Why Do Penguins Slide On Their Bellies?

Penguins have torpedo-shaped packed bodies that aid in deep-sea diving and foraging.

However, the same bodies are extremely difficult to maneuver on land, allowing only limited and slow walks.

Penguins do need to move quickly or flee certain situations. 

Penguins have learned to slide on their bellies, for a faster mode of locomotion.  This sliding on bellies is often referred to as“Tobogganing” or “Sledding”.

Now, you may be wondering:

How Fast Do Penguins Slide On Their Bellies?

Typically, about 6-10 times faster than simple walking.

You see, penguins have massive bodies that allow them to dive as deep as 450-meters below water.

Their bodies are streamlined with short legs and thick broad feet.

They also have short wings and feathers to reduce water drag.

Though all these features help penguins swim, they are counterproductive for inland walking.

Now, walking itself is like controlled falling.

For instance, humans normally walk by bending their bodies forward and stopping the fall using their two feet.

However, if a penguin were to bend forward, it will fall before using its feet. 

Penguins walk by rotating their bodies forward, essentially dragging one side at a time. 

This is exactly how pregnant women walk and keep their balance.

Also, this imparts penguins with a characteristic cute gait.


Walking through rotation is extremely slow.

Meanwhile, sliding on their bellies allows penguins to have short bursts of speed. 

 While a penguin can walk only as fast as 2miles/hour, it can slide on its belly at speeds exceeding 15miles/hour. 

However, the exact speed of tobogganing varies with several factors from terrain to ice depth.

Even so, it is a far efficient and easier mode of locomotion compared to walking, see figure 1.

Why Do Penguins Slide on Their Bellies?

Figure 1: Comparing Penguins Walk with Tobogganing

Penguins walk a lot instead of only sliding on their bellies. 

When Do Penguins Slide On Their Bellies?

Well, penguins cannot slide all the time as it requires certain conditions. 

These include:

Parameter Ideal Conditions Remarks
Terrain Icy plains or slippery slopes For a penguin to slide, the surface should be slippery or rather smooth. Besides, a penguin cannot slide uphill.
Ice Thickness 3-5 inches soft ice. Penguins will compress the ice below their belly. Therefore, ice needs to be soft enough to not hurt penguins.
Weather  No blizzards. Penguins can stand on a single toe to prevent heat loss through contact, in extreme cold. Therefore, sliding on bellies at that time seems counterproductive.
Surfaces No Hedges or jagged surfaces Penguins don’t want lacerations that can result from sliding on to piercing jagged surfaces.
Penguin Built Thick and sturdy bodies Generally, only larger penguins say above 15 kgs slide on their bellies. 

Looking at these conditions, you can tell that all penguins cannot toboggan and even those that can don’t slide on their bellies all the time.

Another thing is, sliding on bellies must wear out penguin feathers. 

Land presents only a limited number of natural penguin predators. 

Penguins don’t need to slide on their bellies as much as they have been observed.

And so, it seems hard to accurately tell when penguins slide on their bellies. 

Some suggest that penguins love swimming to the point they mimic swimming on land.

If that’s indeed the case, then an interesting question would be asking:

Why Do Penguins Swim On Their Bellies?

Technically, penguins can swim on bellies in the ocean as well as on land.

To avoid any ambiguities, let’s discuss this query briefly in both scenarios:

1. Reasons Penguin Swim On Their Bellies In Water

Like all animals, penguins also tilt their bodies horizontally to better move through the water and control their buoyancy.

Now, penguin wings are strong and short enough to provide propelling motion.

Meanwhile, their feet and tails act as rudders that decide direction as well as maintain balance.

Have you ever wondered why penguins are shaded black from the back and white from the front?

Because countershading combined with swimming on bellies helps penguins evade predators.  

How so?

Well, imagine a penguin swimming in the water. If you look from above the penguin will appear hazy like the ocean. But if you look from below, the penguin will camouflage with sunlight pouring into the ocean.

You see a penguin swimming within the ocean is to search for food.

Now, let’s talk about swimming on the land.

2. Reasons Penguin Swim On Their Bellies On Land

Now, your first objection may be:

“Why is Tobogganing called swimming on the bellies in the first place?”

Because tobogganing is not merely sliding on the ice using one’s weight.

You see, penguins don’t slide uphill they can slide on slopes as well as horizontal surfaces.

They can also control their direction and speed while doing so.

How so?

Well, a penguin can use its wings as well as feet to propel forward.

Their tails and feet also act as rudders to control their direction. 

Penguins’ Tobogganing resembles their swimming in the ocean.

As to why penguins generally slide on their bellies, that may involve the following reasons:

a. Evade Predators

Though penguins don’t have several land predators, predators like leopard seals often follow them ashore and can even eat them if penguins don’t slide away.

b. Migration

Since sliding on bellies balances out penguin weight, it is a more efficient, less tiring, and faster mode of travel, compared to just walking.

Which is why penguins toboggan whenever they can during migration.

c. Fun

Interestingly, penguins can push each other into forced sliding.

This is most common among penguins younger than one year of age.

Again, not all penguins can slide all the time, so, they cannot play like this frequently.

Now, you may be wondering:

Which Penguins Can Toboggan?

While all penguins should be able to slide on their bellies, this requires smooth surfaces as well as a heavy built.

Arctic and heavy penguins are observed to slide on their bellies far more than other penguins.

These include:

  1. Emperor Penguins
  2. Gentoos
  3. Chinstraps
  4. Adelie Penguins

With all this discussion, it seems that penguins feel comfortable on their bellies.

I take it that people assume penguins sleep on their bellies and take power naps lying around, looking exquisitely cute and cuddly.

So, why not question:

Do Penguins Lay On Their Stomach?

They can but they don’t.

Now, penguins normally take short naps throughout the day and only a few hours of sleep at night.

In fact, penguins have different sleep postures and places depending on the time as well as the season and their geographical location:

  1. Normally, penguins sleep sitting upright while their bills are tucked under their necks. They can stand on a single toe to avoid frostbites.
  2. Parent penguins, especially fathers, hold their eggs between their legs for months until these hatches, they don’t even move their bodies.
  3. Penguins huddle together and sleep in vast groups to survive freezing through blizzards.
  4. Certain penguins sleep while standing in the ocean. Meanwhile, some species sleep in mud burrows

In fact, only a few penguins have been reported to sleep while lying on their stomach.

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