How are fluffy penguins made

Why don't penguins freeze?

Penguins have lived on earth for at least 55 million years. 17 species have their habitat around the Antarctic, the South Pole. But how do penguins cope with the cold? Don't penguins freeze? This is what Hannah, 8 years old, would like to know.

Penguins have a trick to keep their foot temperature at 0 degrees Celsius

First of all, penguins have dense plumage with which they defy wind and weather and which can be imagined as a kind of ingenious diving suit. For example, the emperor penguin, which lives farthest south, has 12 feathers per square centimeter. They are curved and arranged like roof tiles so that moisture and moisture have no chance of penetrating the skin. Fluffy undercoat on the quills and a layer of fat under the skin offer additional heat protection.

Isolating layer of fat

In addition, the plumage is protected by a water-repellent layer of oil that penguins, like most other birds, apply with their beak themselves. The required fat is produced in the pore size gland on the tail. The oil forms an insulating layer and prevents ice and snow from sticking to the plumage.


To cope with the Antarctic cold, penguins also work together as a team. Especially in snowstorms, they get together in groups to protect their young from the icy wind, with their backs turned outwards.

Ingenious trick of nature

Another relief is that penguins can regulate their own temperature. For this purpose they have installed a so-called heat exchanger that works on the countercurrent principle. We humans also know this trick: In a modern house, the residual heat from exhaust air and waste water is used to preheat air or water.

How does this regulation work?

First you have to know that the heat in the body is distributed through the blood. It's easy to test: put one foot in a bucket of ice-cold water and wait until it starts to get uncomfortable. Then dry the foot well and you will notice how it suddenly feels very warm. This is due to increased blood flow.

Heat exchanger based on the counterflow principle

The heat exchanger based on the countercurrent principle works like this in the penguin: Warm blood flows into the legs. There the veins that bring the warm blood and the veins that carry the cold blood away from the foot are very close together. In this way, the blood flowing into the leg can give off its warmth to the cold blood coming from the foot. The fresh blood that rushes into the foot has already cooled down.

Feet always stay 0 degrees cold

This way the animals don't lose too much heat. And a cold foot on cold snow no longer feels cold either. That is why penguins, like ducks, do not freeze on their feet because their foot temperature is constantly around 0 degrees Celsius. Penguins have another ingenious property in store: They are able to recover 80 percent of the heat from the air they breathe - through a heat regulator in their nose.

You can find out more on the subject in WAS IST WAS Volume 36 Polar Regions. Life in icy worlds