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Why do penguins have pink eyes?

Penguins are fascinating creatures that inhabit the icy regions of the Southern Hemisphere. Known for their adorable waddling and distinct black and white plumage, penguins are also recognized for their unique features, one of which is their pink eyes. While not all penguin species possess pink eyes, African penguins have glands above their eyes that turn pinker as they get hotter. In this blog post, we will explore the reasons behind this intriguing phenomenon and delve into the significance of pink eyes in African penguins.

Description of African Penguins

African penguins, also known as Cape penguins or Jackass penguins, are native to the coastal areas of South Africa and Namibia. They are the only penguin species to breed on the African continent, making them a unique and important part of the region’s biodiversity. These penguins have adapted to surviving in both the cold waters of the Atlantic and warm climate of the African coastline.

African penguins exhibit several distinctive characteristics. They have a black and white plumage that provides excellent camouflage in the water, helping them evade predators such as sharks and seals. They also have a unique braying call, which resembles the sound of a donkey, earning them the nickname “Jackass penguins.”

Pink Glands above the Eyes

One of the most intriguing features of African penguins is the presence of pink glands above their eyes. These glands are located on either side of the penguin’s head, just above the eye. At first glance, they may appear as small pink patches, but these glands can change in intensity depending on various factors.

The function of these pink glands has been a subject of scientific investigation. It has been discovered that the color of the glands becomes pinker as the penguin gets hotter. The pinkness is a result of increased blood flow to the area, which is thought to be a mechanism for thermoregulation in African penguins.

Relationship between Pink Eyes and Temperature

The intensity of the pink color in the glands above the eyes of African penguins varies with temperature. As the penguin’s body temperature increases, more blood is directed to the glands, causing the pink color to become more pronounced. This pink coloration acts as a visual cue for the penguin to cool down and regulate its body temperature.

The regulation of blood flow to the pink glands is controlled by a complex system of blood vessels. When the penguin is hot, the blood vessels dilate, allowing more blood to flow to the glands. Conversely, in cooler conditions, the blood vessels constrict, reducing blood flow and resulting in a less intense pink coloration.

Environmental factors also play a role in the intensity of the pink color. Factors such as sun exposure, wind, and water temperature can influence the opening and closing of blood vessels, affecting the pinkness of the glands.

Significance of Pink Eyes in African Penguins

The pink eyes of African penguins serve multiple purposes and have significant significance in the lives of these birds. One of the primary functions is non-verbal communication among penguins. The intensity of the pink color can convey information about the penguin’s current physiological state, such as its level of heat stress or willingness to engage in social interactions.

During courtship and mating, the pink eyes of African penguins play a crucial role in attracting potential partners. The vibrant pink coloration is a visual signal of reproductive readiness and can act as a signal for potential mates.

Additionally, the pink eyes are believed to play a role in species recognition. As African penguins nest and breed in densely populated colonies, the pink glands above the eyes allow individuals to recognize each other quickly. This is especially important during the breeding season when parental care and chick recognition are crucial for the survival of the species.

Possible Evolutionary Reasons for Pink Eyes

The evolution of pink eyes in African penguins is still a subject of scientific speculation. One possible reason is that the pink coloration acts as a signal to predators, helping the penguins to appear larger and more intimidating. The vivid pink color may discourage potential predators and give African penguins an advantage in territorial disputes.

Another hypothesis suggests that the pink eyes could have evolved as a result of sexual selection. In a crowded colony, the intense pink coloration could act as an attractive signal to potential mates, indicating the penguin’s fitness and ability to provide resources for offspring.

Furthermore, the pink eyes may be a result of adaptation to the African climate. African penguins face the challenges of both cold waters and warm coastal environments. The pink glands above their eyes could be a unique adaptation for thermoregulation, allowing them to regulate body temperature more efficiently in warmer conditions.

Threats and Conservation Efforts

Like many other species, African penguins face numerous threats to their survival. Human activities such as overfishing, habitat destruction, and pollution have resulted in a decline in their population. Additionally, climate change has led to changes in ocean currents and altered food availability, further impacting these penguins.

To address these challenges, conservation efforts are being undertaken to protect African penguins and their habitats. Various organizations and initiatives are focused on creating protected areas, implementing sustainable fishing practices, and raising awareness about the importance of penguin conservation.


The pink eyes of African penguins are a remarkable and unique feature that distinguishes them from other penguin species. These pink glands above their eyes serve multiple purposes, from thermoregulation to non-verbal communication and reproductive signaling. While much is still being understood about the precise evolutionary reasons for the pink coloration, what is clear is the significance of pink eyes in the lives of African penguins.

As we continue to study and appreciate these incredible creatures, it becomes evident that the conservation of African penguins and their habitats is of utmost importance. By protecting these charismatic birds, we can ensure their survival and maintain the ecological balance of the coastal regions they call home. Ongoing research and conservation efforts are crucial in preserving the unique and fascinating world of African penguins.


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