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How Do Penguins Swim So Well?

By February 24, 2020 No Comments
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.

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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

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