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Be the Penguin!

Penguins give new meaning to the 1982 song written by Jeff Silbar and Larry Henley recorded by Bette Midler, “Wind Beneath My Wings”.

From their common ancestor appearing off the coast of New Zealand and Australia to their migration by riding the ocean currents to Antarctica and nearby South Pacific Islands, Raurie Bowie, curator in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology has analyzed 18 species of the modern day penguin ‘s genomes. The earliest penguin fossils indicate these birds were around prior to the extinction of the dinosaurs. In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists report they have been able to trace the 22 million year evolutionary history of the seabirds.

According to information from Penguins International, marine biologists have discovered the answer to the mystery of how Emperor Penguins rocket through the water at speeds up to 22 miles per hour. Miniscule feather filaments allow penguins to trap air under their feathers. It was discovered that when Emperor Penguins fluff these tiny feathers underwater, they release bubbles that will then reduce the density of the water surrounding them. These bubbles act like a lubricant to reduce drag, just like an Olympic swimmer’s swimsuit. This allows for an extra boost, where these penguins double or triple the speeds at which they usually travel and launch themselves into the air in what is known as porpoising. This allows for catching a quick breath if traveling long distances or propelling themselves onto land to avoid the predator seals and sharks who wait offshore to catch an unwary bird.

Another interesting fact about penguins is the makeup of their blood allows them to stay underwater for a longer period of time. The blood is primarily made up of haemoglobin, which helps to carry extra oxygen around the body, and myoglobin is found in their muscle tissue, allowing oxygen to be stored, helping them to breathe underwater for enough time to hunt for krill, squid or fish which make up their diet. A special enzyme allows the penguins’s muscles to work without the presence of oxygen while neutralizing lactic acid buildup. To further save on oxygen consumption, penguins can lower their heart rate to five beats per minute according to Jennifer Mangaly in By using less energy, these birds are able to prolong their time diving underwater.

Adaptation for swimming also includes the senses. For example, a penguin’s vision is optimized for underwater swimming rather than flying. Their eyes are able to differentiate shades of blues, purples, and greens, colors of oceans and seas, for underwater hunting where they are able to hold their breath for up to 20 minutes. A secondary see-through eyelid allows them to see clearly underwater and a superior sense of hearing allows them to be aware of predators such as sharks and sea lions while hunting for their prey.

These cute characters of modern day movies and literature have survived and adapted against all odds and in amazing ways. Even the penguin’s walking waddle conserves energy that is needed to live each day in the ocean feeding grounds and rocky shores of their habitats; for some it is in the freezing arctic and others are close to the equator with temperatures of near 100 degrees.These truly are some tough birds.

Our environmental science class completed their unit of penguin studies last week. They learned penguin facts, mapped habitats and became aware of the need to protect the environment that is home to these unique creatures. Virtual field trips to the San Diego Zoo and Moody Gardens in Galveston added to their learning experience. The students also recognized the many changes these birds have gone through for millions of years in order to outlast the dinosaurs and not only survive but thrive.

Beginning the new year seems a very appropriate time to revisit the amazing evolution of the penguin.

Wings evolved into flippers? Not a problem, just fly through the water.

Need to dive deep? Amazing hemoglobin will take care of that!

Traveling long distances and out of breath? The ability to porpoise will be a relief.

For 2021, we need to actively engage with ways to embrace the challenges of change during our personal evolution seeking a positive outcome. Instead of investing time into the” Why me? “ attitude, ask the question of “Why not me?”. Look for the gain more than the loss in situations. Let’s become problem solvers instead of problem seekers. When the journey seems too long and deep waters are threatening,” Be the penguin!”.

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