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13 Things You Never Knew About Penguins (and How to Help Them)

It's hard not to fall in love with waddling, tuxedo-wearing penguins, which is why it feels extra depressing that many species of these black-and-white beauties are struggling to survive. We may not be able to reverse all of the damage already done to their natural habitats, but there's plenty we can all do now to help them have a brighter future.

King penguin feather side close-upValerieVSBN/Shutterstock

They have waterproof feathers

Penguins' feathers are coated in a waterproof oil produced by an adaptive gland called the preen gland, shares Corbin Maxey, an animal expert and biologist. Penguin chicks, however, do not have waterproof feathers, which is why they stay out of the water. Penguins also have a higher feather density than most birds, more than 100 feathers per square inch, and at the base of each feather is a small muscle that holds the feather tightly to the body to trap warm air, explains Maxey.

African Penguin Spheniscus demersus is an endangered bird found in South AfricaLagunaticPhoto/Shutterstock

Their "tuxedo" isn't just a fashion statement

Counter-shading, or camouflage, helps penguins hide from predators or prey in the water, says Maxey. When viewed from below, their white bellies blend in with the light near the surface of the sea. When viewed from above, their black backs are hard to see in deep, dark water. Don't miss these 17 photos of adorable baby animals will brighten your day.

King penguins going from blue water, Atlantic ocean in Falkland Island. Sea bird in the nature habitat. Penguins in the water. Penguins in the sea waves. Penguin with black and yellow head.Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock

But they aren't just black and white

According to Antonio Fernandez, a senior aviculturist at SeaWorld Orlando who has been working with penguins for 18 years, more than half of the species have colored feathers either on their head or on their bodies. Rockhopper and Macaroni penguins, for example, have yellow or orange feather crests that look like wild tufts of hair, while Emperor and King penguins are marked with yellow and orange patches on their heads, necks, and chests.

Penguins playing on IcebergRonsmith/Shutterstock

They're the Michael Phelps of the animal world

Penguins have the perfect body for swimming. Rather than wings for flight, penguins have paddle-like flippers with short, scale-like feathers. The SeaWorld website describes penguins' bones as "flattened and broadened, with the joint of the elbow and wrist almost fused," creating a tapered, flat flipper for swimming. And they have solid bones, rather than air-filled ones of flighted birds. These dense bones counteract buoyancy to help them dive deeply underwater, says Fernandez. "They also have a layer of fat around their body which allows them to stay at the surface effortlessly," Fernandez explains. Penguin species found closer to the Antarctic also tend to be more insulated with blubber than those found closer to the equator.

group of young common ostrich, Struthio camelus walking together on the open plains and grazingDirk M. de Boer/Shutterstock

They aren't the only type of bird that can't fly

They may not fly, but penguins are still birds. "For an animal to be a bird it needs to meet three requirements: have feathers, lay eggs for reproduction, and be warm-blooded," says Fernandez. Flight is not a requirement; to be a bird, in fact, there are several birds species known as ratites that are also unable to fly, including the ostrich, emu, and kiwi. Here are more interesting animal distinctions that will surprise you.

Juvenile African Black-Footed Penguin going through a catastrophic molt.makeitahabit/Shutterstock

Once a year they look like exploding pillows

Penguins experience a "catastrophic molt" annually where they shed all of their feathers as new ones push through underneath. Molting can take 14 to 21 days, during which time penguins not only have bad hair days, they aren't waterproof. Since they can't swim, they can't catch fish. "They compensate by eating immense amounts of food prior to molting and using the extra weight as an energy source during this period," explains Fernandez. Check out these 60 adorable animal photos that will make you say "awww!"

a polar bear mom and cub walk across swirled ice with two rocks in the foregroundGreen Mountain Exposure/Shutterstock

They don't hang out with polar bears

Penguins and polar bears are often depicted as neighbors in cartoons, but the two species only ever see each other in zoos. That's because polar bears live in the northern hemisphere, and penguins live on or below the equator, says Eric Fox, penguin trainer at Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut. Check out these National Geographic photos of baby animals and their mamas that will warm your heart.

Emperor penguins, the Antarctic.BMJ/Shutterstock

Not all penguins live in Antarctica

Of the 18 different species of penguins, only the Emperor and the Adelie prefer the snow and ice near the South Pole. According to Fox, the majority live in temperate-to-tropical environments like Australia, New Zealand, South America, South Africa, and Namibia. Discovery Kids reports that the Galapagos Islands, located on the equator, is the warmest place that penguins live.

Closeup of Penguin swimming underwater. Humboldt speciesSilvia Pascual/Shutterstock

They have built-in swim goggles

Because penguins spend 75 percent of their lives in the water, their eyes were designed to see better underwater than on land. "Their nictitating membrane, or third eyelid, is a clear protective barrier that is held shut when swimming to act as a built-in pair of swim goggles," explains Fox. This "third eyelid" is just one of the adaptations that have allowed penguins to survive their many predators, including sharks, whales, and seals. Don't miss these facts and photos that prove penguins are the world's most adorable animals.

African penguins. South AfricaSergey Uryadnikov/Shutterstock

You need a DNA test to tell males and females apart

Most penguin species are not sexually dimorphic, meaning it's nearly impossible to tell the difference between males and females by sight. "At Mystic Aquarium, we use DNA testing to prepare for the gender reveal parties of our African penguin chicks," says Fox. However, penguins do show individual characteristics. African penguins, for example, have spot patterns on their chests that are as unique to that species as our fingerprints are to humans. You'll want to check out these "facts" about animals you probably have all wrong.

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