What’s the Difference? Penguin vs. Puffin

On this edition of “What’s the Difference”, we’re talking seabirds: penguins versus puffins. They sure look similar, and we wouldn’t blame you for confusing the two, but penguins and puffins are quite different animals. Let’s learn about what these two types of seabirds have in common and what makes them unique! 



  • Belong to the family Spheniscidae, which includes all 18 species of penguins and no other bird species.

  • Are flightless birds despite having what look like wings on their bodies (surprising to many people, they’re actually flippers). Their solid bones make their tapered (fusiform) bodies too heavy for flight but make them less buoyant and thus, skilled swimmers. On land, their webbed feet help them walk on land, and in the right conditions they use their bodies to quickly slide on snow. 

  • Come in many shapes and sizes, with some species reaching maximum heights of 15 inches and others closer to four feet tall. 

  • Live exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere, including Antarctica, Australia, South Africa, the Galapagos Islands, and coastal South America. 

  • Include the following species: Adelie, African, Chinstrap, Emperor, Erect-crested, Fiordland, Galapagos, Gentoo, Humboldt, King, Little Blue, Macaroni, Magellanic, Northern Rockhopper, Southern Rockhopper, Royal, Snares, and Yellow-eyed.

  • Are one of the most endangered birds on Earth, with about two-thirds of the species listed as threatened or endangered. 



  • Belong to the family Alcidae, which includes other bird species like murres and auklets.

  • Can fly! Like most birds, their bones are hollow and make them light enough for sustained flight. They can even reach burst speeds upwards of 50 miles per hour! 

  • Are also well-suited for swimming as they spend much of their lives at sea. They use their wings to propel through the water while their feet act as a rudder. 

  • Are smaller than penguins, reaching sizes between 10 and 15 inches when fully grown. 

  • Live exclusively on rocky coasts in the Northern hemisphere, including in Olympic Coast, Greater Farallones, and Stellwagen Bank national marine sanctuaries! 

  • Include four distinct species: Atlantic, Horned, Tufted, and the Rhinoceros Auklet. 



  • Are birds that have similar patterns of black and white feather coloration and colorful beaks, which is why many people believe they are related. 

  • Have similar carnivorous diets comprised of small fish, shrimp, krill, and squid. 

  • Spend much of their lives on water but breed and socialize on land. 

  • Have similar breeding habits in which females lay one or two eggs per year with both parents involved in the incubation and protection of the eggs. Most penguins stay with their mates for life while puffins will reunite with the same partner at their burrow site each year. 

  • Face threats posed by humans, including bycatch, overfishing, chemical and physical pollution, introduction of predators, and climate change — especially for penguins that live in the Antarctic and rely on sea ice for access to food and breeding grounds. 


Now, it’s clear that these two seabirds are quite different! Let us know what other commonly confused pair of animals you want us to “un-stump” on Twitter at @marinesanctuary or Instagram at @marinesanctuaryfdn!