Warming up to the coolest birds

If you asked a cartoonist to draw a penguin, he or she would probably come up with a funny sketch. With their short legs, stocky little bodies, and wings held out to balance themselves as they stumble about on the snow, penguins can be pretty comical looking. But put that same clumsy bird in the water and it turns into a graceful swimmer, diving to great depths and soaring back to the surface with elegant ease. ``Because of the way they're built, they walk kind of funny on land,'' says penguin expert Frank Murru. ``But they behave totally differently in the water, which is where some penguins spend 75 percent of their lives.'' Mr. Murru is curator of Sea World of Florida, site of the largest exhibit of penguins in the world. As visitors to Penguin Encounter travel the length of the indoor exhibit on a moving walkway, they can watch more than 250 tuxedoed birds on land and under water through a 95-foot-long, split-viewing window. Some 6,000 pounds of man-made snow falls inside the exhibit daily while penguins parade about on realistic-looking rocky terrain and scramble in and out of a 10-foot-deep seawater pool.

Besides being entertaining, Penguin Encounter is also a research facility for aviculturists - people who study birds. In the past, learning about penguins in the wild has meant spending long, cold, dark months in the Antarctic, with the temperature hovering around 100 degrees below zero and the wind howling at 100 miles an hour. But today, staff and visiting scientists at Sea World can study penguins 24 hours a day throughout the year.

``Almost everyone knows what a penguin looks like,'' Murru points out, ``but few people know even the most basic facts about them.'' Why not test yourself: Are penguins mammals? Can they fly? Do they live near Eskimos? Do they like vegetables?

If you answered ``no'' to all four questions, then you're already something of an expert yourself. Even though they are birds, penguins cannot fly. What's more, all 17 species come from the Antarctic regions of the Southern Hemisphere, not from the northern Arctic reaches where Eskimos live. As for liking green veggies, fish-eating penguins would give you a big ``yuck'' if you offered them any.

Penguins are covered with dense layers of feathers, not fur, and they take their name from the Latin word pinguis, meaning ``fat'' - an apt description of the blubbery layer that helps to insulate them from the cold. Penguins also have a little fold of skin on their lower abdomens called a ``brood patch,'' where eggs are incubated while both parents take turns tucking them up on top of their feet.

Because they're so well adapted to the cold, the penguins that live at Sea World sometimes overheat in the 34-degree exhibit. When that happens, they stand still on the ice and hold their wings out to the sides in an effort to lose some of their excess body heat.

``Just keeping cool,'' they seem to say, despite their fancy dress.

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