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Do Penguins Have Fins or Wings?

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Penguins are found in the oceans of all the continents which lie in the Southern Hemisphere, with Galapagos Island being the only island in the Northern Hemisphere where they are found. They look really cute with their tuxedo-like suits as they waddle in groups on the ice sheets.  They swim so well and can’t fly so, are their arms fins or wings? Let’s explore that question!

Do Penguins have Fins or Wings? Penguins do have wings but they cannot fly. Their wings act like fins to help them navigate water but, they are still wings.

Penguin walking on the Beach

History of Penguin Wings

It is said that the Penguins initially were like regular flight birds, and used their feathered wings for aerial flights too. Researchers believe that Penguins were not always such efficient swimmers.

They used to hunt like any other aquatic birds that swam and hunted on the surface of the water. It is believed that over decades of using their wings, penguins have evolved from using their wings from flying to swimming.

Wings Used for Swimming

Penguins are classified as birds and like other birds have wings too, but these wings are not used for flying. Penguins are carnivorous sea birds and spend a lot of their time hunting for smaller fish under the ice sheets of the Southern Hemisphere.

The wings of a penguin are called “Flippers” because of the way the Penguins use them. Their wings are advanced flippers, which they can only use for swimming underwater, and not for aerial flights.

These flippers are flat and tapering and attached to the shoulders in such a way that makes them perfect for swimming.

Penguins are known to be very powerful and fast swimmers and they use their flippers to thrust forward under the water with all their might. This makes them agile underwater hunters, the reason why these cute looking birds are strictly carnivorous.

penguins swimming under water

True Flipper Birds

The Flippers of a penguin have restricted movement; they cannot be moved upwards or backward. Usually, birds that can move their wings freely are flight birds.

A penguin’s wing movement is naturally restricted, making it easier for the Penguin to counter high-pressure water currents while swimming underwater. Penguins are called the true “Flipper Birds”, as they are the only bird species who have perfectly shaped flippers.

Feathers of Flippers

The wings of a penguin have feathers on them, which are also special and help them in swimming underwater. These feathers are tapering and stuck to the wings.

The unique quality about them is that they are waterproofed. It is said that these birds have an oil gland called the “preen gland” which naturally secretes a waterproofing oil.

The penguin uses its beak to spread this oil over its feathers to ensure they are waterproof. This oil helps to keep the Penguin’s body warm and insulated in the icy cold waters, and also helps in reducing the drag while swimming. Because of their unique small and tapered feathers, these birds are strong swimmers and agile hunters.

Wings or Fins

Let’s first understand what is a Fin. Fins are defined as a thin appendage that is attached to a larger body structure.

Fins function as paddles which help in providing the ability to steer ahead with a thrust, helping in stabilizing the body when in motion on land, water, and air.

So whether its an airplane, bird or fish; all of them have fins that help them stabilize their body while in motion. Now the penguin has wings that function the same way a fin functions for fish.

Help in Hunting

Penguins are primarily carnivorous sea-birds. Did you know the Emperor Penguin which is the largest penguin can swim up to 1500 feet and is capable of holding its breath for a good 20 minutes underwater? This is the primary reason why they can forage for food under-water.

Penguins are said to spend more than 3/4th of their lives underwater, and there are different techniques that are used by different penguins for swimming.

All these swimming techniques also depend on the shape and size of the flipper wings. They usually tighten their small feathers of the wings, giving them a waterproofing effect, a reason why the penguin is an excellent diver.

The main diet of a penguin is fish, squids and shrimp-like animals called “krill”. They stay under the surface of the icy waters, catching fish and they eat the whole fish at one go.


The penguins use their wings for communicating with each other too. They are seen touching another penguin’s flippers displaying courtship behavior.

Birds have various ways in which they communicate when they want to attract a receptive mate. Penguins keep an eye out for a suitable mate and slightly tap flippers to communicate interest in mating.

Penguins are also seen slapping their flippers against other penguin’s flippers displaying aggression, to mark territorial boundaries. This gesture also displays the dominance of a male penguin in a group of penguins. Penguins like any other animal display various emotions of aggression, excitement, etc.

Land Movement

Penguin tobogganing on the sea ice

We have established that penguins use their wings (flippers) for swimming underwater. But surprisingly these flippers also help the Penguins in “Tobogganing”.  

Tobogganing is the act of a penguin lying on its stomach, and sliding ahead using its flippers to thrust forward and its feet as propellers to control its sliding movement on ice.

It is said that penguins have amazing control when sliding on ice; they move fast and can steer on the ice sheets in big groups. They use their short feet and flippers for steering, braking, and speed control while tobogganing. They use this technique instead of walking when they require crossing long distances on ice.

Final Thoughts

Penguins have wings; their flippers are an exceptionally evolved body part that helps them with a variety of natural functions. The flippers help them in being agile and fast swimmers. The feathers of the flippers help them in gaining speed when trying to swim underwater.

Penguins use their flippers to display affection, aggression, and dominance in a group. The flippers also help them in Tobogganing- this unique sliding movement which only a penguin can do helps them cover long distances on ice.

It can be said that the penguins have wings- but these modified flippers help a penguin function in its day to day life. This makes the penguin, the only bird which has wings but these wings function as fins and help them swim in icy water!

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