African penguins are amazing animals with unique adaptations that make them true masters of their environment. Here are 10 ways that African penguins are better at doing things than humans - we hope that after reading this you will appreciate these awesome endangered, endemic birds just a little bit more!

Remember - take the Marine Masterminds quiz at the end of this blog to add your name to the leaderboard.

1. Walking on an empty stomach

Penguins walk with an adorable bum-wiggling, swagger-filled waddle. It looks very clumsy, especially compared to us humans - the only other animal that has evolved to walk with an upright spine. So clearly we are better at walking upright than they are, right?

Wrong. Actually, penguins do it more efficiently. When penguins walk, the top of their body acts as a pendulum (pengui-lum?) so they are only using energy to rotate a bit with each step. On the other hand, we need to partially lift our whole body up each time we take a step. The swaying of penguins allows them to recover as much as 80% of all the energy that they expend - making them about 20% more efficient than us. This is why penguins still have the energy to migrate and hunt even after long periods of fasting, as their waddle is the most efficient way to walk.

2. Rocking a tuxedo

Why are penguins black and white? 

Who wears it better?

Many believe that the dark back and white belly serve as camouflage when they are underwater - but if you've ever looked at an underwater photo of a penguin you'd soon realise that this is not very effective. In fact, ancient penguins were red and grey - far better deep-water camouflage.

Reconstruction of Inkayaca, an ancient penguin species from 36 million years ago. Its colours were determined by the study of its fossil feathers. Artwork by Katie Browne - check out this awesome blog for more fossil penguins.

African penguins' black and white tuxedo colouration has a few other uses:

  • Penguins can turn their black backs to the sun when they are cold, and their white bellies towards it when they are hot.
  • Pigments in black feathers make these feathers stronger, so their backs can withstand the elements when they lie on their bellies.
  • The high-contrast colours of penguins make them easily visible to each other, and enable them to coordinate with each other underwater.
The high-contrast colours of the African penguin make them easily visible to each other underwater, and their horizontal stripes allow them to interpret each other's movements and plan their hunting. Photo by Laura Wolf [CC BY 2.0].

3. Seeing underwater

Have you ever opened your eyes underwater and noticed how blurry your eyesight becomes, and how the water stings your eyes? Well, penguins don't have this problem!

Thanks to an extra, transparent eyelid, African penguins are able to see underwater without issue. Photo by Greyloch [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0].

Penguins' corneas are flattened by strong muscles around their eyes, which prevents the light from bending when it enters their eyes and blurring the image underwater. They also have an extra, transparent eyelid called a nictitating membrane that keeps the saltwater out (shysharks have them too, by the way). It's almost like they are wearing a scuba mask all the time.

The cuves of a human's cornea give us blurred vision underwater, not a problem for the flat cornea of a penguin! Image source DPG (their article on underwater vision is great).

4. Being adorable

The ever-inquisitive Ayoba meet Yoshi the loggerhead turtle before here epic ocean journey to Australia!

“I find penguins at present the only comfort in life. One feels everything in the world so sympathetically ridiculous; one can’t be angry when one looks at a penguin.” – John Ruskin

African penguins are an excellent example of something conservationists call "charismatic megafauna": big, lovable animals that inspire people to support conservation, which aids the species' entire environment and the "less adorable" species it shares this environment with.

Beautiful animals like the African penguin are vital for encouraging people to engage in conservation efforts that have a positive impact on their wider ecosystem. Photo taken by Grant Peters at SANCCOB [CC BY 2.0].

5. Having conversations in a crowd

Human beings can hear sounds as low as 20Hz (the rumble of a far-away truck) and as high pitched as 20 000Hz (so high your cellphone speaker can't produce it). Compared to the flat ear holes of penguins, our relatively giant ear cones are exceptionally good at catching sound, allowing us to determine the direction sound is coming from, and its distance away - useful skills for a land animal.

A cool video that demonstrated just how special your ears are.

Penguins' hearing seems much more basic, as they can only hear 100Hz to 15 000Hz, and their small heads and flat ears limit their ability to detect the direction of sound. However, penguins are exceptional at telling frequencies apart - they have the ability to hear the exact call of their chick or mate amongst tens of thousands of other penguins. Especially important considering their "language" has so few words.

Imagine trying to find your buddies if they're all talking at once at the Betty's Bay penguin colony! Photo by Derek Keats [CC BY 2.0].

6. Having long-term relationships

African penguins are true masters of romance: 80 to 90% of all African penguin breeding pairs stay together for the entirety of their lives. African penguins return to the same breeding site every year, with mates reestablishing their existing pair bond. They will only begin to look for a new partner if their mate dies, or does not return during the breeding season.

