Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of dispatches from the Knight Science Journalism Program’s 2020-21 Project Fellows.
How much would you say you know about penguins?
You probably know that penguins are birds. But unlike most birds, penguins cannot fly. Pretty much everyone knows that.
Instead, penguins swim through the ocean like tuxedo-wearing torpedoes. On land, they waddle. In fact, I’ll bet if I asked you to walk like a penguin during a game of charades, you’d immediately slap your hands at your sides and start rocking one foot in front of the other and that everyone else in the circle would quickly guess your pantomime.
You probably also know that penguins sport black and white feathers. And I’ll bet you could pick out their home range on a globe. All the way down at the bottom — the Antarctic, with all its snow and ice and rocks.
And what do penguins eat? Fish, of course. (You get bonus points if you said “krill,” which are tiny crustaceans.) In turn, you might know that penguins have to watch out for predators of their own, like clever orcas and lithe leopard seals.
Maybe you also know that emperor penguins have this funny way of reproducing, in which they lumber way, way out into the middle of the ice once a year and lay eggs. The male then takes a turn incubating that egg while the female trots back to the ocean in search of food. By the time she returns, the chick will have hatched and then both parents will do their best to feed the baby and protect it from the cold. In the middle of Antarctica. While snow piles up and winds howl around them.
Close your eyes, and I wonder if you can see all those emperors huddled together in a sea of black and white and brown. Brown feathers of the young chicks, and brown poo, the accumulation of which is so substantial, it can be seen from space.
Now, if most of the above was not news to you, I want you to consider that you didn’t know just one fun fact about penguins, but actually closer to a dozen. Indeed, we might refer to you as penguin-literate.
Which leads us to other questions. Like, why do you know all of these things about penguins? Are you an ornithologist? Are you a documentary filmmaker? Have you have ever even been to Antarctica? Yeah, me neither. But my point is that you, and me, and pretty much everyone we know has a neat little dossier of at least some penguin biology filed away in our weird little brains.
Now tell me, how much do you know about the distribution of flying squirrels? Does anybody know what an armadillo eats? What predator does the porcupine fear most? And what can you tell me about the reproductive strategies of opossums? Probably next to nothing, right?
Look, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with knowing things about penguins — they’re awesome. But isn’t it kind of strange that you know more about a flightless bird that inhabits a desolate hellscape you’ve never seen than you do the creatures you pass as roadkill on your morning commute?
I’ve been thinking about penguins a lot as I work through my Knight Science Journalism Project Fellowship. Elephants, lions, tigers, and panda bears, too. What is it that draws our attention to such species? As a journalist who makes a living writing about animals, I’ve spilled ink for each of these charismatic creatures more than once. And each time I do, I wonder if it doesn’t reinforce the idea that the only animals worth learning about are the ones that live somewhere else.
We stare longingly over our shoulders at penguins like we’re living in the Distracted Boyfriend meme.
Another thing I continue to grapple with? How to frame that argument without appearing nativist, in light of rising nationalism in the United States and increased scrutiny of immigration. North American animals aren’t fascinating simply because they’re North American. They’re fascinating because they’re all around us — each one an unsung ballad of evolutionary awe. And rather than give most of them the time of day, we stare longingly over our shoulders at penguins like we’re living in the Distracted Boyfriend meme.
Have you ever heard of a siren, for instance? These amphibians look like salamanders, but have lost their hind legs over millions of years of evolution. They have external gills, grow up to two feet in length, and are sometimes mistaken for eels. Sirens can be found from Washington, D.C. all the way to northeastern Mexico. The critters are so poorly known, scientists described a new species, called the reticulated siren, slurping around Florida’s wetlands in 2018 — making it one of the largest animals to be discovered in the U.S. in more than a century.
Or what of the ringtail? These nocturnal cousins of the raccoon have long, furry tails like black-and-white-striped feather dusters and make a loud bark when they’re excited. They’re found throughout Mexico, as well as in the U.S., from Kansas to California and southern Oregon. We’re talking about a fuzzy, doe-eyed, living-stuffed-animal straight out of a Dr. Seuss book that most people have never heard of.
And this is to say nothing of the tens of thousands of species of birds, arthropods, fungi, and plants thriving all around us, to which we are mostly oblivious.
Again, none of this is to say we should stop learning about lemurs and sloths. In fact, I just wrote a children’s book with tigers in the title! We protect what we love, and we love what we know. It’s time we get to know opossums with at least the same level of intensity we reserve for penguins. After all, there could be a cross-eyed marsupial getting into your garbage as we speak. Someday soon, I hope to be able to sing its song.
Jason Bittel is a freelance science writer who is obsessed with animals. You can find his work in National Geographic, The Washington Post, New Scientist Magazine, onEarth Magazine, and Popular Science, among others.