Do Penguins Have Feathers? What You Need to Know

Two penguins flaunting their feathers

The question, “Does a penguin have feathers or fur?” has long been debated. Many people believe penguins are covered in feathers, while others say these seabirds maintain fur instead.

This confusion is due to the fact that penguins resemble a mix of both birds and mammals. They are flightless and sometimes appear very fluffy, which can cause many to think they possess fur rather than feathers.

In this article, you will find out if penguins actually have feathers or fur, along with an explanation of why this is important for understanding their behavior and longevity in the wild. Let’s begin!

Do Penguins Have Feathers or Fur?

Penguins with visible feathers

All 18 different species of penguins, from the towering Emperor penguin to the small Adélie penguin, exhibit feathers, not fur. It’s just that their feathers are so short and densely packed that they are often mistaken for being furry.

As a matter of fact, a study has confirmed that penguins do have feathers, even after they die. A fossil of a giant penguin with feathers was discovered in Peru, and it dates back over a million years ago.

Note that penguin feathers are not just for show. This distinctive feather coat allows these birds to stay warm and dry in icy Antarctica. In short, their fluffs are a must-have for survival.

A penguin’s feathers are waterproof and windproof as well. They do a great job keeping water out of the plumage and preventing heat loss from the bird’s body at the same time.

Interestingly, penguins also use their feathers for communication. Whether displaying aggression, courtship, or mating behavior, they utilize this feathery covering to send messages between colony members.

About Penguin Feathers

If you’re new to the world of penguins, it’s time to get acquainted with their feathers. For a long time, their plumage has generated lots of myths and rumors — and now this section is here to set the record straight.

Dense Coverage

Penguins are equipped with an incredibly dense plumage coverage, boasting around 100 feathers per inch.

In fact, their feathers are so closely packed that they provide an effective barrier against cold, water, ice, and even wind.

Feather Layers and Structure

Since penguin feathers are so dense, it’s unsurprising that they are composed of several layers.

Here are the different layers of a penguin’s feather to help you understand how its insulation ability works:

  • Contour feathers: Contour feathers form the outer layer of penguin plumage, giving this iconic bird an overall smooth appearance.
  • Flight feathers: Penguins cannot fly, but they still have flight feathers — although smaller than those of flying birds — which help them balance and allow them to glide swiftly underwater.
  • Plumules: Plumules lie beneath the contour feathers of penguins. Generally, plumule feathers provide these birds with insulation, helping them to survive in cold regions.
  • Filoplumes: Filoplumes are tiny hair-like feathers that help penguins sense their surroundings and maintain feather positioning.
  • Hooklets: Hooklets help penguins trap body heat. They hold the feathers tightly to the body, offering better insulation when these seabirds are out on the ice.
  • Feather filaments: Feather filaments are a unique feature of the feathers of penguins. They are made up of a complex network of rigid, keratinous fibers, which are arranged into bundles that strengthen each penguin feather.

As you can see, penguin feathers, while not as fluffy as other avians’ plumage, have many layers. This makes penguins much more robust than they might appear at first glance.

Down Feathers

Penguins, like most avian species, possess downy feathers. The following are three types of down plumage these flightless marine birds can have:

  • Regular body down: Regular body down feathers are soft, fluffy feathers located beneath the contour feathers of penguins.
  • Natal down: Natal down feathers are the smooth, downy plumes a penguin is born with.
  • Powder down: Powder down is a downy feather that sheds from a penguin and then transforms into powder. Penguins use this powder to clean and waterproof their feathers.

Ultimately, these three types of down feathers of penguins have evolved to perform different functions for each species’ unique lifestyle and environment.


Penguins go through a molting process once a year, shedding old feathers to make way for new ones. This cycle ensures the effectiveness of their insulation and waterproofing capabilities.

During this crucial period, you will notice that penguins often appear woolly, looking like they have been rolled in cotton balls.

Some species of penguins molt several times a year, like the Galapagos. In this video, you can see a rookery of penguins experiencing molting:

Our penguins' annual glow-up is in progress!


For penguins, keeping their feathers in good shape is vital. To do this, they must preen. Preening helps them clean, realign, and oil their feathers, ensuring they remain waterproof, insulated, and healthy.

Why Do Penguins Have Feathers?

Penguin covered with feathers that look like fur

Penguins are one of the most adored flightless birds in the world, and they’re recognized for their unique feathers. Why, then, do penguins have feathers at all if they cannot fly?

