I remember when I was a kid and saw penguins at a zoo for the very first time. The way they seemed to fly so effortlessly through the water kept me fixated against the glass. Then they would pop up out of the water as if they had been suddenly squeezed out of the tube of something and landed standing up walking away.
I also remember asking my dad how come penguins stayed in the snow when most birds fly to warmer parts of the world. He explained to me that they can’t fly in the air, only in the water and that God made them special to help them live in Antarctica. I didn’t understand it then, but now I have a much better understanding of what it means to be specially designed by God to live in such a harsh climate.
First of all I have to say is that not all penguins live in really cold climates. There are some that live along the very southern coast of South Africa, Australia and South America where it does get cold but not so cold that the ocean freezes. One variety of penguin lives fairly close to Equator on the Galapagos Islands.
The mighty and majestic looking emperor penguin is the one species that survives the harshest winter weather on earth in Antarctica. In fact, they not only live in the harsh Antarctic winter, but they also mate during the winter months.
Adult emperor penguins will march 50 miles or more away from the ocean to reach their breeding grounds. After the female lays her single egg, she walks the 50 miles back to the ocean to feed in the frigid waters. The male uses his beak to roll the egg up onto the top of his feet where he covers it with a special fold of his belly. He will spend the winter with the rest of the males, holding their eggs on their feet.
They survive the cold partially because of several special features that set them off from other birds and partially because of a special social cooperation with each other.
Unlike most birds, emperor penguins have solid bones instead of hollow ones. The solid bones not only give them extra skeletal strength, but it also helps prevent a condition known as barotrauma. Barotrauma is a condition caused by significant difference in barometric pressure inside the body compared to outside. In the case of birds, it can happen in the hollow bones.
Their hemoglobin is also different from most other birds in that it operates at a lower oxygen level, making it less susceptible to the extreme cold. And to top it off, the emperor penguin can shut down the function of some organs along with slowing down the rest of the body’s metabolism.
Their feathers are very dense and contain hollow shafts in the center. Like the air spaces in the pink insulation that keeps your house warmer, the hollow shafts in the feather act like an insulation blank helping to keep as much of the body’s warmth close and from being lost to the cold air.
The feathers are also well oiled by glands on the penguin. The preening oil helps make the feather waterproof. This waterproofing causes any rain and snow to run right off the feathers.
With all of these feathers, the male emperor penguins still need each other’s help in keeping them and their eggs warm. The males will gather in a huge circle, with all of them facing inward. Huddling together this way conserves their body heat. By facing inward, they are kept from having to face into the winds which can reach hurricane force at times.
You may be thinking about the poor males that are left on the outer edge of the gathering, but don’t worry, the penguins have that all worked out. Periodically the males in the center work their way to the outer edge and take their position along the colder edges of the group. This practice continues until every penguin has shared equal time at the center the outer edges and everywhere in between. This group cooperation helps keep them all warm enough to survive the minus degree winters.
Even more amazing is that the eggs hatch just as winter is ending and the females are marching back to the breeding grounds with a belly full of fish and squid. The chick continues to stay on dad’s feet and under his belly overhang. Left too long on the ground and the chick will soon freeze to death. Mom penguin arrives back at the rookery just in time to feed the newly hatched chick.
In a land where nothing else lives through Antarctic winters, the emperor penguin truly is a marvel of God’s special design features. So the next time you see pictures of emperor penguins or visit them at the zoo or aquarium, take the opportunity to tell your family, friends and anyone else near enough to hear how God made them so special that they survive the worst winters on earth.
Join Arkie the Archaeopteryx as he flies through an ancient jungle and meets many unique creatures that are also not missing links. This delightful adventure helps children look at the natural world through a biblical lens, giving glory to God.