Over 60 million years ago, penguins abandoned flight for swimming. Here’s how.

An Adélie penguin family.

Penguins are perhaps best known for being flightless birds whose wings help them “fly” through the frigid Antarctic waters. But penguins lost their ability to fly and instead became streamlined swimmers around 60 million years ago, long before the Antarctic ice sheet formed, and researchers have now revealed how that happened.

A new study of penguin fossils and the genomes of current and recently extinct penguins has identified a variety of genetic adaptations the birds made to live an aquatic lifestyle; from a vision sensitive to blue tones underwater to genes related to blood oxygenation, and even changes in bone density. Together, the findings suggest that penguins as a group adapted to survive some serious environmental changes that played out over millions of years.

From flight to no flight

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