Why Are Penguins Black and White?

A group of penguins gather on a bright white iceberg above blue water

Countless animals have evolved to camouflage, including penguins. For predators, blending in with their surroundings makes it easier for them to sneak up on prey. And for prey animals, camouflage helps them hide from predators.

In many areas of the world, animal camouflage involves various shades of brown and gray. In Arctic and Antarctic regions, though, white is the color to be if you want to blend in!

Polar bears, snowshoe hares, and Arctic foxes all have white coats to help them blend in with the snow. But penguins — some of the most iconic creatures of the Antarctic — are a different story. To us, their vivid black-and-white coloring might seem strange. After all, doesn’t it just make them stand out against their snowy surroundings?

As we’ll see in a moment, penguins’ distinctive coloring is no accident. They have very good reasons for being black and white.

Countershading: A Different Kind of Camouflage

A Humboldt penguin right after diving into blue water

Even if you haven’t heard of countershading, you’ve certainly seen it in action. “Countershading” just means that the upper side of an animal’s body is darker, with the underside being lighter. It was first described in 1909 by Abbott Thayer, an American artist and naturalist.

It might not sound like it, but countershading actually helps animals camouflage. Wildlife experts believe that penguins’ two-tone shading can help them hide from predators. When viewed from above, the ocean looks deep and dark, so penguins’ dark backs blend in.

However, when you’re underwater and look up to the surface, you mostly see light. When an underwater predator looks up at a swimming penguin, the penguin’s light belly will be harder to spot.

Countershading is prevalent in land animals and sea-dwellers alike. Deer, many types of snakes and lizards, and many bird species exhibit countershading. In most sea creatures, this coloring works like it does in penguins. In land animals, it often breaks up the outline of an animal, making it harder for would-be predators to spot.

Gentoo penguins swimming in the Antarctica water close to the surface

However, it might seem as though penguins’ countershading presents them with a serious problem. It helps them camouflage in the water, but it makes them more visible on land.

Evolutionarily speaking, this is a worthy tradeoff for penguins. Their main predators are orcas, leopard seals, and sharks, all of which hunt in the water. Penguins also only hunt in the water, so they have no need to sneak up on prey on land. In most cases, dry land is a safe space for penguins.

You might wonder about polar bears — after all, they’re massive land predators! But while you often see polar bears and penguins shown together in cartoons, they actually live nowhere near one another. Polar bears live in the Arctic region, located in the Northern Hemisphere.

Most penguins live in and around the Antarctic region in the Southern Hemisphere. The farthest north you can find them is in the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, and that’s only because the frigid Antarctic Humboldt Current reaches these islands. In most cases, penguins and polar bears are on opposite sides of the world.

As you can see, penguins’ distinctive coloring helps them blend in where they need to most. Depending on who you ask, though, countershading might not be the only reason penguins have their distinctive coloring. There are other possible explanations, as you’ll discover below.

Color Helps Regulate Temperature

A king penguin floats in crystal blue water

You likely already know that black absorbs heat more readily than white. And if you watch penguins afloat in the water, you’ll see that their dark-colored backs face up toward the sky, often staying dry.

With many species being Antarctic animals, penguins are pretty well equipped to handle swimming in icy cold waters. But when they absorb the sun’s heat, it may help offset the frigid temperature of the water. As a result, they don’t need to expend as much energy to keep themselves warm.

You might not imagine a penguin becoming overheated. But according to some researchers, these birds will even turn their white bellies toward the sun to reflect the heat when they get too hot!

Black and White Coloration Might Be Important for Social Signaling

A group of chinstrap penguins porpoising across dark water

Some research has hypothesized that penguins’ black and white colors help them recognize one another in important situations.

For example, if a penguin is swimming along and suddenly sees a flurry of black and white, it might mean that other penguins have gathered around a school of fish or something similarly tasty.

Darker Feathers Resist Abrasions

A closeup portrait of a penguin's face

Color isn’t the only thing setting black feathers and white feathers apart. Black feathers have been shown to be stronger than white ones. Their melanin content means that they resist sun damage and degradation. That’s why so many species of white birds have black wingtips.

Having strong feathers is important in the harsh Antarctic region, where penguins are exposed to frigid temperatures, strong winds, and icy weather. These hardy birds spend more time on land than most people think.

Black feathers also resist degradation by bacteria. Some types of bacteria secrete a substance that breaks down keratin, the main protein found in feathers. Research has indicated that thanks to their hardness and relative strength, black feathers are better at resisting the action of this substance than white feathers.

Dark Feathers Take More Energy to Produce

A happy penguin swims underwater

As you can see, penguins’ black feathers offer them plenty of advantages. So why aren’t these birds mostly black (or even all black)?

It takes more energy for the penguin’s body to produce dark feathers than it does to produce white feathers. In the wild, energy efficiency is critically important. Having black belly feathers wouldn’t be much of an advantage — when they’re on land, penguins often rest on their bellies, so they don’t need the feathers on the front of their bodies to be abrasion-resistant.

When they’re floating on the surface of the water and absorbing the sun’s energy, their bellies are submerged. So when it comes to thermoregulation, penguins wouldn’t benefit much from having dark bellies, either.

In short, it’s possible that having entirely black feathers would give penguins some advantages. But given the metabolic energy it would take to produce all black feathers, the tradeoff simply wouldn’t be worth it.

What About Other Colors on Penguins?

Two bright king penguins stand in the grass in the Falkland Islands

Penguins are distinguished by their black-and-white coloration. But if you have some familiarity with the penguin world, you may already know that some species have bursts of bright colors.

King penguins (pictured above) have brilliant patches of orange on their heads, beaks, and throats. They also have ultraviolet markings on their beaks. Humans can’t see these markings, but they make king penguins even more colorful to potential mates!

Yellow-eyed penguins have a band of yellow that extends across their yellow eyes, and macaroni penguins have bright yellow crests. (Their name is an interesting historical reference — the crest resembles the ornate feathered hats worn by “macaronis,” or flamboyant men in 18th-century England.)

These bright colors make penguins beautiful to look at, but they certainly don’t help them camouflage. The reason behind these colorful touches is simple: sexual signaling. To increase its chances of finding a mate, a penguin needs to demonstrate that it is somehow more fit than other members of its species. Bright colors show potential mates that a particular penguin is in excellent condition.

Why? These striking colors put penguins at risk in a couple of ways. For one, color makes a penguin more visible to predators. It also takes more metabolic energy to produce brightly colored feathers than it does to make white feathers. If a given penguin is healthy enough to physically produce bright feathers and successfully evade predators, it’s a good sign to potential mates.

Dive Into the Surprisingly Colorful World of Penguins!

Adelie penguins playing on an iceberg

As you can see, there’s no simple, singular reason why penguins are black and white. Researchers differ in their opinions — some think the coloration is explained by just one of the possible reasons above. Others think it’s a combination.

New research may bring us closer to understanding the true reason behind these birds’ iconic coloration. After all, scientists didn’t discover that some penguin species had ultraviolet markings until 2010.

As we learn more about these adorable creatures and how they work, we may get a little more clarity. Until then, enjoy their magnificent colors!