Puffins vs. Penguins: Similarities & Differences

Our world is a beautiful mess of millions of different forms of life adapted to their environment, each influencing it and influenced by it. Although all of these are unique in one way or another, we often seem to come upon animals or plants that look a lot like each other despite being completely unrelated. This is what we call “convergent evolution” in biological terms.

A good example of this would be the Australian Emus and the African Ostriches. They live on different continents and have completely different evolutionary histories, yet they look way too similar to be this unrelated. This is because they’ve both adapted to live in very similar environments, making them both very fast and aggressive flightless birds. 

Similarly, people in the tropics and subtropics often confuse puffins and penguins as they’re very similar-looking and occupy the same niches. However, the two birds share many differences that we will discuss in this article. Let’s dive in…

What Are Puffins?

Puffins are a type of sea bird known for their wide, brightly colored beaks and their affinity for the water. They’re short with a stocky build and small wings. Their webbed feet make them excellent swimmers, which they need to hunt. Their main source of food is the fish they catch by diving into the sea and chasing after them. 

They usually live in colonies along the shoreline with easy access to the open sea. Although they’ve been hunted by humans for a long time, the fact that they live in the open sea is one of the main reasons why their numbers haven’t dwindled due to changes caused by humans. There are a number of islands that have been named “Puffin Island” because puffins have a tendency of making isolated rocky islands their homes. 

The biggest species of puffins alive today don’t measure more than 15 inches in length and their wingspan is quite short. Despite all of this, they are very adept at flying above the sea, just as they are excellent swimmers. 

What Are Penguins?

Penguins are perhaps some of the most easily recognizable birds in the world – after chickens and raptors – and are widely depicted in popular movies, TV shows, books, and toys. They are medium-sized birds that occupy a number of different environments. Penguins are known for their streamlined bodies and small but powerful flippers (front limbs) that help them achieve great speeds and make them very agile underwater. Apart from turning their wings into flippers, evolution has given them a number of other adaptions that primarily help them in underwater fishing and swimming for long periods of time.

Emperor Penguin colony at Snow Hill in Antarctica

Penguins are very smart birds and are known for their elaborate gift-giving rituals and ways of showing affection. It is a well-known fact that when penguins find a partner, they bond with them for life. The male will often go to great lengths to find the right gift for the female, who will accept it as a show of her affection, and they will begin nesting together. Unlike most animals that only pair for the duration of the mating season and leave the female to tend to the litter, penguins form long-term relationships and take care of the eggs together. Both parties take turns caring for the egg while the other partner hunts for food. 

See also  8 Birds That Look Like Penguins

Their diet mainly consists of fish, small crustaceans, and plankton. In the Antarctic tundra, where the highest concentration of penguin species is found, they have a number of natural predators such as Elephant Seals, Orcas, and sea lions.

Puffin vs. Penguin: Similarities

If you’ve ever looked at a Puffin and thought to yourself that the animal looks exactly like a penguin, you would hardly be the first person to think that. In fact, that was the basic premise of the famous animated children’s movie “Happy Feet 2.” An Atlantic Puffin named Sven escapes from a human ship near Antarctica and finds himself in the middle of a colony of penguins. The penguins mistake him for one of their own and thus find his ability to fly extraordinary. 

This common misconception arises from a number of different things, such as the fact that penguins are such a diverse family that there are actually some species of penguins that look remarkably similar to puffins. Another cause may be the fact that both penguins and puffins sport similar plumage, having a black coat with a lighter underside and beaks that are brightly colored. 

It also doesn’t help that both of these animals have very similar behaviors, owing to their convergent evolution. Both of these animals are amazing swimmers with agile, narrow bodies, meaning they fill similar niches in their respective ecosystems as amphibious underwater predators. They both form colonies along shorelines and rely on the sea for their main source of food.

Puffin vs. Penguin: Differences

So the important question that now arises is how do you tell whether a bird is a Puffin or a Penguin? Well, there are quite a few ways to tell. For one, their habitat. All species of penguins are found in the southern hemisphere, with the exception of the Galapagos penguins, which are found in the Galapagos islands off the coast of South America. On the other hand, puffins are usually found in the Northern hemisphere, close to the Arctic circle for most of the year and only fly southward in the winters.

Atlantic puffins on the cliffs in MIngan Archipelago, Cote-Nord, Quebec

Of course, this distinction wouldn’t come in handy if you were to spot the bird in captivity. Then, you could rely on the puffin’s ability to fly to make the distinction. Although they have similar wingspans, puffins are very good at flying while penguins lost this ability millions of years ago. 

See also  18 Different Types of Penguins 

Penguins are also one of the few birds that walk upright like humans, whereas other birds have a “perched” posture. They walk with their arms to their sides, waddling along in groups with their bellies facing front. This behavior makes all species of penguins recognizable among birds.


Although quite similar, Penguins and Puffins have a few key features that distinguish them from each other, most notably their different posture, the ability (or lack) of flight, and their skull-to-body ratio. Now that you’ve reached the end of this article, enjoy this adorable video of a puffin befriending a tourist.

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Nadine Oraby

My name is Nadine; I am a passionate writer and a pet lover. People usually call me by the nickname “Joy” because they think that I am a positive and joyful person who is a child at heart. My love for animals triggered me to create this blog. Articles are written by vets, pet experts, and me. Thanks for visiting. Your friend, Nadine!

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