Gaia and Laduma are one of the Two Oceans Aquarium's penguin couples - together forever!

7. Enjoying abstract art

We know that humans can see amazing colour, while animals like dogs are "colourblind". Well, compared to an African penguin, we humans are colourblind too.

African penguins are great at making paintings that our human eyes can enjoy.

We see colour because of cells in the back of our eyes called cones, which detect certain types of light. Humans have three types of cones for seeing our primary colours - red, blue and green. Penguins have an extra cone that allows them to see ultraviolet light - so to them our UHD TVs would look as awful as old black and white TVs looked to us. 

The image on the left is with our normal human vision, the middle image is purely the UV light (which we cannot see) and the bird and egg on the right is a simulation of how a bird, like a penguin, would perceive this scene. Image source Scitable.

8. Sneakily getting what they want

Finding nesting material on rocky and barren shorelines is not easy for penguins, and we can see how they have evolved to cope with this - female Adélie penguins choose the mate who brings them the most stones, rockhopper penguins find existing holes and crevices, and emperor penguins don't even build nests (they just rely on being fuzzy).

Returning to the nest with some debris helps African penguins to reaffirm their relationships and strengthen their pair bond. Taken at Stoney Point.

African penguins (and their close relatives) dig burrows that they then decorate with bits of debris. Unfortunately, with the destruction of South Africa's guano islands, there is no longer anywhere for them to burrow as sand tends to collapse. To compensate, African penguins collect more "decorations" (twigs, seaweed and even bits of garbage) to insulate their shallow nests. As these resources are scarce, they have become very adept at sneakily stealing bits of nesting material from each other.

9. Babysitting

African penguin parents share all the babysitting responsibilities. They spend approximately 40 days taking turns incubating their eggs, while the other parent goes hunting for food or guards the nest from predators.

Even when their chicks have hatched, a parent will always be there to protect the nest from predators. Clearly, penguin chicks are not yet graceful. Photo by Rob Schleiffert [CC BY-NC 2.0].

When the chick has hatched and is able to walk, multiple couples group their chicks together in a "crèche" so that fewer adults are needed to protect them. This allows both parents to go out hunting and bring food back to the fledgling.

After about four months in this crèche, juveniles are old enough to forage for themselves, and head out to fend for themselves in the wild.

Juvenile or "blue" African penguins have their first coat of waterproof feathers. They will leave the colony to fend for themselves for a year or two, and will return when they are ready to moult and get their adult plumage. Photo by Selbe Lynn.

10. Eating & drinking

Have you ever seen a penguin drinking fresh water? Nope, because they don't. African penguins swallow salt water when they are swimming. A specialised suborbital gland filters salt out of their blood, and they then sneeze this salt out. If we had this ability, Cape Town's water crisis would have been a non-issue.

Penguins also have very few tastebuds compared to us - they don't even have the DNA to be able to taste bitterness, sweetness or umami (savouriness). All that they are able to taste is salty or sour - which is important as these are the tastes that allow them to eat only fresh fish, not rotting ones. Imagine if we could be healthy all the time, not craving chocolate and being able to eat really gross-tasting health food with ease!

Beaked bum scratches are one of the perks of having virtually no tastebuds. Image courtesy of Pe_Wu [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0].

Ready for a quiz?

Simply answer ten quick questions about the blog you just read and join the Marine Masterminds leaderboard. Climb the leaderboard and you could win amazing prizes - Two Oceans Aquarium annual memberships, Penguin Experiences and day tickets are all up for grabs. Good luck!

One thing we can be better at: Making a difference

With fewer than 30 000 breeding pairs of African penguins left in the wild, it is crucial that we all do our part to save these bundles of joy. Here are a few things you can do to support these endangered animals:

  • Support SANCCOB or the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary (APSS) – amazing organisations doing great work to save our wild penguins.
  • Have a Penguin Experience at the Two Oceans Aquarium, and part of your fee will go towards seabird conservation.
  • Make a Penguin Promise to live a lifestyle that minimises your impact on the ocean. Here are a few simple examples of things you can do:
    • Use energy-efficient light bulbs
    • Separate household garbage for easy recycling
    • Use water-saving showerheads
    • Buy local rather than carbon-heavy imported goods
    • Say “no” to plastic drinking straws
    • Eat less meat
    • Do not litter, and to pick up litter where you see it
    • Eat only sustainable seafood (by adhering to the colour-coded SASSI consumer guide)
    • Ban single-use plastic from your home
Zuki knows she's cute.

Ok, and we've figured out how to fly better than penguins...

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