Why Are Penguins Black & White

When I talk about penguins at public schools one of the questions young children ask most frequently is why are penguins black and white? There are 18 species of penguins found all over the southern hemisphere, and some are cold weather birds like Emperor’s or Adelie’s, while others are warm weather penguins living in southern Africa and Australia, with others in climates in between.   Yet all penguins bodies are basically black in the back and white in the front.  So, why are there so many different types and sizes of penguins, who live in virtually every far flung corner of the southern hemisphere,  yet fundamentally all have the same coloring?  This constant primarily has to do with how penguins make a living, which is in the sea.  But, being in the sea also means being a link in the marine food chain,  and it is in the water where  all penguins are most vulnerable.  That said, nature adapts and improvises, and over countless generations penguins have taken on their signature black and white coloring to protect themselves from potential predators as well as enable them to be stealthy hunters.  But, why black and white you ask?


This adaptation is a type of camouflaging called counter-shading, which makes it harder for both their predators as well as their prey to see them from all sorts of angles.  When penguins are in the water, their white chests camouflage them from being seen from below against the lighter sky coming through the waters surface. From above, their black backs help them blend in with the darker, deeper ocean waters below them.  In the ocean, penguins’ really do need this natural camouflage from multiple predators that include seals, sea lions, and killer whales.  So, now ya know.


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