Ask A Scientist

How cold does it have to get for penguins to survive in the arctic?

Asked by: Jennifer Berish
School: Clayton Avenue Elementary School
Grade: 5
Teacher: Mrs. Lantzy
Hobbies/Interests: Ice skating and swimming
Career Interest: A dolphin trainer at Sea World

Answer from George Catalano

Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Director of t

Research area:
Turbulence, Fluid Mechanics, Aerodynamics, Environmental Ethics, and Modeling Ecosystems

Ph.D. school:
University of Virginia, Aerospace Engineering, 1977

All things Italian, Creative Arts, Model trains & cars

Wife, Karen, is a registered yoga teacher at Yoga for Everybody at the Orthopedic Associates; lives with 3 Alaskan Malamutes, two more in our hearts.

Many of us marveled at the strength and dedication we observed while we watched March of the Penguins, the Academy Award-winning documentary film by Jacquet He described the struggle that these majestic birds face when trying to give birth and raise their next generation. We were captivated as the power of love and family overcame arguably the harshest weather on our planet. Perhaps it might be useful to consider some of the known scientific facts of this beautiful member of our Earth's ecosystem. Penguins are flightless birds belonging to the family Spheniscidae. The name is believed to have originated from the Welsh "pen gwyn" which means white head. Penguins are unable to fly. They have a much heavier and structurally stronger skeleton than other birds who fly. Their bones are much denser than the bones of the songbirds we enjoy as spring returns to the Southern Tier. The denser and heavier bones allow the penguin to dive much more effectively. Throughout our Earth's various ecosystems, there are over 15 species of penguins, all of which breed and live in the Southern hemisphere. As have all other plant and animal species, penguins have evolved in order to continue to exist. Most have blackish upper-parts and whitish under-parts on both their abdomens and flippers. Much as camouflage markings helps our military forces in times of combat, this helps the penguin remain unseen both against the lighter sky when viewed from below, and the darker waters when viewed from above, making it more difficult for both their prey and those who prey on penguins. The penguin's feathers are waterproof and interlocking, providing an effective barrier to water. This barrier is similar to the roof shingles on our homes. Each feather has small muscles which allow them to be held tightly down against the body while swimming. This feather then forms a thin water proof layer. When on land, these muscles hold the feathers erect, thereby trapping a thick layer of warm air to provide the best insulation against cold wind. When winter arrives in the Antarctic, the warmth of the Sun is only present for a few hours a day. Temperatures can drop to minus fifty degrees Celsius. In order to survive in such extreme temperatures, penguins have developed special bodies. They can control their body temperature with a special system of blood exchange. The centers of their bodies remain warm, while the outer parts of their bodies stay almost as cold as the outside temperatures. In fact, severe cold temperatures are not the gravest problem for this flightless bird. Rather, it is warm temperature that poses a significant risk. Penguins have a difficult time when they are out of the icy waters of the Antarctic as most have trouble staying cool. Rather than sweat as we do, penguins hold their flippers straight out to radiate heat and make their feathers stand up to flush out some of the warm air trapped within. Certainly the penguin is an engineering marvel but we also all can look in awe at this funny, tuxedo-ed, flightless bird as a role model for the power of love and community.

Last Updated: 3/1/17