Auk or Penguin: How to Tell the Difference | Magazine PONANT

Auks or penguins: how to tell them apart every time!

With their black backs, white bellies and awkward gaits, there is no denying that penguins and auks look alike. To add to the confusion, auks are called pingouins in French, which sometimes leads to mistranslations (especially in children’s books and on numerous websites). 

However, these seabirds belong to completely different families and live on opposite sides of the world!

Difference between auks and penguins

Here are some tips to help you tell them apart 

Penguins only live in the Southern hemisphere, while auks prefer the cliffs of the Northern hemisphere, especially those in Brittany, which could explain why they are known as pingouins in French: pen means head and gwenn means white in Breton. You will never see an auk on the sea ice. To help you remember, AUKS can be found in the ARCTIC (Northern hemisphere), and PENGUINS live in ANTARCTICA (Southern hemisphere). Unlike auks, penguins cannot fly. They mainly live on the sea ice or land, and sometimes walk a long way between their colony and their fishing grounds. However, their wings are not useless. They serve as excellent fins in the water, enabling penguins to perform underwater feats. Some of them, like the gentoo penguin, can swim up to 35 km/h (even the best Olympic swimmer can’t go faster than 9.5 km/h)! Others, such as the emperor penguin, can dive to depths of just over 450 metres and hold their breath for 32 minutes (versus a maximum of 8 minutes for a dolphin, and 11 minutes 35 for the best human freediver)! Excellent swimmers, these penguins can dive down to catch fish, and don’t just settle for the krill close to the surface.

Auks hold no records in this area, but that’s because their wings are not only for swimming: they can also fly. They generally make short flights close to the water’s surface. Lesser auks hunt their prey by diving from the surface of the water, known as pursuit diving, rather than by diving into the water from the air. They spend 75% of their time at sea, only returning to land to nest.

One auk, many penguins

Due to hunting in the 19th century, now just one species of auk remains: the lesser auk, or razorbill. On average, they are around 40 cm tall and weigh 500-750 g (a little smaller than a duck).

On the other hand, there is a wide variety of penguins! There are 18 different species, including emperor penguins (the stars of March of the Penguins), southern rockhopper penguins, king penguins, gentoo penguins and Adélie penguins. They vary in size, too: little penguins are 40 cm tall and weigh 1.3 kg, whereas emperor penguins are 130 cm tall and weigh 40 kg. 

Penguins and auks do have one sad fact in common, though: their survival is threatened by human activity. Marine pollution (oil spills and ballast water discharge) and food shortages caused by overfishing are endangering auks, while climate change is the biggest problem facing penguins. Due to the melting sea ice, the population of emperor penguins in Terre Adélie, for example, is expected to decline by over 40% in the next 30 years and by over 80% by 2100.


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