Always looking dapper in their natural tuxedos, penguins are amazing little creatures. The dashing appearance of these flightless birds—evolved from sky-bound birds some 40 million years ago and found solely in the Southern Hemisphere—is quite strategic: their black backs provide camouflage to predators from above, while their white bellies blend into the water’s bright surface.
Most penguins mate for life, joining up to a thousand others in large breeding colonies. They return year after year to the same rookery, often the very nesting spot where they were born. (In Patagonia, females lay their eggs, usually two, in October; babies are born about 40 days later.) Both parents are involved in caring for young chicks, and in some species, the males incubate the eggs while the females hunt for food.
Although other sea mammals have a layer of blubber for warmth, the penguin’s feathers actually act as insulation, trapping warm air against the body. The seawater they ingest is filtered through a special gland behind the eye, then discharged through the beak—the reason penguins sneeze so often.
Four penguin species make their home in Patagonia between September and mid-March. The macaroni—standing some 30 inches tall and weighing in around 10 pounds—earned its moniker for the stylish yellow crest on its brow. About a third larger in size, the gentoo is the fastest swimmer among all penguins, reaching speeds of more than 20 miles per hour. There are approximately 250,000 pairs of southern rockhopper penguins, which come in at just under two feet and got their name from the colorful way they hop about on the sheer, rocky cliffs.
Also medium-sized, Magellanic penguins make up Patagonia’s largest population with upwards of 2 million breeding pairs. While its closest relatives are the African, Galápagos, and Humboldt found along the coasts of Chile and Peru, Magellanics prefer to winter in Brazil, swimming nearly 2,000 miles for its warmer waters.
Patagonia penguins feed on krill, cuttlefish, shrimp, and sardines; their predators include petrels, sea lions, leopard seals, and Orcas. Yet their biggest threats by far are polluted waters and the effects of climate change.