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Frequently Asked Questions about Penguins

Penguins really are “birds of a different feather”. They have a funny way of walking around on land, and an amazing way of “flying” underwater. So naturally we get a lot of questions about our gentoo and macaroni penguins. Here are some answers to the most asked penguin questions.

Q: Can penguins fly?
A: No. You might say penguins have flippers while most other birds have flappers. Birds that spend most of their time in the air need a lightweight and sturdy wing bone. Penguin wings are adapted to propel them through water which is much denser than air. So penguins have strong, heavy wing bones so they don’t have to fight the tendency to bob back to the waters surface. Penguin flippers provide power on the upstroke and the down stroke making them “fly” through the water. ZOOM!

Q: What kind of penguins will we see at the Tennessee Aquarium?
A: We have gentoo and macaroni penguins on display in Chattanooga. “Penguins’ Rock” is the only gallery in the region with these two species. Gentoos are the classic looking black and white birds. Macaronis have a crest of yellow feathers decorating their heads.

Q: How big are the penguins at the Tennessee Aquarium?
A: Gentoo penguins are the 3rd largest penguins in the world. They can grow to between 30 and 35 inches tall. Macaroni penguins are the largest of the crested penguins with a standing height of 25 to 28 inches.

Q: What’s the size range for penguins?
A: The tallest penguin species is the emperor which stands nearly 4 feet tall. The smallest is the little blue penguin which only grows to a height of around 16 inches.

Q: How many kinds of penguins are there?
A: There are 17 species of penguins in the world today. All of them are found in the Southern Hemisphere

Q: Have penguins ever lived in the Northern Hemisphere?
A: A relative to penguins, the Great Auk roamed the North Atlantic from North America through Iceland, Norway, and Great Britain during the 19th century. Auks had no natural predators and no natural fear of humans. They were hunted on a large scale for food, their eggs, and their downy feathers. Sadly the last pair was killed in 1844, and the Great Auk became extinct.

Q: Penguins look shiny, not fluffy like other birds. Do they have feathers?
A: You bet! In fact their tiny feathers are tightly packed on their bodies. Penguins have 70 to 80 feathers per square inch. To see how many feathers that really is; use a ruler to draw a one inch box. Now try to draw 80 dots inside that box.

Q: What is molting?
A: Molting is the annual process where penguins lose all of their feathers in a short period of time. In some penguins, this happens in as little as two weeks. They molt their old feathers and grow new ones, usually right after breeding. This puts a tremendous physical strain on the penguins’ bodies. Our veterinarian says it would be like a human growing four feet of hair in two weeks.

Q: I’ve heard there are cold and warm penguins. What does that mean?
A: Cold climate penguins like our gentoo and macaroni species come from the sub-Antarctic islands surrounding the South Pole. They are adapted to cold weather conditions, and must live in a chilly environment to stay healthy and happy. Warmer species like African and Humbolt penguins are found in the wild from southern Africa and South America, to islands nearly on the Equator.

Q: What do penguins eat?
A: Penguins prefer a diet of fish, squid, and krill.

Q: What’s krill?
A: Krill are small shrimp-like creatures. Krill can be found in large numbers in the chilly ocean waters where cold climate penguins feast. Blue whales and some seals also find krill very tasty. Krill may be small, but they play a huge role in the Antarctic ecosystem as a food source.

Q: Do polar bears eat penguins?
A: No. Polar bears live in the northern hemisphere in areas surrounding the North Pole. Penguins live in the southern hemisphere mostly in areas surrounding Antarctica and the South Pole. But adult penguins must avoid being eaten by leopard seals, sharks, and occasionally orcas. Younger penguins must avoid skuas, large gull-like birds and giant petrels, another large seabird.

Q: Do penguins mate for life?
A: Gentoos, like many penguin species, tend to pick one mate for life. Some species like African penguins have a longer breeding season and may not be as committed.

Q: Do penguins lay more than one egg at a time?
A: Egg-laying varies among penguin species. Emperor penguins only lay one egg at a time. Gentoo penguins usually lay two eggs. Macaroni penguins usually lay two eggs, but the first is usually one half the size of the second egg and rarely produces a chick.

Q: How long must a penguin chick stay with its parents before it can venture out on its own?
A: Macaroni parents care for their chicks for 60 to 65 days. Gentoos care for their babies for 70 to 75 days. After this time period the chicks of both species have grown their adult feathers and are ready to head out into the world on their own.

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