Published: January 2021
Thanks P (age 8) for your great question about the different kinds of penguins in Antarctica!
We all love penguins – right?! There’s Mumble the shy little emperor groover in search of his song; Pingu, the playful progenitor of Penguinese; and Steve the intrepid Adélie from the film Penguins. But did you know there are eighteen* different types of penguin on Earth? And they’re all unique and wonderful in their own ways.
My name is Nina, and I’ve spent countless hours watching the wacky antics of these amazing seabirds while I was working as a guide in Antarctica. Penguins are a true delight – it’s almost impossible to be grumpy in their company. I’m excited to share some of the most amazing (and surprising) things I learned while working with penguins in Antarctica.
*Or 17 or 19! Scientists still aren’t quite sure.
Penguins: a quick introduction
Penguins are seabirds. They can’t fly. Instead, they have solid wings that act like paddles, helping them ‘fly’ through the ocean. In the ocean they seek out food, from fish and squid to small crustaceans like krill. They really only come ashore to rest, breed, raise their chicks and replace their feathers once each year.
All penguins live in the Southern Hemisphere – well, almost all. The one exception is the Galapagos penguin, which lives on the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. The Galapagos Islands bridge the equator, so sometimes these penguins of the tropics find themselves dipping into the Northern Hemisphere.
Penguins come in all shapes and sizes, from the little penguin, at barely more than length of a ruler, to the emperor penguin, which can be as tall as a child. Penguins also have many different habits and ways of life. Some penguins dig burrows in the sand, while others build nests from pebbles on the tops of hills. Some carry their eggs around on their feet for months at a time, keeping them warm in a downy pouch called a brood pouch. Others pop their eggs on a pile of rocks and lie down on them to keep them warm. Some penguins have colourful crests and brilliant beaks, while others have a more understated, monochromatic plumage.
There are seven different types of penguin living in Antarctica and on the subantarctic islands nearby: Adélie, Chinstrap, Emperor, Gentoo, King, Macaroni and Rockhopper. Let’s take a closer look at each of these amazing birds!
1. Adélie penguins
- Scientific name: Pygoscelis adeliae
- Length: 46 to 71 cm (18 to 28 inches)
- Weight: 3 -6 kg (7.9 to 13.2 pounds)
- Deepest dive: 180m (590 feet)
- IUCN Status: Least Concern (population increasing)
- Global population: 7,580,000
Adélies are small!
Adélie penguins are the smallest penguin species in Antarctica. Adult Adélie penguins stand between 70–73 cm (about 28–29 inches) tall and weigh 4–6 kg (about 9–13 pounds). However they are certainly not the smallest penguins around. The Australian little (fairy) penguin is petite – no taller than a standard school ruler is long!
They are true Antarcticans
Adélie penguins live in Antarctica, and nowhere else. Of the 18 penguin species on the planet, only two are ‘true’ Antarcticans: Adélie and emperor penguins.
While most Antarctic penguin species can be found across subantarctic islands further north, these two are all about Antarctica.
Adélie penguins are pebble-thieves!
Each spring, most Adélie penguins return to their rocky colonies after a winter feeding at sea. They build their nests out of small stones in preparation for the breeding season. Stones are a valuable commodity in an Adélie colony, and male Adélies are known for their pebble-stealing antics. It’s not surprising, because these small stones offer vital protection from the elements. They are so important that, even though Adélie penguins are monogamous, females have been known to sell their wares in exchange for a stone or two to bolster their nests! That’s a bit racy!
They love krill
Adélie penguins feed primarily on krill, a small shrimp-like crustacean which drifts in huge swarms off the Antarctic coast. In fact, they are such big fans of these delicious morsels they rarely eat anything else!
Their feathers are like a wetsuit
The plumage of an Adélie penguin (and all penguins) is a bit like a wetsuit, offering protection from the icy grip of the sea while they’re out feeding. Their plumage is made up of several different types of feathers, each with its own important role.
The inner layer is soft, light down, which helps keep the penguin warm. The outer layers are quite stiff and bristly, and protect the cosy down inside from wind and water.
Penguins keep their feathers shiny and watertight by spreading a special oil over them. They use a waterproof ‘preening oil’, which comes from a gland near their tail, and spread it over their bodies using their beaks.
They lose all their feathers every year!
It’s very important for penguins to keep their coat in good nick, and one way they do this is by replacing their feathers every year. Before returning to sea for winter, penguins replace all of their feathers in a ‘catastrophic’ moult. It takes around a month for all their old feathers to be replaced, and during this time they can’t go to sea to feed. It’s an uncomfortable time of the year, but getting back in the icy water in their shiny new coat makes it all worthwhile.
