Unless you live under a rock (in the proverbial sense) you probably know that penguins and polar bears endure some of the most intense weather conditions of any creatures on earth.
But did you know that despite common misconceptions, polar bears and penguins never cross each other’s path? This is incredibly lucky for the penguin! In fact, their living circumstances are quite literally polar opposites- most breeds of penguin inhabit Antarctica, with a few more fortunate breeds making their homes in New Zealand and Australia. The polar bear on the other hand lives on the other side of the earth in the Arctic Circle, with some settling in Canada, Russia and some northern islands owned by Norway.
It goes without saying that it’s not just their homes that vastly differ between these incredible species. Both have evolved over time in completely different ways to cope with living in the coldest places on earth, but do they feel the cold? Read this in your best David Attenborough voice for added effect.
The most obvious thing to discuss in terms of keeping warm is fur or feathers. Penguins all have tightly-packed, overlapping feathers that help insulate them during bitter evenings. During the day, the density of their feathers and their dark black colour absorb the minimal heat that becomes available to them, and store it for the cold evenings.
Polar bears have beautiful, thick white fur that not only aids them in camouflaging them in the snow; it goes without saying that their fur is the key to warmth. They have two layers of fur, so they are able to trap any warm air that they are fortunate enough to encounter. Both penguins and polar bears have incredibly thick skin to further protect them, and lots of blubber!
Penguins famously huddle together, in an incredibly cute evolutionary display. Whilst we’re sure that they’re big fans of cuddles, it seems that this behaviour is purely practical. In conditions where the temperature gets as low as -60 F and windy gusts of 100 mph, huddling together in a kind of scrum that really can be the difference between life and death. It may not surprise you, due to their reputation as quirky and slightly odd, that there doesn’t appear to be a formula with regards to shape of the huddle, or even the order in which the penguins stand within it. Desire to live takes over and they quite often reshuffle themselves to better suit their own selfish needs.
Unfortunately for polar bears, they are much more solitary creatures. But that’s not to say that they haven’t found a way to keep themselves comfortable during the cold and lonely nights. They dig themselves small shelter pits to snuggle into to get some great shut-eye, and predominantly cover their muzzles with their paws so that the warm air they exhale blows back onto their bodies. Much in the same way that we blow into our hands during the chilly and quintessentially British winter!
Sadly, Domino’s doesn’t have a North and South Pole division, so penguins and polar bears are left to fend for themselves to track down whatever food they can find. Due to the extreme conditions they live in, not so many other creatures are able to live there. Fish is the predominant source of nutrition for our short and stumpy legged friends, who often leave their adorable huddles on a venture for many miles to track down fish to bring back to their families. Penguins are known to fast (stop eating) annually during breeding periods when they must watch their eggs and keep them warm. So, it becomes less about how they process food for energy, and more about changing their eating habits!
Polar bears differ in the sense that they are well known to consume vast amounts when they can get their paws on their food- mainly unlucky seals that aren’t quick enough to swim away. The polar bears digestive system has adapted to keep hold of the blubbery flesh that is an amazing source of energy for weeks to come when food is scarce.
Penguins really do come in all kind of shapes and sizes, and span a multitude of breeds from the large and regal Emperor Penguin to the much smaller and adorable Humboldt Penguin. While their adorable waddle does nothing for keeping their little feet warm, the way they stand does. While still, their bums never touch the floor. They have the least amount of blood flow in their tails and feet, so they form a kind of tripod with these to reduce the surface area that heat can be lost from. One thing that polar bears and penguins have in common is that their extremities are small. Polar bears’ ears, tail and muzzle are all much smaller than other bear species, and both the penguin and polar bear have stumpy legs! (Did you know that penguins have knees, and can jump incredibly high?!)
You read that right; both the polar bear and penguin have become so well adapted to their environments, that not only do they feel cold- they get too hot! Polar bears have more issues with keeping cool than they do with keeping warm- that’s why if you see them in a documentary, they more jog than run, to prevent them from overheating. When penguins get too warm, their plush white feathers have been seen to blush pink, when blood rushes to this area to release excess heat.
So, in essence- yes, both creatures do feel the cold, but they are so well adapted that this rarely becomes an issue for them. But they also get too hot because of their adapted traits being so good at keeping them warm. What we can be sure of is that whilst they couldn’t be more different, both are amazingly beautiful creatures have utilised incredible feats of evolution to survive.