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Puffins and Penguins: A Side-by-Side Comparison

Let’s cut to the chase, shall we? The Atlantic puffins at the National Aquarium are sometimes mistaken for penguins.

Published August 23, 2016

The mix-up is understandable—both puffins and penguins are black-and-white sea birds, have an upright posture and are good swimmers. They both have names that start with “p” and end with “n.” But, the similarities between them pretty much end there. Here’s a helpful side-by-side comparison that outlines some of the key differences between the two.


Species: Puffins belong to the Alcidae (auk) family of sea birds, and there are four species of puffins. In addition to Atlantic puffins, these include the horned puffin, tufted puffin and rhinoceros auklet.

It’s a little more crowded over on the penguin side of things, with 17 species belonging to the family Spheniscidae—Adelie, African, chinstrap, emperor, erect-crested, Fiordland, Galapagos, Gentoo, Humboldt, king, little blue, macaroni, Magellanic, rockhopper, royal, snares and yellow-eyed.

Habitat: All puffins live in the northern hemisphere. Atlantic puffins can be found from the coast of New England to Iceland and the British Isles. Horned puffins, and tufted puffins can be found on the Pacific side.  Penguins live mostly south of the equator, in coastal South America, the Galapagos Islands, Australia and South Africa. Penguins are often associated with the Antarctic, thanks to the emperor penguin, which is the only species of bird that nests there in the winter.

Size: The largest of the puffins is smaller than the smallest of the penguins, with the tufted puffin coming in around 14 inches tall and less than 2 pounds, and the little blue (or fairy) penguin measuring 16 inches tall and weighing just over 2 pounds. Compare that to the emperor penguin, which can be 3.5 feet tall and weigh more than 80 pounds.

Appearance: Atlantic, horned and tufted puffins are similar in appearance, with black and white feathers and orange beaks, while the rhinoceros auklet plumage is primarily brown. Puffins’ beaks and feet turn brighter in the spring during breeding season!

All penguins have white feathers on their bellies and black feathers on their backs. King and emperor penguins also have yellow-orange markings, several species have yellowish crests and a few have orange beaks.


Getting around: Puffins live most of their lives at sea (except during breeding season), and are adept at both swimming and flying. They can dive for up to a minute but usually for 20 to 30 seconds, reaching depths of up to 300 feet. While underwater, puffins swim by using their wings to push through the water while using their feet as a rudder, reaching an average speed of 10 miles per hour. They can also can fly about 50 miles per hour, thanks to wicked-fast wings that can beat up 400 times a minute. 

Penguins’ wings serve as flippers; they have evolved only to swim, not fly. African penguins can swim up to 12 miles per hour, while emperor penguins can dive to 1,850 feet—deeper than any other bird—and stay under water for 20 minutes.


Etymology: According to the Audubon Puffin Project, “the word ‘puffin’ is thought to be derived from the word ‘puff’ … [a]nd it is the puffin chick that contributes best to this name because of its round, puffed look resulting from its dense cover of down feathers—an adaptation for retaining body heat while the parent is off fishing.”

The word ‘penguin,’ on the other hand, first appears in 16th-century texts. Europeans exploring the southern hemisphere saw the birds and confused them with a bird they were familiar with from the northern hemisphere—the great auk (Pinguinus impennis). The great auk became extinct in the mid-19th century, but, as you may recall, puffins belong to the auk family. So the Atlantic puffins at the National Aquarium are clearly not the first to be confused with penguins, and vice versa!

To learn more about our precious puffins, click here

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