Don’t let a penguin’s tuxedo-like coloring fool you. These birds were built for rugged conditions. Some species inhabit areas that reach subzero air temperatures and nearly freezing waters. Luckily, they are equipped with some very “cool” adaptations.
1) A Plethora of Plumage
It is commonly thought that penguins keep warm due to a high density of feathers, but some scientists now believe it’s also a special combination of smooth outer feathers and softer, downy feathers called plumules which gives penguins that outer layer of cold protection.
2) A Healthy Layer of Fat
Beneath those feathers is a layer of insulating fat that improves insulation in cold water (where most adult penguins spend the majority of their lives.) Penguins must remain very active while swimming to generate body heat and this well-defined fat layer helps retain that heat. Then, when a bird is ready to waddle back on the shore, its specially adapted feathers quickly shed water. Both layers effectively work together to keep a penguin waterproof and warm.
3) Extra Fancy Footwork
You may be thinking – feathers and fat are great, but what keeps a penguin’s bare feet from freezing? The answer is twofold. First, a special circulatory system allows warm blood entering the feet to pass closely by colder blood moving back into the body. This allows a heat transfer that maintains a stable temperature. Finally, penguin feet are operated ‘remotely’ from muscles located higher up the leg with ligaments attached to joints in the foot. This means that a penguin's feet can withstand the cold since they are controlled by muscles located in a warmer spot in the body.
4) Family In Warmer Climates
Ok, so this one is far-fetched. We know penguins don’t fly south for the winter (or anywhere for that matter - being flightless and all.) But we did want to mention that while penguins are often the poster animals for cold, snowy weather conditions, not all species live in extremely cold climates. Each penguin species is adapted to its range. Species in colder climates, like the Emperor Penguin, have longer feathers and a thicker layer of fat than species in warmer climates, like the Galapagos Penguin - which lives in average temperatures of around 70° F!
Check out this video of the Gentoo Penguins of Cuverville Island from our members' expedition to Antarctica: