Aha! Somewhat of a trick question … I like it. Aside from Mr. Popper’s house, The Castro, Pittsburgh and the Men’s Wearhouse, you may be thinking that these adorable, eternally au courant flightless birds belonging to the Spheniscidae family may reside around the North and South Poles. Because, you know, both are snowy and super cold and stuff. Well, think again, my penguin-loving friend, because this is an all-too-common misconception.
Penguins live only in the Southern Hemisphere with heavy populations existing on the fringes of Antarctica (but not at the South Pole itself). So think again before you embark on an Arctic adventure in search of some flippered friends because you won’t find any. You’ll have better luck spotting them in more temperate locales like Argentina or Australia. And to answer another age-old question: No, penguins don’t appear on polar bears’ list of favorite comestibles because the latter live only way up north in the Arctic Circle (nope, they aren’t “bi-polar”) where they dine on seals.
But back to the birds: As a rule of thumb, the farther south (i.e., the closer to Antarctica) you go, the bigger the species of penguins you’ll find. Antarctica is home to perhaps the most famous — and the largest — aquatic birds of them all: the emperor penguin, the caravanning species that got a star-turn in both the 2005 French documentary “March of the Penguins” and in 2006’s “Happy Feet,” where the waddling seafood lovers were bestowed with anthropomorphic skills such as tap dancing and speaking in the voice of Frodo Baggins. Almost as famous as their plus-sized cousins are king penguins, a species that breeds primarily on islands north of the Antarctic continent including the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island and Tierra del Fuego.
The coasts of Australia and New Zealand are where you’ll find the most petite of the 17 species of penguins. Little penguins, or fairy penguins as they’re known in Australia, measure roughly a foot tall (adult emperor penguins measure around 4 feet tall and can weigh more than 50 pounds while king penguins reach about 3 feet tall and can weigh up to 35 pounds) and are without that iconic tuxedo plumage: They’re actually colored a lovely slate blue. And remember how I said penguins live only in the Southern Hemisphere? Well, that’s not 100 percent true. The third smallest species of penguin, the Galapagos penguin, lives directly on top of or just slightly north of the equator on the biologically rich archipelago that they’re named after. Although the Galapagos Islands are known for decidedly balmy, un-penguin-like weather, the cool waters of the Humboldt Current help the endemic seabirds survive.
And you’re probably wondering why, since they enjoy chilly water so much, penguins haven’t migrated north to the Arctic. In case you’ve forgotten, penguins aren’t exactly capable of becoming airborne, meaning that they’d have to swim (or swim, walk, waddle) north of the equator through waters that are simply too warm for them to survive. And even then there’s the issue of polar bears and other land predators that penguins simply aren’t used to in their natural habitats.
If you’re smitten with the creatures (and it’s hard not to be) but your travel plans don’t include venturing south of the equator or to the Galapagos Islands, adaptable and photogenic penguins of different species have long been a staple at zoos and aquariums well north of the equator. A few penguin pools of note can be found at the Scott Aquarium at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, the St. Louis Zoo, an award-winning Humboldt penguin exhibit at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo and New York’s Central Park Zoo, home to Roy and Silo, a lovingly devoted pair of chinstrap penguins who gained international fame — and sparked international debate — for partnering as a same-sex couple for over six years. In that time, the two hatched and raised a chick named Tango and managed to inspire a children’s book until, in 2005, a trollop named Scrappy arrived from San Diego’s Sea World and caught Silo’s eye. As noted by The New York Times, post-break-up, Roy was frequently found “alone, in a corner, staring at a wall.” Poor guy. On a more upbeat note, Scotland’s Edinburgh Zoo (another zoo where same-sex penguin romance has been observed in the past) three species of penguins (king, gentoo and rockhopper) partake daily, at 2:15 p.m. sharp, in a world-famous parade around their enclosure. Perhaps heartbroken Roy should have been relocated to Edinburgh for a little cheering up.
Now that we’ve established where penguins do live, head on over to the New England Aquarium’s penguin conservation page to learn more about how you can help this seabird continue to exist happily, adorably and free of threats like oil spills, commercial fishing and climate change.
Photo: Jupiterimages; MNN homepage illustration: Shutterstock