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Freshly Baked Science

Day 4 Penguin.jpg

What It Takes To Be A Penguin

4th December 2018

Can you imagine living in the Antarctic? Brr, no thank you! But there’s a reason that we don’t live there but animals, like penguins, are able to. Penguins are specially adapted to live and thrive in freezing cold conditions. So, what do they have that we don’t?


All birds have feathers and penguins are no exception. But the feathers that penguins have are very different to other species of bird.

A penguins DNA has more genes for keratin than other birds, which makes them able to grow thick short, stiff feathers. Although this does help to keep them warm, it’s the different types of feathers that they grow which protects them from the cold.

Their main feather type is contour feathers, they then have two types of insulative feathers called plumules and afterfeathers. Plumules attach directly to the skin and afterfeathers attach to the contour feathers.  This combination of feathers provides great insulation for the penguin.

Thick Skin

Penguins DNA also have genes, which in humans is linked to thick skin on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, meaning that penguins have thicker skin than other birds.

As well as the thick skin, they also have a layer of thick blubber which keeps them nicely insulated in the cold.

Heat Exchange

Penguins are able to control the blood flow to their feet by contracting the blood vessels, allowing less blood to reach the feet in cold weather. They also have a heat exchange system where cold blood coming back up from the feet passes closely with warm blood coming from the centre of the body. The close proximity of the blood allows for heat exchange, slightly cooling the warm blood and heating the cold blood.


Another adaption of penguins is more of a social contact adaption than a physical bodily adaption. Penguins tend to huddle in groups of thousands to keep each other warm. The penguins on the outside of the huddle don’t receive the same wind protection as those towards the centre, so they will constantly move to change who is on the outside!

If you could pick one of these adaptions to have in the winter, which one would it be? Let us know by contacting us on social media (@wonkscience) with the hashtag #STEMintoChristmas!

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