Penguins diving into water

Scientific Classification

Class - Aves

This class includes all birds. Birds have an outer covering of feathers, are endothermic (warm-blooded), have front limbs modified into wings, and lay eggs.

Order - Sphenisciformes

This order includes all living and extinct penguins.

Family - Spheniscidae

Spheniscidae includes all penguins, living and extinct, and is the only family classification in the order Sphenisciformes.


Penguin Order Sphenisciformes


Genus, Species

Most scientists recognize 18 species of penguins

emperor, Aptenodytes forsteri

king, Aptenodytes patagonicus

Adélie, Pygoscelis adeliae

gentoo, Pygoscelis papua

chinstrap, Pygoscelis antarcticus

northern rockhopper, Eudyptes moseleyi

southern rockhopper, Eudyptes chrysocome

macaroni, Eudyptes chyrsolophus

royal, Eudyptes schlegeli

Fiordland crested, Eudyptes pachyrhynchus

erect-crested, Eudyptes sclateri

Snares Island, Eudyptes robustus

yellow-eyed, Megadyptes antipodes

little (also known as fairy or little blue), Eudyptula minor

Magellanic, Spheniscus magellanicus

Humboldt, Spheniscus humboldti

African (formerly known as black-footed), Spheniscus demersus

Galápagos, Spheniscus mendiculus

Some scientists recognize a 19th species: the white-flippered form of fairy penguin, Eudyptula albosignata.

Fossil Record

Scientists recognize 40 or more species of extinct penguins.

Scientists believe that penguins diverged from flying birds at least 60 to 65 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period. As the ancestors of penguins became adapted to an oceanic environment, structural changes for diving and swimming led to the loss of flying adaptations.

To date, the discovery of all penguin fossil fragments has been limited to the Southern Hemisphere. Records show that prehistoric penguins were found within the range of present-day penguins.

  • The earliest penguin fossil fragments were found in New Zealand in the mid-1800s. The oldest penguin fossils date from 61 to 62 million years ago.
  • Fossil records show that the largest extinct species lived in the Miocene Period (11 to 25 million years ago). Pachydyptes ponderosus probably stood 1.4 to 1.5 m (4.5 to 5 ft.) and may have weighed 90 to 135 kg (198 to 298 lbs.) Anthropornis nordenskjoldi probably stood 1.5 to 1.8 m (5 to 5.9 ft.) and weighed 90 to 135 kg (198 to 298 lbs.) Measurements are estimates, since only a few bone fragments have been found.

The extinct species of penguins began disappearing during the Miocene, about the same time that the number of prehistoric seals and small whales started increasing in the oceans. One hypothesis is that seals, whales, and penguins may have competed for the same food source. Another hypothesis is that penguins could have become prey for some of these other predators. Both factors may have contributed to their extinction.

Penguins share molecular and morphological characteristics with birds in the Order Procellariiformes (the albatrosses, shearwaters, and petrels), the Order Gaviiformes (loons and grebes), and frigatebirds (order Pelecaniformes).


penguin penguin face close up


Discovery of Modern Penguins

The first European explorers to see penguins probably were part of the Portuguese expedition of Bartholomeu Dias de Novaes in 1487-1488. They were the first to travel around what is now known as the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa.

The first documentation of penguin sightings is credited to members of the Portuguese voyage of Vasco de Gama to India in 1497. They described penguins (African) they saw along the southern coasts of Africa.

The discovery of South America's Magellanic penguin was chronicled during the journey of Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1520.

The origin of the word "penguin" has been a subject of debate. The theories of researchers and historians range from references to the amount of fat ("penguigo" in Spanish and "pinguis" in Latin) penguins possess to the claim that the word was derived from two Welsh words meaning "white head". The most agreed-upon explanation is that "penguin" was used as a name for the now-extinct great auk, which the modern-day penguin resembles and for which it was mistaken.