Penguins

Fluffy chick huddled between the parent's feet.
Emperor penguin chick (Photo: Robyn Mundy)
Adelie penguin with two tiny fluffy grey chicks tucked under its feet

The harsh Antarctic environment has produced some very interesting adaptations and behaviour in penguins. Discover how these give the penguin an advantage.

The Australian Antarctic Division's website contains a wealth of information about Adelie penguins. It includes information regarding current research, such as the satellite monitoring of Adelies and including diagrams of how far they have been tracked, the depth to which they dive, and details of their foraging patterns.

The AAD also provides general information regarding emperor penguins.

  • Students can measure each other's height and weight and the teacher can help the students work out the average height and weight for the class. The class can then discuss why scientists use averages to measure sizes in animal populations, rather than relying on a measurement of a single animal.
  • Teachers can ask the students to compare their own size to the size of emperor penguins and Adelie penguins. The emperor penguin grows to about 115 cm tall, and weighs from 23-40 kilograms. In contrast, the Adelie penguin grows to around 70 cm tall and about 4.5 kg.
    Generally students find that emperors are heavier and shorter than the average student. Teachers can stress that emperor penguins have a very large mass for a bird and Adelie penguins are closer to the size you would expect of a penguin.
  • An Adelie penguin fledgling weighs 3.2 kg, about the birth weight of the average human baby. Students could ask their parents if they have a record of their growth as a small child. This will allow them to find out what age they were when they weighed 4.5 kg, the average weight of an Adelie penguin adult, and how old they were when they were they were 70 cm tall. If this information is not obtainable then general growth plots for children can be obtained from any child health clinic, and this information can be used to compare the size of Adelie penguins with the size of human children.
  • While emperor penguin females spend the winter at sea, the males incubate the eggs for nine weeks. During this time they are without food and lose around half of their original body weight. To avoid freezing to death they huddle together in groups of as many as 6,000 with their backs to the wind (thus conserving heat and energy). In the huddle, they move constantly from the outside to the inside, rotating the warm and cold positions with minimal activity. Students can study the huddling behaviour of emperor penguins by measuring out one square metre of floor area. They can see how many of them can stand in this square metre. Then have them move from the outside to the inside and back. Search the internet for videos showing how penguins move. 
  • Other students can take the air temperature just above the huddle and compare that with the temperature of a similar spot away from the huddle. The students in the huddle can describe their feelings. They can also say whether they noticed feeling warmer when they were in the huddle. (This could be done outside on a cold windy day for even greater effect.)
  • Students can research the life cycle of an emperor penguin.
  • Students could make Adelie penguin meals out of milk cartons. Milk cartons are very useful to demonstrate meal sizes for chicks. A 250 ml carton holds the equivalent to the daily meal size of a smaller Adelie penguin chick weighing less than 1 kg, while a 600 ml carton holds the equivalent to a daily meal for a 2.5 kg Adelie penguin chick.
  • The Adelie penguin has a number of ways of moving on ice or land (e.g. walking, running, tobogganing). It can also 'porpoise'. Ask students to explain when each method is used.

Further information

There are very good classroom activities on penguin adaptation from the Gulf of Maine Research Institute's site.

This page was last modified on October 10, 2014.