State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Penguin With a Pocket Square of Blue

Photo of Galápagos Penguin by Brian Kateman
Few animals are as classy as the penguin, sporting a fashionable and classy tuxedo-like attire, elegantly designed for a flightless life in the waters of the Southern Hemisphere. Whether waddling amongst its young in snowy Antarctica or swimming in the northern shores of the Galápagos Islands, the familiar image of this black and white animal is truly iconic. The Little Blue Penguin, however, reminds evolutionary biologists and wildlife enthusiasts that the world is rarely black and white.

Adding a splash of color to its morphology, this species of penguin found along the coastline of Australia and New Zealand, has a striking blue tint on its head, upperparts, and flippers that contrasts the usual white belly. Seeking to understand this peculiar distribution of color, scientists used sophisticated equipment of microscopy and spectroscopy to develop a structural and optical analysis of the penguin barb structures. Outlined in a paper entitled, “Colour-producing β-keratin nanofibres in blue penguin (Eudyptula minor) feathers,” published recently in Biology Letters, the researchers concluded that the blue coloring is derived from the unique packaging of the keratin nanofibers. When light strikes the fibers, all wavelengths of light, expect blue, pass through the feathers, and produce the observable bluish color. Though the authors report that similar nanofibers are found in the feathers and skin of other birds and mammals through convergent evolution, they also note the feathers of the blue penguin “represent the first reported case of a non-iridescent structural colour based on two-dimensional quasi-ordered arrays of parallel β-keratin nanofibres.”

The study adds considerable knowledge to known mechanisms of color production in birds and biophotonics by paying homage to a species of penguin that dared to be different from its relatives, adding a splash of color to the biological world.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
CJ Uppal
13 years ago

Wouldn’t this be an example of a genetic defect just like how there are white tigers?

12 years ago

I have been to New Zealand for almost 2 months and saw some penguins there. Maybe I have seen this blue squared fellow and I didn’t even know that. I don’t care if this was or is a genetic defect as long as the penguins are healthy and happy. Thanks for sharing this article. I just shared with all my Facebook friends.

12 years ago

I agree that even if it is a genetic defect, as long as it’s still a healthy species well sometimes that’s what makes everything unique & where the most special come from. I think the penguin is such an interesting animal & like to find different fun facts about them all over the web, thanks for putting up reference to such an in-depth study about why they are ‘blue’.