Mistaken Identities: Puffins vs. Penguins

In this installment of our Mistaken Identities series, we dive into the differences between puffins and penguins.

  • Animals

If you think puffins and penguins are practically the same bird, think again! These seabirds do share some similarities—they both sport similar black-and-white coloration called countershading and are expert swimmers—but there are plenty of differences that set them apart, too.

Graphic Illustrating the Differences Between Puffins and Penguins


Generally speaking, penguins are larger than puffins. The smallest species of penguin, the fairy blue, measures about 12 inches tall and the tallest species, the emperor penguin, can grow to be 4 feet tall. Puffins range in size from about 8 inches tall—the horned and Atlantic puffins—to 15 inches in height.


A puffin's most eye-catching physical characteristic is undoubtedly its bright orange beak, which is most vibrant during breeding season. This is another key difference between puffins and penguins: although a few species of penguins have orange bills, the majority have grey or black bills.

Flight Ability

It's a well-known fact that penguins can't fly—but puffins can, and at an impressive speed! They can beat their wings up to 400 times a minute to fly through the air at abut 50 miles per hour. Since penguins can't fly, they've evolved to use their wings as flippers that propel them through the water at high speeds. African penguins, for example, can swim up to 12 miles per hour.

Diving Ability

Although both birds can dive, penguins take the cake here. Puffins can dive for up to a minute, but most often for about 20 to 30 seconds, reaching depths of up to 300 feet. Penguins are much more adept divers—especially the emperor penguin, which can reach depths of 1,850 feet (deeper than any other bird!) and stay underwater for up to 20 minutes.

Atlantic Puffin Flapping Its Wings


Puffins have long feathers to enable flight; penguins have short, scale-like feathers that are more efficient for swimming.


Puffins and penguins are found on different branches of the family tree. Puffins are in the family Alcidae and are known as alcids; penguins are in the family Spheniscidae.

In addition to Atlantic puffins, two other species of alcids can be found in our Sea Cliffs exhibit: razorbills and guillemots.

Geographic Range

All alcids, including all four species of puffin, are found in the Northern Hemisphere. Almost all species of penguins, on the other hand, are found south of the Equator; the only exception is the Galapagos penguin, which is found—you guessed it—on the Galapagos Islands. Although penguins are oftentimes associated with the Antarctic, less than half of penguin species live there.


Puffins usually only lay one egg during breeding season, while many species of penguins lay two eggs.

Mistaken Identities More in This Series

Animals Mistaken Identities: Dolphins vs. Porpoises

Animals Mistaken Identities: Loggerhead vs. Green Sea Turtles

Animals Mistaken Identities: Frogs vs. Toads

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