The Need to Dive, the Need to Breathe
Penguins need to dive under water in order catch their food in the ocean. However, penguins need oxygen to breathe under water. For most species of penguins, the average underwater dive lasts 6 minutes, since most of their prey resides in the upper water levels. However, the Emperor Penguin feeds on squid, fish or krill that reside deep under water, so this species of penguin can hold its breath for up to 20 minutes. Emperor penguins are also known to dive up to 1,800 feet to find their prey. Another species, the Gentoo, is known to dive up to 500 feet. Unlike seals, penguins are relatively small, so their lungs can hold only so much oxygen. Also, underwater compression affects the penguins' lungs and air sacs. These crucial airways can only provide 1/3 of the necessary oxygen needed for each dive.
Adaptions to Effectively Use Oxygen
Research conducted on wild penguins in Antarctica shows some surprising adaptions in the penguin's blood and muscle tissues for increasing oxygen during an underwater dive. These penguins were fitted with special sensors to monitor their air level. Unlike humans, the ultra-sensitive hemoglobin present in the penguins' red blood cells allows the penguins to effectively utilize every last molecule of oxygen in their system for diving. The blood is sent mainly to the heart, brain and other major organs. Penguin hemoglobin is so effective that penguins can continue diving when other animals would suffer from severe tissue damage. In addition, the penguin's muscle tissues also helps it breathe efficiently under water.
A penguin's muscle tissues can also store additional oxygen by using large amounts of the blood protein myoglobin. Also, a special enzyme allows the penguin's muscles to work without the presence of oxygen while neutralizing lactic acid buildup. When the penguins reach the surface and return to normal breathing, they can then expel this buildup of lactic acid. To further save on oxygen consumption, penguins can lower their heart rate to five beats per a minute. By using less energy, these birds are able to prolong their time diving under water.
Swimming and Breathing Near the Water's Surface
Penguins swim most efficiently in deeper water levels, but sometimes it may be necessary to swim at the water's surface. Some species of penguins use a breathing and swimming technique called porpoising, named after porpoises and dolphins. The birds come up for air, then inhale and exhale rapidly. They then start breathing without interrupting their movement forward. They leap in and out of the water. The penguins can maintain a speed of up to 6 mph while porpoising. However, this porpoising technique is not usually seen in King or Emperor penguins.
How Long Can a Dolphin Hold its Breath?
Dolphins are aquatic mammals that are members of the whale family, with many different species living in the world's oceans and seas....
How Do Birds Breathe?
Breathing is essential for life, and utilizing efficient ways of breathing is especially important for birds. While the process of inhaling and...
How Do Seahorses Breathe?
Although seahorses may look very different from other types of fish, they are simply a genus of bony fishes with an upright...
Do Penguins Live at the North Pole?
Penguins do not live at the north pole. Most live in the southern hemisphere, so they never get to meet polar bears,...
How to Hold Breath Longer
Learning to hold your breath for longer periods of time can be useful for swimmers and divers. Keep in mind it is...
How Do Emperor Penguins Defend Themselves?
Emperor penguins can be found living in their natural habitat in Antarctica. In winter, temperatures can plummet to minus 76 degrees Fahrenheit...
How Do Penguins Survive in Their Habitats?
There are many locations in the world where penguins can be found. They commonly inhabit countries such as South America, Africa, Australia...