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Are There Penguins in the Arctic?


There are seals and whales in both the Arctic and Antarctica. But why do penguins only live in the Southern Hemisphere? With so many Arctic birds such as Arctic terns, puffins and fulmars, one would think that penguins would be a welcome addition to the biodiversity of the north. Read on to find out why penguins evolutionarily preferred living down south and learn if a penguin has ever made it to the Arctic.

A Question Of Evolution

We’ve travelled the Arctic and Antarctic expensively and can vouch for it: there are no penguins in the Arctic. But why aren’t there any? There’s sea ice, it’s cold and there’s an abundance of fish around both polar regions. Research offers a few pointers on penguin evolution explaining why these birds never left the south.

1. Penguins’ Breeding and Nesting Habits don’t Fit the Arctic

Penguins breed, nest and raise their chicks in rock or earth burrows on the shores at ground level. While in Antarctica threats come from above in the form of giant petrels and skuas, the Arctic regions have various land predators such as foxes and polar bears that would love to get their paws on some lovely penguins.

2. Penguins Can’t Fly

With land predators dominating the Arctic, the ability to fly is a crucial skill for birds. Nowadays you won’t find any flightless birds inhabiting these regions. Arctic birds nest on high cliffs to keep their offspring safe.

Penguins Can’t Fly

3. But They are Great Swimmers

Sometimes you gotta make a choice: be a master of flight or a world-class swimmer. With no major land predators, penguin evolution skipped the ability to fly to focus on the perfect body for diving and swimming instead. Feeding underwater, penguins are able to dive to great depths to catch fish. Emperor penguins can stay underwater for almost 30 minutes at a time! Penguins share these amazing diving skills with many other marine species in Antarctica like whales and seals.

Were There Ever Penguins in The Arctic?

While the Arctic isn’t (and never was) a natural habitat for penguins, Lars Christensen (a Norwegian polar explorer) relocated nine king penguins to northern Norway in 1936. Christensen chose the Lofoten Islands, as the penguins would have direct ocean access and be relatively safe from foxes and other land predators. More penguin relocations followed, with macaroni and African penguins brought and released to islands in northern Norway.

It’s not clear what happened afterwards, but the last sighting of a penguin was in 1949. This experiment is as of today the only time people tried to settle penguins in the Arctic. If you want to see these cute fellows up close, they’ll be waiting for you in Antarctica. Board any of our Antarctica cruises and visit them in their natural habitat.

Were There Ever Penguins in The Arctic?

The Penguin of The North

One bird of the north that went extinct in 1844 had a strikingly similar appearance to penguins: the great auk (Penguinus impennis). They may look like penguins, but are a different species, related to puffins and guillemots. Great auks reached a height of 85cm (2.7 feet) and, just like penguins, did not possess the ability to fly. While they weren’t related to the cute penguins that we love so dearly, they developed very similar traits. Just like penguins, they were rather clumsy on land but incredibly skilled, fast and graceful in water. They could dive to depths of up to 1km (0.6 miles). Great auks had to look out for Arctic terrestrial predators such as polar bears and killer whales.

How did great auks go extinct? It’s a popular belief that humans are to blame, hunting them for their meat, eggs and even their down feathers. Prior to its extinction, you could find large colonies on the North Atlantic shores, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands.

Did you know that because penguins looked so similar to great auks, they were named after them? Sailors who were familiar with great auks in the Northern Hemisphere saw the black and white penguins in Antarctica and remembered the great auk species. Hence, they named penguins after the great auk’s Latin name.

Will I Ever See Polar Bears and Penguins Together?

It may sound like a dream to see polar bears and penguins in one place. Imagine boarding a cruise to either the Arctic or Antarctic and seeing them frolicking side by side on the ice! While it would make for amazing pictures, it wouldn’t be good for the animals, or the environment. Polar bears are fierce predators and the flightless penguins would be an easy meal.

Did you know that some scientists have suggested settling polar bears on the Antarctic continent to save them from extinction? Receding sea ice in the Arctic means a reduction of their hunting grounds. In theory, a move down south could save bear populations. But the risks outweigh the benefits, as it would disrupt the natural biodiversity of Antarctica. And it’s not only the penguins who would be in danger. Other species like Antarctic seals and seabirds are vulnerable to land predators and could potentially face extinction.

Will I Ever See Polar Bears and Penguins Together?


Do penguins live in the Arctic?

Penguins live in the Southern Hemisphere. While in 1936 a Norwegian polar explorer briefly introduced a small population of king penguins to the Lofoten Islands (Norway), they weren’t able to settle in long-term. Nowadays there are no penguins in the Arctic. Penguins’ chances of survival in the Arctic would be slim. With polar bears and other land predators around, they would be low in the food chain.

Can penguins survive at the North Pole?

No, penguins are ground-nesting animals and unable to fly, which would make them prey to Arctic predators such as polar bears, wolves and foxes. Penguins would not be able to feed on fish directly at the North Pole due to the incredibly thick sea ice and would starve to death.

Would penguins get cold in the Arctic?

The average winter temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula (penguins actually do not live close to the South Pole), are around -34C (-30F). Many places in the Arctic do not get much colder than that. Temperatures in Svalbard get down to -20C (-4F), and even at the North Pole the average winter temperatures range around -40C (-40F).

Are there penguins in Canada?

There are no wild penguins in Canada. You can see them though in zoos and wildlife parks.

Which country has penguins?

Penguins inhabit the southern parts of the Earth. You can find them in Antarctica and the subantarctic islands, South Africa, South America, Australia and New Zealand. Not all penguins prefer snow and ice. An exceptional case is the Galapagos penguin, which lives close to the equator on the Galapagos Islands.

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