2. Chinstrap Penguins
- Scientific name: Pygoscelis antarctica
- Length: 71–76 cm (about 28–30 inches)
- Weight: 3–6 kg (about 7–13 pounds)
- Deepest dive: 100 metres (330 feet)
- IUCN Status: Least concern (population decreasing)
- Global population: approximately 8 million
They have a strap under their chin!
Chinstrap penguins have a little black line under their chin and a black cap on their heads, making them look like early aviators or rally car drivers. This ‘strap’ is how they got their name. Each season, when chinstrap penguins replace all of their feathers they also refresh the black stripe under their chins!
They have brushy tails
Chinstrap penguins are part of the brush-tailed penguin family, and will happily share their colony with their brush-tailed brethren, including gentoo and Adélie penguins. They’ll even welcome the occasional macaroni or rockhopper penguin into the fold!
Chinstrap penguins build nests on rocky outcrops
Each spring chinstraps (affectionately known as ‘chinnies’) arrive at their rocky colonies to build nests out of stones and prepare for breeding season. They need snow-free areas to nest, which means they often set up in the most exposed, windswept places around!
Parents take turns keeping their egg/s warm
After breeding the females lay two (sometimes three) eggs, and both parents take turns keeping the eggs warm, changing shifts every 5-10 days.
They are partial to krill
The preferred diet of chinstrap penguins is around 95% krill and 5 % fish and other crustaceans.
Sometimes they get thirsty
When penguins are moulting (replacing their feathers), they can’t go to sea. They would get too cold with their half-cover of feathers – it would be like going for a swim in a very cold ocean wearing half a wetsuit! Their annual moult takes around 3 weeks, and they have to stay ashore through this time, unable to eat or drink. If they get thirsty, they might eat a little snow to rehydrate.
3. Emperor Penguins
- Scientific name: Aptenodytes forsteri
- Length: Up to 130 cm (about 50 inches)
- Weight: 25 to 45 kg (55 to 100 pounds)
- Deepest dive: 550 metres (1,800 feet)
- IUCN Status: Near threatened (population trend unknown)
- Global population: There are approximately 60 known colonies, with an estimated total population of 531,000-557,000
Emperors are the MOST of many things
When most of us think of Antarctic penguins, we think of emperors. These regal, dignified birds found fame in box office hits like Happy Feet, and the documentary March of the Penguins. But these Hollywood heroes are more than just superstars. They are the biggest, deepest diving, southernmost penguins on the planet: superlative in every way.
They are largest penguins on Earth
Emperor penguins are the largest penguin species on the planet, with adults growing up to about 130 cm (about 50 inches) long and weighing 25 to 45 kg (55 to 100 pounds) – about the same as an 8 or 9 year old human.
They are the deepest divers
Emperor penguins can dive deeper than any seabird. The deepest known dive of any bird was by an emperor penguin, which dived to a depth of 565 metres (1850 feet), staying underwater for over half an hour!
They are the only penguins to breed on the ice in winter
Emperor penguins are the only penguin species to breed and raise their chicks on the sea ice. Their favourite location for breeding colonies is the pack ice, stable platforms of sea ice which are anchored to the Antarctic coastline.
Not only do they breed further south than any other penguin, but these badass birds breed during the winter, in temperatures as low as -50°C (- 58°F) (although it’s usually more like -20°C (-4°F), and with winds gusting up to 200km per hour (124mph)!
They huddle up to keep warm
How do emperor penguins manage to keep warm in these conditions? One of the strategies they use is to huddle up, constantly switching positions from the frosty edge of the huddle to the cosy interior. Penguins in the middle of the huddle enjoy temperatures up around 20°C (70°F)!
Emperor penguins huddles are more than a random arrangement. Scientists have been studying penguin huddles using high resolution cameras, and they discovered that huddles have a kind of mathematical formula, a precise geometry that maximises the efficiency of the huddle for all involved.
Scientists can count penguins by spotting their poo from space!
Emperor penguins live in such remote, cold parts of the world that it’s difficult for scientists to visit their colonies and count individual penguins. While researchers can visit some emperor colonies and install cameras in others, there are many areas that are simply too remote to access. Enter: high resolution satellite imagery, where brown stains on the ice help scientists pinpoint penguin colonies, all thanks to their poo!
4. Gentoo Penguins
- Scientific name(s): Pygoscelis ellsworthi (Antarctic Peninsula); Pygoscelis poncetii (South Georgia) Pygoscelis papua (Falkland Islands)
- Length: 51 to 90 cm (20 to 35 inches)
- Weight: 5-8.5 kg (11 -19 pounds)
- Deepest dive: 210 metres (688 feet)
- IUCN Status: Least concern (population stable)
- Global population: 774,000
They travel far and wide
Gentoo penguins are the third largest penguin species on earth, and have the largest breeding range of any penguin: from Macquarie Island (south of New Zealand) to the Falkland Islands (off the east coast of Argentina) and all the way south to the Antarctic Peninsula!
