Penguins are a group of flightless, aquatic birds found on every continent in the Southern Hemisphere. Approximately 17 species occupy a variety of habitats and climates, from the tropical equator to the ice sheets of Antarctica. These birds spend about 75 percent of their time in the water, where they hunt for fish, krill, squid and crustaceans.
A penguin’s habitat ranges from the bottom of the globe in Antarctica and surrounding islands north to the equator. South America, New Zealand, Australia and Africa all support populations. Penguins are highly adapted to the marine environment and live on islands or remote areas of continents that have few or no land predators, as they cannot fly to escape. All of these habitats also provide access to nutrient-rich waters with an abundant supply of food.
Galapagos penguins, one of the smaller species, live on the equatorial Galapagos Islands off the coast of South America. Warm temperatures and sandy beaches mark this penguin’s turf, and keeping cool in the heat is a major challenge. They often hunt in the day in the cool Humboldt and Cromwell currents and return to land at night. To stay cool on land, these birds will often stand with flippers stretched, hunching forward to provide shade for their feet. They protect eggs and chicks by keeping them in rock crevices.
Of the approximately 17 species of penguins, four live on continental Antarctica and an additional three inhabit the surrounding islands. Ross Island supports the southernmost penguin colony, with approximately half a million Adelie penguins living on rocky Cape Royds. This mid-sized penguin feeds mainly on the Ross Sea’s abundant krill.
Certain species of penguin travel great distances between feeding and breeding grounds, including the emperor penguin. While this bird’s feeding range is coastal Antarctica, it travels up to 56 miles inland to breed. Rockhopper penguins have the largest temperature range tolerance and are found on islands near New Zealand, South Africa and South America. Juvenile penguins disperse when they leave their colonies and may wander thousands of miles, returning to where they were hatched to molt and breed.
Leslie Darling has been a writer since 2003, writing regularly for "Mississippi Magazine" and "South Mississippi Living," specializing in food and wine, animals and pets, and all things Southern. She is a graduate of the University of New Orleans.