Though ungainly on land, the flightless penguin has physical characteristics perfect for swimming through water – fortunate, as some species are known to be at sea for up to 75 per cent of their lives.
Spending so much time in the water puts penguins at risk from predators, so swimming skills are essential. While their long, streamlined bodies and short legs give them a clumsy gait when waddling on land, penguins’ wings have a unique characteristic that gives them surprising agility in water.
While penguins’ wings are not suitable for aerial flight – mainly because, unlike the delicate lightweight bones of other birds, penguin bones are solid. Referred to as flippers, the penguin’s stiff wings act as the perfect natural paddle.
What’s most interesting, however, is the recent discovery that as well as being able to flap their flippers up and down like wings, penguins can also twist them in a corkscrewing motion.
To demonstrate this phenomena, we played with toy penguins in the water table! Using styrofoam as our “ice bergs”, students practiced making their penguins “swim” though the water, only to rest on their ice bergs!