Emperor penguin rocketing toward shore. Image via BBC.

Penguins can’t fly. Optimized for life at sea, their flipper-like wings won’t take them skyward, no matter how hard the birds flap them. Still, that doesn’t stop them from getting some big air. Especially when they need to evade a hungry leopard seal.

With squat bodies and stubby legs, it would be difficult for a penguin to climb ashore. Instead they’ve evolved an amazing ability to launch themselves out of the water, like little torpedoes.  Some species are able to “fly” up to 17 ft per second and soar up to 9 feet in the air before landing safely on the ice.

Scientists say the penguin is able to do this with the help of “air lubrication,” created by manipulating the air trapping properties of its feathers to form a “coat” of bubbles around its body. Interestingly, this is the same technology used by engineers to reduce drag in water and speed the movement of  ships and torpedoes. But, of course, the penguin did it first.

Learn more about the specifics of how the penguin does it and watch some great footage from the BBC’s Blue Planet series on this BBC blog. (Hint: Start the video at 1:45 to jump to the leaping action.)



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