lei & Green, Jonathan & Pichegru, Lorien. (2013). Extreme microclimate conditions in artificial nests for Endangered African Penguins. Bird Conservation International. 24. 10.1017/S0959270913000671.

2. https://www.iucn.org/content/bird-droppings-biodiversity-paradise-%E2%80%93-guano-islands-and-capes-national-reserve-system-peru

3. Schwaller, M. R., Olson Jr, C. E., Ma, Z., Zhu, Z., & Dahmer, P. (1989). A remote sensing analysis of Adélie penguin rookeries. Remote sensing of environment, 28, 199-206.

4. Lynch, H. J., & Schwaller, M. R. (2014). Mapping the abundance and distribution of Adélie penguins using Landsat-7: first steps towards an integrated multi-sensor pipeline for tracking populations at the continental scale. PloS one, 9(11), e113301. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0113301

5. Roberts, S. J., Monien, P., Foster, L. C., Loftfield, J., Hocking, E. P., Schnetger, B., … & Ochyra, R. (2017). Past penguin colony responses to explosive volcanism on the Antarctic Peninsula. Nature communications8, 14914.

Wildlife Tourism – Is it affecting penguins?

Tourist with Chinstrap Penguin

Wildlife Tourism – Is it affecting penguins?

by Georgia Podmore

Where can I go to see penguins on vacation? This is a common search phrase on internet search engines. There are a variety of countries around the world that have wild penguins and it may seem that no harm is caused from tourists travelling out to experience wild penguins in their natural habitat. With more than half of the species of penguins in decline – due to climate change, overfishing and habitat destruction – it is believed that through tourism the general public can be educated to understand how they may be able to help save the penguins. With thousands of people travelling to specific beaches to witness wild penguins, it should be questioned whether the penguins may be affected through the tourism industry in a variety of ways.

Is Wildlife Tourism Bad?

The term animal tourism is generally associated with negative connotations due to the fact that the majority of people link this to interactions with wild animals. However, this is not necessarily the case when discussing penguin tourism, meaning negative impact is often overlooked. When looking at recommendations to see penguins in the wild, it is common that the visit will consist of a guided tour with strict rules on keeping distance from the penguins and not touching them.

Gentoo Penguins at a tourist site in Antarctica (Source: Penguins International photo library)

But the penguins are walking toward me!

As CNN quotes, “penguins can be extremely curious, therefore they may approach people” (Spanne, 2019). This is most definitely true, especially of younger juvenile penguins. Villanueva, Walker and Beterellotti (2006) investigated the habituation of Magellanic Penguins to tourists through observing behaviour and measuring corticosterone secretion. The research compared penguins that lived in a tourist-visited area with those in an undisturbed area and found that there was no obvious negative effect on the penguins from tourists.

Tourists in Antarctica (Photo credit: Mel Sirois)

However, tourists do have the potential to make penguins sick

Research carried out in 2018 found that bacteria from tourists can be passed on to penguins in a “reverse zoonosis” (Rix, 2015). This research focused on faeces of over 666 birds found in Antarctica. Researchers have now become worried that the consequences of tourism on penguins could lead to numbers declining rapidly if a disease is spread (Bollevich, 2018). Cullen and Busch (2009) also discovered that unmanaged tourism can negatively affect the breeding success and survival of Yellow-eyed Penguins, potentially as a result of causing stress. Elsewhere, another study revealed that King Penguins showed signs of stress around humans, whether that being tourists or researchers, due to the disturbance of their “homes,” although it also found that once exposed to humans, the penguins become habituated to them (Rich, 1986).

So is tourism absolutely bad for penguins?

It is difficult to come to a concluding factor on whether penguin tourism has a negative effect on penguin health. When analysing research studies that have been completed, they all state a variety of different results, meaning that there cannot be a clear answer to the question. The only thing that can be stated is that it is the tour operator’s responsibility to ensure that the penguins are affected as little as possible through human presence. 

As discussed earlier, there has been evidence to support the chances of spreading disease across colonies in Antarctica. However, this research has only been limited to this area at current times, meaning that it may not be the case across other species of penguins. Each point around the effects of tourism on penguins has discussed a variety of species, meaning that a reliable conclusion cannot be made on how tourism affects penguins. Further research would need to be conducted on a particular species. Varying factors should also be investigated, such as comparing penguin behaviours dependent on distance kept by tourists. Information like this can then be used to put into place a best practise guide for tour operators, as this will ensure that the penguin’s welfare is affected as little as possible.

With 20%-40% of global tourism being animal attractions, it is understood that the income received via animals can have positive effects on the animals and local communities if used correctly (Action for ethical tourism, 2015). An example of how tourism has helped to save a species would be the tracking of gorillas across Uganda, Rwanda and Congo. There are strict rules put into place centred around tracking gorillas to ensure safety for tourists and animals. These types of tours have helped to increase numbers of mountain gorillas, with over 800 now found. Although research has produced data that proves tourists can pass on diseases to penguins, if strict regulations are put into place by tour operators, this should not cause any problems and can instead be a positive influence. 

The main aim of wildlife tourism should be to educate and conserve the species, with communication being a key factor in achieving success. If researchers piece together their findings and report this to local guides, then penguins should not be affected as much. Many tourists taking part in these tours are doing so because they want to witness an animal in the wild as it may be their last opportunity to do so. It is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that penguin species do not become extinct, so actions must be critiqued and communicated to ensure that it is not our last chance to witness penguins in their natural habitat.

What are your thoughts on visiting penguins after reading this blog? Please let us know. And please help us to continue to provide you with penguin news articles by donating to Penguins International.

Read more about penguins in some of our other blogs:

Like our penguin blogs? Sign up for our newsletter to get them right in your inbox!

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Action for Ethical Tourism (2015). Tourism Concerns. [Online] Guarantee (England). Available at: https://www.tourismconcern.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Animals-in- Tourism-|Web-Final.pdf [Accessed 30 Jun. 2019].

Bollevich, M (2018). Tourists may be making Antarctica’s penguins sick. [Online] Science | AAAS. Available at: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/12/tourists-may-be-making-antarctica-s-penguins-sick [Accessed 1 Jul. 2019].

Busch, J. and Cullen, R. (2009). Effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of yellow eyed penguin recovery. Ecological Economics, 68(3), pp 762-776.

Rich, V. (1986) Falkland Islands: Opinions divided on penguin deaths. Nature, 322(6074) pp 4.

Rix, J. (2015). Should tourists be banned from Antarctica? [Online] BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-30709924 [Accessed 1 Jul. 2019].

Spanne, A. (2019) 5 places to see penguins in their natural habitats. [Online] CNN Travel. Available at: https://www.edition.cnn.com/travel/article/penguins-viewing/index.html [Accessed 30 Jun. 2019]

Villanueva, C., Walker, B. and Bertellotti, M. (2011). A matter of history: effects of tourism on physiology, behaviours and breeding parameters in Magellanic Penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus) at two colonies in Argentina. Journal of Ornithology, 153 (1), pp 219-228.

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