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Antarctic Penguins

There are 17 species of penguins some of which are found as far north as the equator. Penguins are categorized into three families: brush-tail, crested, and king/emperor penguins. Of the 17 species only six are found in Antarctica (Adélies, Chinstraps, Emperors, Gentoos, Macaronis, and Rockhoppers).


Kingdom: Animally
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Infraclass: Neognathae
Order: Sphenisciformes
Family: Spheniscidae


  • emperor Aptenodytes forsteri
  • king Aptenodytes patagonicus
  • Adélie Pygoscelis adeliae
  • gentoo Pygoscelis papua
  • chinstrap Pygoscelis antarctica
  • rockhopper Eudyptes chrysocome
  • macaroni Eudyptes chrysolophus
  • royal Eudyptes schlegeli
  • Fiordland crested Eudyptes pachyrhynchus
  • erect-crested Eudyptes sclateri
  • Snares Island Eudyptes robustus
  • yellow-eyed Megadyptes antipodes
  • fairy (also known as little blue) Eudyptula minor
  • Magellanic Spheniscus magellanicus
  • Humboldt Spheniscus humboldti
  • African (formerly known as black-footed) Spheniscus demersus
  • Galapagos Spheniscus mendiculus

 Some scientists recognize an 18th species: the white-flippered variety of fairy penguin, Eudyptula albosignata.

Penguins often are referred to as "flippered flyers" due to their effortless movement through the water and their possible evolution from gull-like birds. Its believed that 40-50 million years ago, while Antarctica breaking away form Gondwanaland, penguins also were separating to form their own species. Originally, indigenous to warmer climates, penguins adapted to the cold as Antarctica made its move southward.

Part of their adaptation to the cold includes oily, unwettable feathers which cover the outer layers of penguins (and what gives that distinguished, well dressed look). Underneath is a layer of soft down feathers and under that a thick layer of fat. This keeps the penguins so warm they will actually fluff their feather to released trapped heat in order to cool down.

In addition to their fine attire, penguins are well known for their swimming abilities. Using their flippers for propulsion and their feet as a rudder, penguins can swim in excess of 12 mph (20 kph). Through the use of air sacs to protect their lungs, penguins can stay under water for 15 to 20 minutes and dive as deep as 275 feet (900 meters).

In the water, penguins typically feed on krill and fish. The dietary habits of penguins are relatively easy to monitor. Krill eating penguins excrete pink quano, while those eating fish leave behind white guano. The yolks of penguins eggs often are red denoting the consumption of krill.

Although very near-sighted on land, penguins posses exceptional vision in the water. Their eyes, like the many sea animals, are attuned to the colors of the sea--green, blue-green, and violet. They need this excellent vision to avoid leopard seals and killer whales, which are their primary predators in the ocean. On land their arch enemy are skuas (large birds) which snatch penguins chicks from nests.



1. The emperor penguin is the largest of all living penguins, standing 1.1 m (3.7 ft.) and weighing 27 to 41 kg (60-90 lb.).

2. The smallest of the penguins is the fairy penguin, standing just 41 cm (16 in.) and weighing about 1 kg (2.2 lb.). For a complete listing of sizes by species.

Body shape

1 .The penguin body is fusiform and streamlined, adapted for swimming  A penguin has a large head, short neck, and elongated body.

2. The tail is short and wedge-shaped .

3. The legs and webbed feet are set far back on the body, which causes penguins to stand upright when on land (Marchant, 1990).


1. All adult penguins are countershaded; that is they are dark on their dorsal (back) surfaces and white on their ventral (underside) surfaces. The dark dorsal side blends in with the dark ocean depths when viewed from above. The light ventral side blends in with the lighter surface of the sea when viewed from below. The result is that predators or prey do not see a contrast between the countershaded animal and the environment.

2. Many species have distinct markings and coloration.

    a. The emperor has a black head, chin, and throat with broad yellow ear patches on the sides of the head (Marchant, 1990).

    b. The king penguin has a black head, chin, and throat with vivid orange, tear-shaped ear patches. The orange coloration extends to the upper chest (Marchant, 1990).

    c. The Adélie has a black head. Distinctive white eye rings appear during the breeding season (Marchant, 1990).

    d. The gentoo has a black head with white eyelids, and a distinct triangular white patch above each eye, usually extending over the head (Marchant, 1990).

    e. The top of a chinstrap's head is black and the face is white, with a stripe of black extending under the chin.

    f. The crested penguins (genus Eudyptes), such as the rockhopper and macaroni, are distinguished by orange or yellow feather crests on the sides of the head, above the eyes.

    g. The yellow-eyed penguin, as its name suggests, has yellow eyes and a stripe of pale yellow feathers extending over its dark head.

    h. The fairy penguin, also known as the little blue, has slate-blue to black feathers and a white chin and chest.

    i. Temperate penguins (genus Spheniscus), such as the Humboldt and Magellanic, have unfeathered fleshy areas on the face and one or two distinct black stripes across the chest.