Gentoos are a little awkward on land . . .
Like most penguin species, gentoo penguins are great in the water, and a little ungainly on land. Still, they spend a lot of time travelling over snow and ice between their colonies, where they breed and raise their chicks, and the sea, where they forage for food.
Snow can be deep and ice can be slippery, so penguins have developed a bunch of strategies for dealing with this tricky terrain. One of these is tobogganing (sliding head-first on their bellies), which can be a very efficient way for a penguin to get down a hill!
But in the water, they are the fastest of all the penguins!
They may be a little accident-prone on land, but in the water penguins are completely at home. Watching them underwater is like watching a ballet – one moment they’re gliding gracefully past icebergs; the next they’re like torpedoes, porpoising (leaping out of the water) furiously as they evade a hungry seal in hot pursuit!
All penguins are at home in the water, but gentoo penguins take out the prize for fastest penguin, reaching swimming speeds of 36 kph (22.4 mph)!
They are enterprising
To make their lives on land easier, penguins build ‘penguin highways’, networks of preferred ‘trails’ from the water to their nests. By following one another down the same path, they eventually create grooves in the snow, which offer protection from the wind and a comfortable, hard-packed trail to travel.
And they aren’t picky eaters
Gentoo penguins have the most diverse diet of all the Antarctic penguins, enjoying a smorgasbord of crustaceans, fish and squid. They’re flexible foodies, quite happy to change their diet depending on what’s available. This makes them more resilient to climate change than some other species, as seen on the Antarctic Peninsula in recent years. This has been attributed in large part to the fact that they can modify their diet as conditions change around them.
Gentoo aren’t quite ‘gentoo’ anymore!
In 2020, scientists discovered that the gentoo penguins living in different locations across the Southern Ocean are actually different species! The different species look quite similar, and scientists assumed that they interbreed, sharing DNA with each generation. They were quite surprised to discover that these penguins don’t interbreed, and haven’t for a long time. In fact, they’ve been isolated for so long that today, they have distinctly different DNA, and seem to be evolving as independent species! The new species have been named P. papua from the Falkland Islands, P. ellsworthi from the Antarctic Peninsula, P. poncetii from South Georgia, and P. taeniata from Kerguelen Island.
5. King Penguins
- Scientific name: Aptenodytes patagonicus
- Length: 85–95 cm (33–37 inches)
- Weight: 14–17 kg (about 31–37 pounds)
- Deepest dive: Over 150 m (490 ft)
- IUCN Status: Least concern (population increasing)
- Global population: Around 1.1 million breeding pairs annually
They’re big birds
King penguins are second only to the emperor penguins in size, reaching up to 85–95 cm (33–37 inches) in length and weighing around 14–17 kg (about 31–37 pounds).
Their chicks are called ‘Oakum boys’
Early sealers who spent time around king penguin colonies took to calling the chicks ‘Oakum boys’, because their brown downy feathers was a similar colour to the brown jute (oakum caulk) used to seal their timber ships before sailing.
King penguins chicks are covered in fluffy brown down for 10-12 months before growing into their adult plumage in what can only be described as an undignified transition.
They feed their chicks regurgitated seafood
King penguins have a diverse diet of fish, squid, krill and other small crustaceans. Both parents go to sea to forage, coming back to the colony to feed their chick by regurgitating food into their mouths.
Some hunting forays can take a long time, and the chick may have to wait months for its parents to return with food. This continues for around 300 days, until the chick is fledged and ready to strike out on its own.
They have a bizarre breeding cycle
While most penguins lay between one and three eggs at the beginning of spring, king penguins have a rolling breeding cycle, which means they tend to lay two eggs every three years: one every 14-18 months.
Because of this, you’re likely to see many fluffy chicks at different stages of development almost any time you visit a king penguin colony, which is a real treat! The downside is that chicks are usually born between November and March, and March babes, being born just before winter hits, have a pretty low chance of survival.
Are kings and emperors related?
Yes – they are the only two remaining members of the Aptenodytes genus of penguins, otherwise known as the ‘great penguins’.
King and emperor penguins have a lot in common: they’re the two largest penguin species, and they both sport a resplendent, colourful plumage with large, coloured patches on their cheeks. They both incubate their egg by balancing it on their feet, and keep it warm by tucking it under a down-covered pouch called a brood pouch. But there are some important differences between them.
King penguin chicks are brown all over, while emperor penguin chicks are black and white, like Mumble from Happy Feet. Kings and emperors each have their own distinct domain: king penguins tend to form colonies on the broad, flat plains of subantarctic islands north of Antarctica, while emperor penguins live in the southernmost parts of Antarctica. So despite their similarities, these closely related penguins are unlikely to ever come across one another, unless an emperor goes exploring far to the north, and a king ventures into the deep south.
