The Detroit Zoo’s Penguinarium, which opened in 1968, was the first facility in North America designed specifically for penguins.  The three-sided habitat is surrounded by a continuous pool which allows the penguins to swim fast enough to porpoise or "fly through the water", a behavior frequently seen in the wild.  The Detroit Zoo is one of the few zoos in the world to incorporate this design feature.

The Penguinarium habitat was renovated in 1985 to simulate features of the natural environments in which these species of penguins occur.  The three different land sides simulate the habitat of the different species found at the Detroit Zoo.  The temperature of the air and water is kept between 45 and 50 degrees F.  The light cycle is controlled to resemble the natural photoperiod that these birds would experience in the wild. During the summer the days are 18 hours long, while in the winter the lights are only on for eight hours.  This is critical for the overall health of penguins because they molt and breed when the length of day increases.

The four penguin species living at the Detroit Zoo include king, macaroni, rockhopper, and gentoo, all of which are sub-Antarctic species.  These species require colder temperatures and, as a result, the Detroit Zoo maintains an extensive life-support system to ensure the environment the penguins need.

King penguins are closely related to the emperor penguin of “March of the Penguins” fame. Unlike emperors, however, king penguins nest on islands north of Antarctica and are not adapted to the extreme temperatures that emperors endure.  They spend most of their life at sea, mainly in areas free of pack ice. They dive deeply in search of food, often reaching depths of 300 meters.  Like emperor penguins, kings rear only one chick at a time, and it may take eight months or longer for the chick to fledge and become independent.  As a result, a pair of king penguins will only raise one chick every other year.

The macaroni and rockhopper penguins are closely related species of crested penguins, so known because of the yellow plumes that adorn their heads.  Rockhoppers are the most widespread of all the crested penguins, with a circumpolar (all around the polar region) distribution.  They nest on very rough terrain, often traversing steep slopes to get to their nests.  Macaroni penguins occupy colder areas of the southern ocean, and even have one nesting colony on the Antarctic Peninsula.  They nest in colonies numbering in the tens of thousands, with a total population in the millions.

The gentoo penguin lives in ice-free areas in Antarctica and many sub-Antarctic islands. It is recognized by the white stripe extending across its head and its bright red-orange bill. The bird also has paddle-shaped, peach-colored feet and fine feathers that help it glide easily and quickly through the water at speeds of up to 22 miles an hour. It is the third largest penguin species, after the king and emperor penguins.