Deep Breath: Can Penguins Breathe Underwater?

can penguins breathe underwater

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Can penguins breathe underwater? No, they need to breathe oxygen from the air, so they can’t stay under the water indefinitely, but some of the big penguins can remain submerged for more than 30 minutes without taking a breath.

Penguins are adapted to aquatic life, and when they swim the motion is similar to a bird flying through the air, and they are very agile in the water.

The Fairy penguins are quite small and dive to shallow depths to feed at dusk. They don’t stay submerged for long, as their lungs are smaller and they need to breathe every minute at least.

You will want to know more about the penguin underwater, so keep reading.

Can Penguins Really Breathe Underwater?

No, penguins are unable to breathe underwater and must surface when they run out of oxygen to breathe air.

Research has shown that penguins have adjusted to the effective use of oxygen and are able to increase oxygen delivery to the muscle tissue while diving underwater.

More effective use of hemoglobin in the penguin’s red blood cells sends the blood to the major organs and enables the penguin to keep diving without damage.

Additional oxygen is stored in the muscle tissue by using large amounts of myoglobin. An enzyme enables the penguin’s muscles to work without the presence of oxygen.

When they resurface they expel the lactic acid buildup that occurred underwater. While underwater they can also lower their heart rate and accordingly use less energy.

How Do Penguins Breathe?

Penguins are not able to breathe underwater as penguins have lungs, but they have adapted over centuries to conserve their oxygen when diving.

The penguin breathes with lungs and lung sacs but can stay underwater for longer periods of time. Half an hour for an Emperor penguin, and when they resurface they inhale and exhale rapidly.

The penguin needs to dive underwater to catch food and normally spends half the day doing this.

The average time spent underwater not breathing is 6 minutes. Then he resurfaces and starts breathing again.

How Do Penguins Breathe While Swimming?

Some types of penguins like the Marconi and Rockhopper use a porpoising breathing technique when they are swimming, but not all penguins use this technique.

It involves the penguin swimming just beneath the surface and then leaping above it to take a breath. Using this method enables the penguin to swim at 6 miles an hour.

The body of the penguin is adapted for swimming, the penguin is a wild creature and best observed in its own habitat, and some live as long as 20 years.

So can penguins breathe underwater, no, they definitely come to the surface to take a breath.

How Long Can Penguins Hold Their Breath?

Penguins move very fast through the water, enabling them to catch and devour their prey.

The Penguin that holds its breath the longest underwater is the Emperor penguin, and while diving the heart rate is markedly reduced to 15-20 beats per minute and the non-essential organs shut down.

This means that the penguin can deep dive and stay under the water for longer, and the oxygen in the body is consequently carried and transported at lower levels of concentration.

This is remarkable, as it allows the penguin to function without loss of consciousness.

The Emperor or larger penguin remains underwater for 30 minutes in some instances, and then he rises to the surface to breathe.

He has a streamlined body so he can go through the water easily, and wings that resemble flippers. He is able to regulate his core body temperature.

If he is too warm, above 20 degrees centigrade, he will feel too hot, and may become agitated, he cools off by raising his wings and exposing the underside to expedite heat loss fast.

We also see this behavior in other seabirds like the Commorant.

The tiny fairy penguin is very different, and feeds near the surface of the water, because his lungs are smaller he doesn’t dive too deep and comes up for air after half to one minute.

He moves quickly through the water catching his prey and then rises for air.

How Does A Penguin Maintain His Plumage?

From November to February the Emperor penguin’s dark plumage fades to brown, this is summer in Antarctica.

Although they are unable to breathe underwater, they can swim underwater and nature is getting ready for summer by starting the annual molting process.

Molting is rapid and it takes about 34 days, and the new feathers start to emerge before the old feathers are lost. This will enable the penguin to glide through the water without too much heat loss.

The plumage is flattened in the water, waterproofing the skin and the downy underlay.

Preening is essential for insulation and oiling the plumage and keeping it water-repellent. It can then maintain its core body temperature.

The Emperor penguin lives around the polar region between 66-77 degrees south latitude and breeds on stable pack ice.

Breeding colonies are usually under ice cliffs that provide protection to the birds.

All penguins are counter-shaded for camouflage, with black backs, and white fronts, and this makes it harder for the predators to see them.

Often when they move across the snow, they slide on their bellies, using their feet to steer them down to the water.

Final Thoughts

The Penguin relies on breathing oxygen from the air like other birds. However, the difference is that most breeds of penguins can remain underwater for longer.

Their respiratory system contains lungs and air sacs, enabling breathing just like humans, only humans can’t hold their breath for that long.

There are about 18 different species of penguin and their biodiversity varies. However, they are a bird that has adapted to living in the coldest places on earth.

The penguin was named by sailors when they discovered them while circumnavigating the earth. The penguin breathes oxygen just like we do.

They live in colonies wherever they are and the Galapagos Islands are the only place in the Northern Hemisphere where you will find penguins.

When you ask can penguins breathe underwater, we know they can’t, but they do stay submerged for a while.