The Arctic is a bird-lover’s paradise. The bird cliffs of Iceland and Norway are some of the busiest, most bustling and breathtaking on earth. Puffins, guillemots, terns and fulmars all thrive in the north. So why are there no penguins in the Arctic? And did they ever live there? Although there are no penguins in the Arctic today, there are many fascinating connections between the polar north and our beloved, tuxedoed sweethearts of the south.
A question of evolution
“Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.”
– Greek philosopher Democritus
Penguins evolved in the Southern Hemisphere, not in the Arctic. But why?
Here are a few possible reasons:
1. Penguins nest on land
Penguins evolved to breed, nest, incubate and raise their chicks at ground level or in burrows. This works because they are threatened by very few (if any) land predators. While penguins are vulnerable to skuas and giant petrels flying overhead, in the north they would have fallen prey to foxes, wolves, polar bears – maybe even humans!
2. Penguins are flightless birds
There are no flightless birds living in the Arctic today. Flight is an important defence against land predators, allowing birds to escape attack and nest high up on cliffs.
3. Fly or dive?
Penguins are the most efficient underwater diving birds on earth, and one of the reasons is that they sacrificed lightweight, flexible wings for stiffer, heavier flippers. Flippers are no good for flying, but they have allowed penguins to evolve into true underwater specialists. Penguin bones are also thicker than most other birds, which make them too heavy to fly, but might help them to dive even deeper by making them less buoyant.
Many seabirds can fly and dive, but this involves compromise. In general, the better they are at one, the worse they are at the other. For seabirds, there comes a point where the benefits of flight aren’t worth the cost – particularly if you don’t have to worry about predators on land!
4. A competitive edge
Being able to take deep, long dives gives penguins a competitive edge when feeding in the aquatic environment, which they share with many, much larger whales, seals and birds.
Were there ever penguins in the Arctic?
Yes! In 1936, a Norwegian polar explorer named Lars Christensen saw the potential for an Arctic penguin population. He plucked nine king penguins from South Georgia’s beaches and sent them north aboard the SS Neptune. They were settled on the Lofoten islands, where they would be safe from foxes and other land predators. Over the next decade, other species’ of penguin, including macaroni penguins, were also introduced.
Their existence in the Arctic was short-lived, and the last time they were spotted was in 1949. No one is sure where they went or whether they managed to reproduce, but for a short time, a beautiful island in the Arctic played host to a small population of penguins.
The penguin of the north?
The closest thing to a native Arctic penguin was the delightful pinguinis impennis, a great black and white bird, which became extinct in 1844. More commonly known as the Great Auk, this flightless seabird had a lot in common with the penguins we see today. It was agile and graceful underwater and could dive up to 1 km (0.62 miles) deep. It could speed to the surface like a torpedo, bursting through the water and leaping onto rock shelves far above. Standing at about 75-85 cm (2.5-2.8 ft), its size kept it safe from all but the largest predators, like polar bears and killer whales.
The Great Auk was well known among sailors from the north. For hundreds of thousands of years it could be spotted across the North Atlantic coast, from northern Canada to Norway, Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. But pressure from humans hunting them for eggs, meat, down – even specimens as they became increasingly rare – drove them to extinction.
When sailors from the north travelled to the south, they came across beaches covered in black and white seabirds. They couldn’t fly, but they could swim! They reminded seafarers of the great pinguinis impennis, which is how they got their names: penguins.
Although the Great Auk was never a ‘real’ penguin, its legacy lives on in the naming of our feathered friends in the southern hemisphere.
Will I ever see polar bears and penguins together?
While some scientists and conservationists have considered settling polar bears in Antarctica, the cost and logistics, as well as the threat this could pose for Antarctic ecosystems have kept the idea on the shelf. For now, the only place you’ll see penguins and polar bears together is in a documentary or a children’s book! But that doesn’t mean that you can’t visit their far-flung homes and learn how each of them is uniquely adapted to their natural environment.
Words by Nina Gallo, Aurora Expeditions’ historian and certified PTGA polar guide.
Nina has been drawn to the polar regions since her first otherworldly experience of the midnight sun in 2002. Since then she has spent time in far northern Canada, the Himalayas, the Alps and deserts in America and Australia, always seeking out quiet, wild corners to explore. She feels immensely privileged to travel to these places and shares her passions for the natural world, human stories and adventure with all the wonderful people she meets. Nina is the author of Antarctica, published by Australian Geographic in September 2020.