Emperor penguin adaptations allow them to thrive in the Antarctic, the coldest continent on Earth. As the largest species of penguins, these fascinating creatures can stay warm even in the harshest conditions. With over 595,000 adult Emperor penguins in Antarctica, they have evolved over the years and are well-adapted to life on the ice.
15 Emperor Penguin Adaptations
From their unique behaviors and physical adaptations to their uncanny ability to find food in some of the most inhospitable places on the planet, below are 15 emperor penguin adaptations you should know:
1. Emperor Penguins Have Thick Feathers
One of the most essential emperor penguin adaptations is their thick plumage. They have the thickest feathers of any bird species.
Their thick plumage comprises two layers of feathers- an outer layer of long, stiff feathers and a soft inner layer. This double layer provides excellent insulation, trapping body heat and allowing the bird to withstand temperatures as low as -76 degrees Fahrenheit.
Their feathers are also water-resistant, which helps keep them dry and warm even when swimming in the frigid Antarctic waters. In addition, the emperor penguin’s thick feathers provide buoyancy, allowing it to float effortlessly in the water.
2. They Have a Streamlined Body
Emperor penguins’ bodies are streamlined and well adapted for swimming. Their body shape is well developed and streamlined to reduce drag when swimming in the ocean- a shape that all marine mammals and fish have adopted.
They also tuck away their feet near the tail to achieve a streamlined body shape that helps them easily and quickly move through the water. This ensures that the penguin doesn’t spend too much energy swimming and can maintain a high body temperature.
3. They Have Flippers
Penguins have flippers or tiny wings, which most people think are useless. While these flippers cannot help them fly, they are great for swimming. The emperor penguin can swim up to speeds of 22 miles per hour!
They use flippers to propel them underwater, dramatically increasing their swimming speed. This makes it easy for the penguins to navigate through the water when looking for food or evading predators.
4. They Have Strong Back and Chest Muscles
Penguins have a set of strong flipper muscles, just like human triceps and biceps, which help them generate power when swimming. Because penguins don’t fly, they don’t depend on downstroke propulsion, like other flying birds. Instead, they use both upstroke and downstroke propulsion to gain momentum underwater.
Hence, they have developed strong back and chest muscles in response to the higher water density than the air. One of the muscles, known as the scapulohumeralis caudalis, gives the penguins the power to lift their flippers up and down to propel their bodies in the water.
5. They Have Highly Modified Lenses and Flattened Cornea
Emperor penguins need great sight both underwater and on land. As specialized marine birds, their highly-modified lenses and flattened cornea help them easily see underwater.
Thanks to their flattened corneas, their eyes have less refractive power underwater, helping them focus on the image effectively. Additionally, their lenses are spherical to bend the light underwater and compensate for their flatter cornea.
6. They Are Expert Divers
Emperor penguins are expert divers, often diving up to 350m deep in search of food. Their bodies are specially adapted to withstand the high pressures and cold temperatures of the deep sea. Their diet consists of krill, fish, and squid, which they catch using their sharp beaks.
7. They Have a Thick Layer of Blubber
Emperor penguins have a thick layer of fat or blubber which insulates them from the cold water and air temperatures. This blubber also provides them with energy when food is scarce, especially during the long winter when incubating their eggs.
In fact, this layer of fat can make up to 30% of their body weight and can be up to 1.6 inches thick!
8. They Have Webbed Feet
Emperor penguins have webbed feet, which help them to swim powerfully through the water. The webbed feet act as paddles, propelling the penguins through the water at high speeds.
9, They Have Strong Immune Systems
These penguins have strong immune systems which protect them from diseases and infections. Their strong immune system is particularly important during breeding season when they are in close contact with other penguins. That’s because emperor penguins breed in large colonies, which can be a hotbed for disease and infection.
10. They Huddle Together for Warmth
Emperor penguins huddle together for warmth and to protect themselves from the winds that can reach up to 87mps (140km/h). The penguins at the edge of the huddle rotate to the center where it is warmest. This ensures that everyone stays warm and has a chance to rest.
11. Emperor Penguins Have a Fast Metabolism Rate
Emperor penguins are the largest species of penguin. And thanks to their fast metabolism, these birds can survive in their cold Antarctic environment. The high metabolic rate helps them generate heat and keep their bodies warm.
In fact, their metabolic rate is about twice as high as that of other penguin species. This means they need to eat a lot of food to maintain their body temperature to survive. That’s why their diet is high in fat and protein.
12. They Can Recycle Their Body Heat
In the Antarctic, temperatures can drop up to -60°F. So, to survive these extreme conditions, emperor penguins have the ability to recycle their body heat. They can do this because their veins and arteries lie very close to each other. Hence, their blood is pre-cooled before it goes to their wings, bills, and feet.
They also warm the blood when it’s circulating back to their heart. This way, the penguins can maintain their core body temperature and avoid freezing.
13. Their Feet Have Strong Claws
Emperor penguins have powerful claws for gripping the ice while walking or swimming. The claws also help them to climb up onto the ice when they need to.
The penguins also use their strong claws to keep a firm grip on their prey. Without them, these magnificent birds would have a hard time catching and eating their food.
14. Penguins’ Body Temperature Is Higher Than Human Body Temperature
Did you know that the emperor penguins’ internal body temperature is 101°F (38°C)? And even though these birds live in frigid temperatures, their internal body temperature is higher than that of humans.
This high body temperature ensures that emperor penguins can keep their bodies warm and function properly in a cold environment. And thanks to other closely-spaced feathers, it’s easy to maintain this heat and avoid freezing.
15. The Penguins’ Appearance Helps With Camouflage
Emperor penguins are well-camouflaged against predators and the environment. Their black and white coloration helps them blend in with the ice and snow while also camouflaging in the ocean.
Their light ventral and dark dorsal help disguise swimming penguins from predators such as sharks, killer whales, and leopard seals. When viewed from below the ocean, the light-colored side blends in with the lighter surface of the ocean and when viewed from above, the darker dorsal side blends in with the dark ocean depths. This keeps the emperor penguins safe from predators while helping them easily sneak up on their prey.