I like to believe that everyone loves penguins. I mean, how can you not when they have that cute walking style, beautiful feathers, and upright land posture.
But as fascinating as they are, there are many aspects that people can’t explain when referring to these birds.
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? What I am trying to say is this. 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. But let’s not get into many details as there is plenty of time to do so.
This being said, in today’s article, I have brought together all the scientific information and the evolutionary answer you need to understand why penguins can’t fly.
Curious? Let’s begin.
Scientific Evidence on Penguins 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 have 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 fabulous swimmers, they preferred conserving their energy staying on the ground.
But can’t they fly at all? This is another thing that is bugging people all around the world.
Even though for some penguin species, it would be great if they could, unfortunately, the answer is still no. They can’t even fly 1 meter.
Think about the massive penguins such as the Emperor ones. Flying would have made their lives way easier. Their grueling march would have taken only 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 have been so much easier.
With all these ‘ifs’, it’s no wonder scientists are so intrigued why these birds lost their flying ability.
Scientists’ main popular accepted theory suggests that penguins’ once-flight-adapted wings have developed more and more for swimming. Eventually, penguins lost their flying ability and could no longer get off the ground.
But do penguins fly underwater?
Well, kind of. Penguins have become efficient divers and increased their chances of foraging for food in the depth of the sea. What is even more impressive is the capacity of penguins to hold their breath for more than 20 minutes and fastly dive to 450 meters depth. (2)
Due to their flightless nature, penguins have always 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.
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. I mean, for some, it’s hard to believe this, but if you think about it for a while, it might be true. 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.
Penguins’ Body Weight – An Essential Factor For Their Flightless Nature
A bird’s flying skills are given by minimizing its weight. Thus, flying birds have empty bones.
Researchers concluded that penguins were not different at the beginning of time. Millions of years ago, they also had hollow bones. Yet, their skeletal system became heavier and solid due to evolution. While this anatomical change enhanced their diving skills, they lost their ability to fly, as previously mentioned.
Truth be told, we can say that it is a golden 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. In other words, it is a fact that birds can either swim underwater or fly. They can’t do both.
Evolution made sure to allow the growth of those appendages essential in surviving. Anything that is extra or seldom used is usually canceled or diminished.
But let’s return to our cute little penguins. So, not only can’t they fly, but they are the only birds known to men 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 other birds, penguins don’t have to use their feet for swimming. Their body has this streamlined shape, which allows them to slice excellently through the water.
Can Any Penguins Fly?
I don’t want to repeat myself, yet you are here, reading this article, to get your answers straight. And to collectively answer all these “can certain penguins fly?” or “Can Emperor penguins fly?” questions, I will only 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 known as a flightless bird. This is a scientific fact, and you should not doubt it. To paint you a visual picture to help you understand more, let’s compare penguins with your usual birds and see what we can conclude.
First of all, all 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 skills to fly back and forth to hunt while in the air.
On the other hand, penguins feed themselves with squid, krill, and many other fishes. 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 whole straight bones and powerful muscles I was telling you about allow penguins to reach impressive swimming speeds. I am talking about somewhere around 20 miles an hour.
Anyway, 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 frigid cold.
Furthermore, the flipper-like wings are not only a swimming feature. They are great at helping the penguins out when they stay on the land. The tails and flippers enable these flightless birds to balance while walking. Yes, they are the reason for their ‘dancing’ walk.
In A Nutshell
So here we are, clearing up why penguins can’t fly, even though they are part of the bird family. Instead, these creatures can push themselves through water depths due to their reshaped wings.
There is no clear evidence ancient penguins were also flightless. Most probably, they lost their ability to fly thanks to evolution.
Today, penguins’ wings are considered to be more similar to flippers and help them reach outstanding swimming speeds, helping them hunt for food such as squid, krill, and other types of fish that also live underwater.
However, even if they can’t fly like regular birds, they are adorable beings that we love watching and studying.