How many bones do penguins have? – Sawyer, 7, Media, Pennsylvania
Like a zoo and wildlife veterinarian, I sometimes take care of penguins – both in the wild and in aquariums and zoos.
I’m always fascinated when I have to take x-rays of an injured bird that might have a broken bone, is sick or has difficulty moving. While penguins may look like simple torpedo-shaped ice waddles, their bodies are actually quite complex.
Even though they look nothing like the people or animals you might encounter every day – like dogs and cats – they have similar skeletons and joints. They even have knees and elbows, but have about half as many bones. A human skeleton is made up of 206 bones. A penguin has only 112 in its entire body.
All birds have evolved for flight, with feathers, wings and bodies that allow them to soar high in the sky. To achieve liftoff, over time penguins have evolved to have fewer bones in their skeleton.
Birds also have fewer bones in their spines than many animals. Their lower back bones came together into a single bone, called the synacrum. The only other animals to have this type of spine were the dinosaurs. For birds, it helps them keep their bodies in a horizontal position without straining their back muscles when flying or swimming.
Bird bones in general are unique. They are light and hollow, which allows the animal to take flight. Because birds need a lot of oxygen for strenuous activity like flying, their bones are filled with spaces for air, and they also have nine air sacs that surround their lungs.
But wait, you might be thinking, “Penguins don’t fly at all. It’s true, they evolved for life on land and in water, and they have a unique skeleton compared to many other birds.
The first penguins, which appeared shortly after the extinction of the dinosaurs, 66 million years ago, were unable to fly. Ten million years later, they had become great swimmers. Current species spend up to 75% of their time in the ocean. This meant they had to get heavier so they could dive underwater to hunt for food.
Penguins have grown dense and heavy bones that don’t have the air pockets that flying birds have. This helped offset the air sacs around their lungs. Their bulky bones prevent them from floating to the surface of the water, like a diver who attaches himself to a weight belt to submerge himself.
The wings of penguins are also different because these birds need to swim, not soar through the sky. The penguins’ wings have morphed into what looks like short, flat, rigid fins that don’t bend like flying birds do. They also have fewer bones than other birds.
Their wings act like paddles, helping them run through water at high speed. Gentoo penguins can swim up to 22 mph. That’s a lot faster than Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps, who broke a world record for humans at 5.5 mph.
The combination of heavy bones and powerful fin-like wings allow penguins to descend quickly and dive incredibly deep to hunt fish, krill and other food. An emperor penguin can descend to at least 1,500 feet, approximately the length of five football fields.
Thanks to their reduced number of dense bones and other cool adaptations, penguins are the champions of open water.
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