Here are the main reasons why penguins have feathers:

  • Camouflage: The dual-coloration of penguin feathers keeps penguins safe during their time in the water. To be specific, their dark back contrasts with the deep sea, while their white belly blends with the bright surface.
  • Insulation: Penguins rely on their feather density for warmth, as they have up to 100 feathers per square inch on their bodies.
  • Waterproof barrier: Although penguins cannot fly, they can swim underwater. Before diving, they fluff up their feathers to trap air, which helps to form a waterproof barrier. Primarily, their outer feathers become tightly packed, ensuring they stay dry and warm during aquatic trips.
  • Courtship: Penguins actually use their feathers for courtship displays, too. For example, specific species exhibit unique feather patterns and colors, which they proudly display to attract potential mates.
  • Streamlining: The feathers covering a penguin’s body are designed for efficiency. Specifically, these stiff feathers streamline their form, helping penguins propel themselves through the water at high speeds.
  • Protection from UV rays: In the harsh sunlight of their icy homes, the penguin’s feathers also offer protection against harmful UV rays. Just as humans wear sunscreen, penguins may depend on their feathers to shield their skin, ensuring they can spend extended periods under the sun without harm.
  • Buoyancy: Penguins have feathers that trap air, adding buoyancy when they swim. This feature allows these seabirds to float effortlessly on the ocean’s surface, conserving energy during their long hunting sessions.
  • Communication: Penguins use feathers for communication as well. A ruffled feather or a particular stance conveys messages to their peers, from warnings of nearby predators to signaling comfort or distress.

In conclusion, feathers are multifunctional features of penguins uniquely tailored to their icy environment and lifestyle. From thermoregulation to protection, their plumage is indistinguishably tied to their survival.

What Are Penguin Feathers Called?

As with other birds’ plumage, penguins’ feathers are simply known as “feathers.” Bear in mind that every penguin species has a unique set of feathers with multiple layers, which might lead to some confusion.

These layers include contour feathers, flight feathers, plumules, filoplumes, hooklets, and feather filaments — all of which have different functions and purposes in the penguin body.

Do Baby Penguins Have Fur or Feathers?

Mother and baby penguin with feathers

Like their grown-up counterparts, baby penguins do have feathers. As a matter of fact, these chicks are considered semi-altricial birds. Note that baby penguin feathers aren’t your typical penguin feathers.

In penguin chicks, you will notice that their overall plumage is incredibly fluffy and soft to the touch. This might lead some to think they have fur, especially when observing their often gray, brown, or white coloration.

However, bear in mind that these adorable downy feathers have a catch. Unlike the well-insulated and water-resistant feathers of adult penguins, the feathers of penguin chicks don’t provide the same protection.

Hence, these young ones heavily rely on their parents to keep them warm and safe, particularly during their first 6 to 10 weeks of life — before their first molting cycle kicks in.

Do Penguins Have Fur on Their Heads?

No, penguins don’t have fur anywhere on their bodies, including their heads. Instead, they are covered in feathers.

In fact, here is a photo of a penguin undergoing shedding, with its body and head both covered in molted feathers:

Penguins during molting

What’s intriguing is the variety of feather styles different penguin species maintain on their heads. To put it simply, not all penguins possess the same type of crest.

For instance, Rockhopper penguins are known for their distinctive spiky crests, while Royal penguins sport long, straight ones.

Even more interesting is the Macaroni penguin, which boasts vibrant orange feather highlights on its head.

Why Do Penguins Have Oily Feathers?

Interestingly, penguins have a unique adaptation feature that allows them to thrive in wet and cold environments: the oily coating on their feathers.

This essential oil, commonly referred to as “preen oil,” is produced from the uropygial gland, which is located at the back of these flightless birds’ tails.

To be specific, when penguins groom or preen themselves, they use their beaks to spread this oil over their dense plumage. However, there is a good reason for this: it’s what gives penguin feathers remarkable qualities.

For one thing, penguins have waterproof feathers because of preen oil, ensuring they remain dry while swimming in the water. It also makes the feathers of penguins wind and ice-resistant.

Frequently Asked Questions

Penguin with feathers on its head

Are Penguins Born Without Feathers?

No, penguins are not born without feathers. Even as hatchlings, they possess a downy layer of feathers. This initial plumage provides basic insulation, which is critical for penguin chicks during their first few weeks of life.

During my time studying penguin chick behavior, I noticed how their natal down feathers help regulate their body temperature. Still, their fluffs aren’t waterproof yet, unlike the feathers of a penguin that is fully mature.

What Is Baby Penguin Fur Called?

Baby penguins don’t have fur; they have bird feathers. Specifically, these are often called “natal down feathers,” which they shed around their sixth week.

Do Penguins Shed Their Feathers?

Yes, penguins do shed their feathers. Remember that penguins are birds and are bound to molt. Also, after sprouting their first true plumage, they undergo this molting process once a year.

This ensures they maintain the integrity of their feather coat, which is vital for insulation and protection in their chilly environments.

Do Penguin Feathers Grow Back?

Yes, penguin feathers do grow back. After the molting process, where they lose all their old feathers, the new ones sprout to replace their fluff. This cycle allows penguins to maintain a thick, reliable coat of feathers.

Basically, old feathers shed in large patches, leaving behind only the fresh, new feathers to insulate and keep penguins warm.

Hopefully, you enjoyed this article on penguins and their plumage. If you have further questions about penguin feathers, please feel free to leave a comment!

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