I like to believe that everyone loves penguins. I mean, how can you not with their cute walking style and beautiful feathers.
Even if you are not a penguin fanatic, it’s impossible not to have heard all those funny replies to the “why can’t penguins fly” joke. But which one is the real explanation?
Let’s understand once and for all if penguins can fly. Yes or no? They have wings, so they should be able to fly, right? Well, the answer is no.
Penguins are flightless birds, and science has strong arguments to indicate this fact. However, they can “fly” in the water, which is a lot denser than air. When underwater, penguins can reach impressive speeds of 20 miles per hour.
In today’s article, I have brought together all the scientific information you need to understand why penguins can’t fly. Curious? Let’s begin.
Scientific Evidence on Penguin Evolution
Why can’t penguins fly anymore? That’s the question many children and adults alike have when seeing these cute birds.
Zoologists claim that penguins lost their ability to fly eons ago, and they finally have figured out why this happened. A comprehensive study suggests that penguins lost their flying ability about 65 million years ago. This happened mainly because they had to make too much effort to get off the ground. (1) Yes, they were chubby even back then. And since it was easier for them to become swimmers, they preferred conserving their energy for swimming by staying on the ground when on land.
But can they fly at all? Can they even glide? The answer is still no. They can’t even fly 1 meter.
Think about the massive penguins such as Emperor penguins. Flying would make their lives way easier. Their gruelling march across the ice would take a few leisurely hours rather than many tiring days.
Furthermore, if penguins were able to fly, escaping from their main predators, like leopard seals, would also be so much easier.
With all these ‘ifs’, it’s no wonder scientists are so intrigued as to why these birds lost their flying ability.
Scientists’ popularly accepted theory suggests that penguins’ wings have developed more and more for swimming. Eventually, penguins lost their flying ability and could no longer get off the ground.
However, there are other theories regarding their wings. For instance, there is one that claims that penguins didn’t have any predators in the past, so they did not make any effort to fly. Even today, the adult penguin’s only natural predators are the leopard seals and killer whales. On the other hand, the chicks and eggs are also hunted by birds such as skuas and giant petrels.
Do penguins fly underwater?
Well, kind of. Penguins have become efficient divers and increase their chances of foraging for food in the depths of the sea. What is even more impressive is the capacity of penguins to hold their breath for more than 20 minutes and quickly dive to 450 meters depth. (2)
Due to their flightless nature, penguins have been forced to spend their lives around water sources. Even millions of years ago, these flightless birds had no choice but to stay close by the ocean for food-supply reasons.
Penguins’ Body Weight – An Essential Factor In Their Flightless Nature
A bird’s flying skills are maximized by minimizing their weight. Thus, flying birds have hollow bones.
Researchers concluded that penguins were no different back in time. Millions of years ago, they also had hollow bones. Yet, their skeletal system became heavier and more solid. While this anatomical change enhanced their diving skills, they lost their ability to fly.
We can say this as a general rule – all birds that depend on their swimming and diving abilities for capturing their prey will eventually lose their flight skills as a direct consequence.
Not only can penguins not fly, they are the only birds that are incapable of folding their wings. In time, their wing bones developed into a straight position. As such, their wings became stiff but robust, similar to flippers, facilitating an exceptional water gliding capability.
Furthermore, their mighty wings and solid pectoral muscles are their main features for swimming quickly through the water. Unlike many waterbirds, penguins don’t have to use their feet for swimming. Their body has a streamlined shape, which allows them to slice skilfully through the water.
Can Any Penguins Fly?
To collectively answer all these “can certain penguins fly?” or “Can Emperor penguins fly?” questions, I will say this once and for all: sorry to disappoint, but there are no penguin breeds out there that can fly.
Every single one of them is a flightless bird. This is a scientific fact. To paint you a visual picture to help you understand, let’s compare penguins with your usual birds and see what we can conclude.
First of all, many birds are predators. But think about eagles. How do they hunt? Have you ever seen an eagle casually walking on the ground looking for its next meal? No. They fly around and attack. This applies to all flying birds as they have the energy and anatomical abilities to fly back and forth to hunt while in the air.
On the other hand, penguins feed themselves with squid, krill, and many other fish. All their dining choices live in the water. So to satisfy their appetite and hunger, penguins have to be excellent swimmers. To dive fast, they use the powerful flipper-like wings to get moving through the water so they can catch their prey with ease.
Therefore, penguins don’t have to fly due to their feeding needs, making all of them flightless birds.
How Do Penguins Use Their Flippers?
So penguins’ wings look more like flippers, right? This makes them the ideal feature for aquatic life. The straight wings and powerful muscles allow penguins to reach impressive swimming speeds. I am talking about somewhere around 20 miles an hour.
These flippers are covered with smooth, soft feathers that trap the air and allow the penguin’s body to float better in the water. The soft plumage shields the birds from the cold.
Furthermore, the flipper-like wings are not only a swimming feature. The tail and flippers enable these flightless birds to balance while walking.