Penguin Adaptation

Teacher Background

Penguins are designed for life in the sea. Some species spend as much as 75% of their lives in the water, though they lay their eggs and raise their chicks on land. A streamlined body, paddle-like feet, insulating blubber, and feathers for waterproofing all add to their efficiency and comfort underwater. Heavy, solid bones act like a diver's weight belt, allowing them to stay submerged. Their wings, shaped like flippers, help them "fly" underwater at speeds of up to 15 mph. They also have a remarkable deep-diving ability. In addition to blubber for insulation, penguins have stiff, tightly packed feathers (up to 70 per sq. in.) which overlap to provide waterproofing, coated with oil from a gland near the tail to increase impermeability. Their distinctive black and white shading makes them nearly invisible to predators from above and below. Like most birds, penguins have little or no sense of smell (a boon for those in a crowded penguin rookery!) Like other birds, their sense of taste is also limited. Scientists suspect they may be nearsighted on land. Their vision appears to be better when they're underwater.

Penguins are considered to be the most social of birds. Rookeries may contain thousands of individuals. (As many as 24 million penguins visit the Antarctic continent!) Even at sea, they tend to swim and feed in groups. Most species of penguins build nests, but the nests may consist only of a pile of rocks or scrapings or hollows in the dirt. Emperor penguins build no nests; they hold the egg on top of their feet under a loose fold of skin called the brood patch.


Students will investigate animal adaptations to a cold environment and incorporate key findings by designing an organism well-adapted to this environment.

Students will demonstrate the ability to predict animal behavior patterns by simulating penguin foraging activity.


Brainstorm ways in which penguins are well-adapted to cold water and icy environments. Then complete the following demonstrations:

  1. Flying birds need large wingspans to hold themselves up in the air, but small wings work best for birds swimming through water. Demonstrate this with two pieces of flexible card. Try to push one, flat, through a pan of water. It's hard. Fold another piece five or six times and try pushing that through the water. The smaller, stiffer card, like a penguin's wing, works better.
  2. Most birds have hollow bones to make their bodies light enough to become air-borne. But the penguins' heavy, solid bones help them float lower in the water. With the help of two student volunteers, demonstrate the difference between hollow bones and solid bones using two toilet paper rolls, one empty the other stuffed with tissue paper.
  3. Float an empty can in a bucket of water open end up. It floats high in the water like flying aquatic birds (ducks, for example). Add sand to another can until it sinks slightly. Now push down on both cans. The sand-filled container is easier to push down into the water. In this way, it's easier for penguins to dive into water.


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