How do penguins survive in Antarctica?

How do penguins survive in Antarctica?

Evolutionary adaptation of Antarctic penguins

from AGE ™ Travel Magazine
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What solutions has nature developed?


Always cold feet - and that's a good thing!

Penguins do not find it uncomfortable when they walk on ice, because their nervous system and their cold receptors are adapted to minus temperatures. Still, their feet get cold when they walk on ice, and that's a good thing. Warm feet would melt the ice and leave the animals constantly standing in a puddle of water. Not a good idea, because then there would always be a risk for the penguins to freeze. Cold feet are actually an advantage in Antarctica.

The heat exchanger in the penguin leg!

When we have cold feet, it has a negative effect on our overall body heat. But nature has come up with a trick for penguins: penguin legs have a sophisticated vascular system that works according to the countercurrent principle. So penguins have built in some kind of heat exchanger. Warm blood from inside the body already gives off its heat in the legs in such a way that the cold blood flowing back from the feet towards the body is warmed up. This mechanism keeps the feet cold on the one hand and on the other hand the penguin can easily maintain its body temperature despite its cold feet.

The perfect outdoor clothing!

Penguins have a dense down coat, generously overlapping coverts, and good insulating feather types to keep warm. Nature has developed a perfect penguin wardrobe: warm, dense, water-repellent and chic at the same time. In addition to their distinctive plumage, Antarctic penguins have thick skin and a generous layer of fat. And if that's not enough? Then you get closer.

Group cuddles against the cold!

Large groups protect each other from the wind and thus reduce their heat loss. Animals constantly move from the edge further into the colony and previously protected animals move outwards. Each individual animal only has to endure the direct cold wind for a short time and can quickly dive back into the slipstream of the others. This behavior is particularly pronounced in the emperor penguin. The cuddle groups are called huddles. But other penguin species also form large breeding colonies. Their chicks cuddle in nursery groups while the parents are out hunting.

Eat snow and drink salt water!

In addition to the cold, the penguins of the Antarctic have another problem that evolution had to solve for them: drought. Antarctica is not only the coldest and windiest continent on earth, but also the driest. What to do? Sometimes penguins eat snow to hydrate. But nature has come up with an even simpler solution: penguins can also drink salt water. As seabirds, they are significantly more common in the sea than on land, so this adaptation is essential for survival.
What sounds unbelievable at first is widespread among seabirds and is due to a special physical adaptation. Penguins have salt glands. These are paired glands above the eye area. These glands excrete their saline secretion through the nostrils. This eliminates excess salt from the bloodstream. In addition to penguins, gulls, albatrosses and flamingos, for example, also have salt glands.

Swimming talents and deep divers!

Penguins are perfectly adapted to life in the water. In the course of evolution, not only have their wings been transformed into fins, their bones are also significantly heavier than those of seabirds that are able to fly. As a result, penguins have less buoyancy. In addition, their water resistance is reduced by the torpedo-shaped body. This makes them dangerously fast hunters underwater. Around 6km/h is common, but top speeds of 15km/h are not uncommon when it counts. Gentoo penguins are considered to be the fastest swimmers and can offer more than 25km/h.
King penguins and emperor penguins dive the deepest. Studies using electronic dive recorders on the backs of penguins have recorded a depth of 535 meters in a female emperor penguin. Emperor penguins also know a special trick to catapult themselves out of the water and onto the ice: they release air from their plumage, releasing small bubbles. This film of air reduces the friction with the water, the penguins are slowed down less and can more than double their speed for a few seconds and thus gracefully jump ashore.

Learn more about the penguin species Antarctica and sub-Antarctic islands.
Enjoy the Antarctic wildlife with our Antarctic Biodiversity Slideshow
Explore the Cold South with the AGE™ Antarctica Travel Guide & South Georgia Travel Guide.


Tourists can also discover Antarctica on an expedition ship, for example on the Sea Spirit.


animalsAnimal lexiconAntarcticaAntarctic tripWildlife AntarcticaPenguins of Antarctica • Evolutionary adaptation of penguins

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The contents of the article have been carefully researched and are based on personal experience. However, if information is misleading or incorrect, we assume no liability. AGE™ does not guarantee topicality or completeness.
Source reference for text research
Information on site by the expedition team from Poseidon Expeditions  or on the Cruise ship Sea Spirit, and the Antarctic Handbook presented in 2022, based on information from the British Antarctic Survey, the South Georgia Heritage Trust Organization and the Falkland Islands Government.

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