3. Chicks, juveniles, and immature penguins may have slightly different markings than adults. Generally, they appear more drab. Adult markings take a year or longer to develop.

Adult penguins are countershaded; that is they are dark on their dorsal (back) surfaces and white on their ventral (underside) surfaces.  Picture here are Adélie penguins.


Wings are modified into paddlelike flippers. The bones are much flattened and, broadened, with the joint of elbow and wrist almost fused. This forms a rigid, tapered, and flat flipper for swimming (Marchant, 1990). Each flipper is covered with short, scale-like feathers. The long wing feathers typical of most birds would be too flexible for swimming through water (Sparks and Soper, 1987).


1 . Different species of penguins can be identified by their head and facial markings.

2. Penguins have a variety of bill shapes which are used to capture fish, squid, and crustaceans. Generally, the bill tends to be long and thin in species that are primarily fish eaters, but shorter and stouter in those that mainly feed on krill (del Hoyo, et al., 1992). The mouth is lined with horny, rear-directed spines to aid in swallowing live prey (Marchant, 1990). 

3. Eyes.

    a. The color of irises varies among the species.

      (1) Many species have brown, reddish-brown, or golden-brown eyes.

      (2) Rockhopper and macaroni penguins have red eyes.

      (3) Fairy (little blue) penguins have bluish-gray eyes.

      (4) As their name implies, yellow-eyed penguins have yellow eyes (Marchant, 1990).

    b. The pupil of a penguin eye is circular. When constricted, however, the pupil of the king penguin is square (Welty, 1982).

    c. Like many animals, penguins have a nictitating membrane, sometimes called a third eyelid. This is a clear covering that protects the eye from injury.

 Legs and feet

1. Penguin legs are short and strong. Feet are webbed, with visible claws. The legs are set far back on the body to aid in streamlining and steering while swimming. This placement also causes penguins to stand vertically and walk upright (Marchant, 1990).

2. Penguins walk with short steps or hops, sometimes using their bills or tails to assist themselves on steep climbs (del Hoyo, et al., 1992). The maximum walking speed for Adélie penguins is 3.9 kph (2.4 mph). Emperors and kings walk slowly and do not hop. The maximum speed for emperors is 2.8 kph (1.7 mph). Some species, like the rockhopper, jump from rock to rock (Miller-Schwarze, 1984; del Hoyo, et al., 1992).

3. Antarctic species can move much faster over ice by "tobogganing" on their bellies, using their flippers and feet to help them move along (Simpson, 1976).


The tail is short and wedge-shaped, with 14 to 18 stiff tail feathers. Members of the genus Pygoscelis have longer tail feathers, which they often use as a prop when on land (Marchant, 1990).

Shiny, waterproof feathers overlap to cover a penguin's skin.


1. Shiny feathers uniformly overlap to cover a penguin's skin (del Hoyo, et al., 1992). Feathers are highly specialized-short, broad, and closely spaced, helping to keep water away from the skin. Tufts of down on the feather shafts contribute to the insulative properties of the feathers.

2. Penguins have more feathers than most other birds, with about 70 feathers per square inch.

3. Most penguin species go through one complete molt (shed their feathers) each year, usually after the breeding season. The exception is the Galapagos penguin, which usually goes through two molts annually (del Hoyo, et al., 1992).

    a. Molting is an essential function, as feathers wear out during the year. Feathers become worn when penguins rub against each other, come in contact with the ground and water, and regularly preen (clean, rearrange, and oil) their feathers (Sparks and Soper, 1987).

    b. The new feather grows under the old one, pushing it out. The old feather does not fall out until the new one is completely in place. The molt is patchy and can give individual penguins a scruffy look (del Hoyo, et al., 1992).

    c. During the molt, feathers lose some of their insulating and waterproofing capabilities, and penguins stay out of the water until their plumage is restored to optimum condition (del Hoyo, et al., 1992; Sparks and Soper, 1987).

    d. Depending on the species, the average length of the molt varies from 13 days for the Galapagos penguin to 34 for the emperor penguin (del Hoyo, et al., 1992).

    e. Because penguins don't enter the water to feed during a molt, they fast. Before their molt, they build a fat layer, which provides energy until the molt is over (del Hoyo, et al., 1992).

1 . Generally, penguins are not sexually dimorphic; males and females look alike. Crested penguins are exceptions: the males are more robust and have larger bills (del Hoyo, et al., 1992).

2. During the breeding season, female penguins are sometimes identifiable by muddy footprints on their backs, left by males during mating activity.


