The Reasons Penguins Can't Fly

Discover the mystery behind why penguins can't fly. Scientific studies have uncovered it.
The Reasons Penguins Can't Fly
Cesar Paul Gonzalez Gonzalez

Reviewed and approved by the biologist Cesar Paul Gonzalez Gonzalez.

Last update: 04 May, 2023

They’re birds, they have wings, but penguins can’t fly! This has created a lot of intrigue and curiosity, particularly because these animals have all the characteristics of any animal that can fly. Find out more here.

Precisely because of this, throughout history there has been much speculation about why these birds can’t fly. Different theories and research has given us some answers. We’re going to analyze some hypotheses with their respective studies, so read on!

Penguins can’t fly because of the characteristics of their wings

Physically, the shape of a penguin’s wings isn’t suitable for flying. Biomechanically, the physical characteristics must be different in order to perform activities such as flying and diving. In the scientific paper co-authored by Professor John Speakman of the University of Aberdeen and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, he says that it isn’t possible to have wings that are good for both.

The energy consumption in both activities is different. In comparison, we have the guillemot, a bird that’s very close to the penguin and physically looks rather like one, and it can actually fly. Researchers found that the guillemot consumes too much energy flying due to the movement of its small wings.

“These birds have very short wings and have to flap them at incredible speed to stay in the air. It’s exhausting for them“, Speakman said.

Penguins can't fly but they can dive.
Penguins can’t fly for different reasons, one of them being that anatomy prevents it.

Another theory

Another scientific theory says that flying requires so much energy that penguins started to reject the most complicated activity (flying) and specialized in the most practical one (diving), and perfected it.

“Basically, the hypothesis is that, as their wings became more and more efficient for diving, their ability to fly decreased proportionally,” explained Professor Speakman.

It’s assumed that it was so physically demanding for penguins to fly that they preferred to give up that ability. In this way, their wings became perfect flippers for swimming. Their wings are short and flat, and their shoulders have no joints, which prevents them from flying.

Professor Speakman stated that: “to be part of the group of people that has solved this mystery is a source of pride”.

Many people still don’t know the answer to this question of why penguins can’t fly if have wings. You can’t show off your knowledge to them as one more of nature’s mysteries has now been resolved.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Baker, A. J., Pereira, S. L., Haddrath, O. P., & Edge, K. A. (2006). Multiple gene evidence for expansion of extant penguins out of Antarctica due to global cooling. Proceedings. Biological sciences273(1582), 11–17.
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (2023).  Can penguins fly?
  • Cole, T. L., Zhou, C., Fang, M., Pan, H., Ksepka, D. T., Fiddaman, S. R., Emerling, C. A., Thomas, D. B., Bi, X., Fang, Q., Ellegaard, M. R., Feng, S., Smith, A. L., Heath, T. A., Tennyson, A. J. D., Borboroglu, P. G., Wood, J. R., Hadden, P. W., Grosser, S., Bost, C. A., … Zhang, G. (2022). Genomic insights into the secondary aquatic transition of penguins. Nature communications13(1), 3912.
  • Elliott, K. H., Ricklefs, R. E., Gaston, A. J., Hatch, S. A., Speakman, J. R., & Davoren, G. K. (2013). High flight costs, but low dive costs, in auks support the biomechanical hypothesis for flightlessness in penguins. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences110(23), 9380-9384.
  • Williams, C. L., Hagelin, J. C., & Kooyman, G. L. (2015). Hidden keys to survival: the type, density, pattern and functional role of emperor penguin body feathers. Proceedings. Biological sciences282(1817), 20152033.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.