Bite-sized fun facts about penguins’ mouths

22nd April 2024 | Posted by: Vanessa Giraud

April 25th is World Penguin Day! A day to think about those natives of the southern hemisphere – penguins. And what penguin mouths are like! Although not all penguins live in the Antarctic, and some live in much warmer waters, some species are endangered.

The focus of the awareness day is on protecting their food sources and habitats from the effects of human population growth and global heating.

Five penguins on ice. Two penguins mouths open as they catch snow.

Surprising penguins

We’re definitely attracted to penguins. They’re in films and cartoons, they’re soft toys and pictures in our homes. They’re so unexpected, somehow.

When we think of penguins as flightless birds, they begin to make a bit more sense. After all, they do have feathers. Another thing they have in common with birds is that they don’t have teeth.

Can you name two other flightless birds?* 

So what’s in a penguin’s mouth?

They have a bill and a tongue, but no teeth! Imagine that!

To help them manage their slippery food, penguins need some help. That’s why they have a beak, with a pointy end. It helps them to grab their food, typically fish.

The other outstanding feature of their mouth is the spikes on their tongues and the rooves of their mouths. In fact their mouths look like a cave full of stalagmites and stalactites. The spikes help prevent the fish from slipping back out of their mouth. They are actually similar to the papillae we have on our own tongues, though, thankfully, ours are a lot shorter! Because the penguins’ papillae all point backwards into their throat, the fish can only move in one direction – into the penguins’ digestive tract.

A penguins’ mouth, therefore, is well designed for eating fish!

No teeth at all then?

Before they hatch, penguins do have something called an egg-tooth. This is a handy addition to their beak that helps them break out through the shell of their egg. Birds have this, so do turtles, crocodiles and even spiders!

Why don’t penguin have teeth?

Given that birds are descended from dinosaurs and dinosaurs had teeth, shouldn’t birds have teeth?

The school of thought is that teeth are too heavy. Bird evolution is all about adaptation to flight, and teeth could interfere with aerodynamic weight distribution.

So where does that leave the penguin who’ll never make it into the sky?

Gracefully swimming through the oceans with hydrodynamic ease.

*Other flightless birds include: kiwi, cassowary, ostrich, emu, rhea and more.

POSTED IN: Children


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