Penguin and Chick

Credit: Mark Terry






Penguins are flightless birds found in the Southern Hemisphere from the Antarctic to the equator. There are 18 species of penguins in the southern water, seven of them live around Antarctica. 


The Adelie and emperor breed on the Antarctic shores and are the only two species found in the Ross Sea area.

 Chinstrap Penguin

 Chinstrap Penguin


 Chinstraps breed on islands around Antarctica and gentoos are found from the Antarctic islands to the sub-Antarctic. 

Gentoo Penguin

Gentoo Penguin


Another three species (the King, rockhopper and macaroni) live on the sub-Antarctic islands.

King  PenguinsRockhopper Penguins

King and Rockhopper Penguins


 Because ice covers almost all of Antarctica, penguins have to get all their food from the sea, where they spend about half their time. They are able to dive very deeply (emperors can dive to 250 meters) and all are excellent swimmers. The feet and tail act as a rudder and the flippers as propellers. They feed mostly on small fish and krill, each one captured individually. The penguins are also food for other ocean predators: leopard seals and killer whales. On land their main predator is the skua, a bird which takes both eggs and chicks.

Emperor Penguin

Emperor Penguin

King penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) provide a real wildlife spectacle on the island of South Georgia, where 400,000 pairs breed. These birds were photographed at Royal Bay, South Georgia


Aptenodytes forsteri

size: 11 2 cm (44 in.), 27 to 41 kg (60-90 lb.)
distribution: circumpolar on Antarctic continent within limits of pack-ice ; one of two species restricted to the Antarctic (the other is the Adelie); generally avoid open water beyond limits of floating ice 

Aptenodytes patagonicus

size: 94 cm (37 in.), 13.5 to 16 kg (30-35 lb.)
distribution: subantarctic islands and peninsulas  usually forage in ice-free waters ; mainly over shelf and slope areas . Most juveniles oceanic; observed several hundred kilometers from nearest colony

Pygoscelis adeliae

size: 46 to 61 cm (1 8-24 in.), 3.6 to 4.5 kg (8-1 0 lb.)
distribution: circumpolar on Antarctic continent within limits of pack-ice ; is restricted to the Antarctic (along with emperor penguins).

Pygoscelis papua

size: 61 to 76 cm (24-30 in.), 5.5 to 6.4 kg (12-14 lb.)
distribution: circumpolar in subantarctic and antarctic waters; avoid pack ice and continental coasts, except near the Antarctic peninsula; usually remain near breeding islands throughout year 

Pygoscelis antarctica

size: 46 to 61 cm (1 8-24 in.), 4 kg (9 lb.)
distribution: antarctic and subantarctic islands 

Eudyptes chrysocome

size: 41 to 46 cm (i 6-18 in.), about 2.3 to 2.7 kg (5-6 lb.)
distribution: subantarctic islands 

Eudyptes chrysolophus

size: 51 to 61 cm (20-24 in.), 4.5 kg (1 0 lb.)
distribution: subantarctic islands in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans

Eudyptes schlegeli

size: 66 to 76 cm (26-30 in.), 5.5 kg (1 2 lb.)
distribution: Macquarie and Campbell Islands; also around the New Zealand coast

Fiordland crested
Eudyptes pachyrhynchus

size: 61 cm (24 in.), 2.7 to 3 kg (6-7 lb.)
distribution: subantarctic islands and New Zealand

Eudyptes sclateri

size: 63.5 cm (25 in.), 2.7 to 3.5 kg (6-7.7 lb.)
distribution: Australia; New Zealand; and Bounty, Campbell, and Auckland Islands

Snares Crested
Eudyptes robustus

size: 63.5 cm (25 in.), 2.7 to 3 kg (6-7 lb.)
distribution: restricted to Snares Island, south of New Zealand

Megadyptes antipodes

size: 76 cm (30 in.), 6 kg (1 3 lb.)
distribution: southeast New Zealand

Eudyptula minor

size: 41 cm (16 in.), about 1 kg (2.2 lb.)
distribution: southern Australia and New Zealand

Spheniscus magellanicus

size: 61 to 71 cm (24-28 in.), 5 kg (11 lb.)
distribution: Falkland Islands and along the coast of Chile and Argentina

Spheniscus humboldti

size: 56 to 66 cm (22-26 in.), 4 kg (9 lb.)
distribution: islands off the west coast of South America and along the coast of Peru and Chile 
Spheniscus demersus

size: 61 to 71 cm (24-28 in.), 3 kg (7 lb.)
distribution: South African waters 

Spheniscus mendiculus



size: 53 cm (21 in.), 2.5 kg (5-6 lb.)
distribution: Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador, almost astride the equator; is the most northerly penguin species



Credit: University of Washington,NOAA, British Antarctic Survey, Mark Terry