The largest king penguin colony has around 500,000 breeding pairs!
That’s one million individual penguins, plus non-breeders (either because they are too young or taking a break), plus chicks. How do penguin parents find their partners and chicks in these massive colonies when they return from a foraging run at sea? They use their own individual calls, which rise above the symphony of thousands of calling penguins.
6. Macaroni Penguins
- Scientific name: Eudyptes chrysolophus
- Length: Up to 71 cm (about 28 inches)
- Weight: 5.5 kg (about 12 pounds)
- Deepest dive: Up to 115 metres (about 375 feet)
- IUCN Status: Vulnerable (population decreasing)
- Global population: Around 6.3 million breeding pairs
Their name comes from a the state anthem of Connecticut, USA
Do you know this song?
Yankee Doodle went to town
A-riding on a pony
He stuck a feather in his hat
And called it macaroni
With their striking, deep yellow-orange crest above the eyes, macaroni penguins reminded early travellers of the feathers men used to wear in their caps in the 18th Century. Impressed by their fancy ‘dandy’ fashion, the sailors called the penguins ‘macaroni‘.
They have red eyes
Young macaroni penguins have brown eyes, but as they mature into adults their eyes turn red! All adult macaroni penguins have red eyes.
There is one macaroni penguin called Elvis
While most macaroni penguins live in colonies with other macaronis, there is a lone macaroni who made its home among chinstrap penguins on an island just north of the Antarctic Peninsula. This solitary macaroni became a star attraction for many tourist boats visiting the area. Eager to see this wayfaring penguin, they would often send a guide up ahead to scout for ‘Elvis’, so all the tourists could take a look through the binoculars and catch a glimpse of the rare vagabond!
They are skilled divers
Like all penguins, macaroni penguins go to the ocean to forage for food. They are strong swimmers and divers. On a normal day they may dive as deep as 15–70 metres (50–230 feet) in search of prey, but they can dive as deep as 115 metres (about 375 feet) at a stretch!
7. Southern Rockhopper Penguins
- Scientific name: Eudyptes chrysocome
- Length: 52–55 cm (about 20–22 inches)
- Weight: 2.5–3 kg (5.5–6.6 pounds)
- Deepest dive: Around 100 metres (330 feet)
- IUCN Status: Vulnerable (population decreasing)
- Global population: 2,500,000
Rockhoppers can bounce with the best of them
True to their name, rockhopper penguins are remarkable hoppers. While they can waddle on land, they often choose to move around rocky shorelines by jumping from rock to rock and over obstacles. While they don’t bounce particularly high or far, they have great endurance and can traverse quite large distances at a hop!
They have sharp claws
Rockhopper penguin colonies are often in rugged areas or up steep, craggy cliffs, so the trip from the sea back home can be quite a feat! It begins with a leap from the (sometimes stormy) sea onto the (sometimes very slippery) rocks. Fortunately, rockhoppers are very agile, and have sharp claws to help them grip the slippery rocks, seaweed, grass or whatever surface they need to negotiate to make their way home.
Their claws are so sharp that near some large colonies, if you look closely you’ll find rocks by the shore with deep grooves carved into them by generations of penguins scraping their way ashore after a good day of foraging.
They share colonies with black-browed albatrosses
In some parts of the Falkland Islands, rockhopper penguins nest alongside the beautiful black-browed albatross. Black-browed albatrosses are staggeringly large, with a wingspan of up 2.4 metres (7.8 feet) – four times longer than a rockhopper is tall!
The albatrosses dwarf the penguins, but they don’t seem too intimidated by these majestic wanderers of the sea!
They have red eyes
Like macaroni penguins, young rockhopper penguins have brown eyes, but as they mature into adults their eyes turn red! All adult rockhopper penguins have red eyed, a red beak and a black tufted crest, with yellow stripes over their eyes.
A final word . . .
Thank you for staying with me this far. If you’ve made it to here you must really like penguins – maybe as much as I do! Before we wrap up, I’d like to mention one more thing about penguins and their planet.
The climate is changing
Around the world, the climate is becoming more extreme, unstable and unpredictable. On the Antarctic Peninsula, summer’s lasting longer; life-giving sea ice comes later and leaves earlier; and unseasonal rain during the spring can spell the end for young chicks (their down can insulate them against dry snow, but not rain).
Many penguin species are in decline
You may have heard that over the past 30 or so years, Adélie and chinstrap penguin colonies have been shrinking dramatically across the Antarctic Peninsula. Even in the short time I worked there, I saw that it was becoming more and more difficult to find Adélie penguins in the area. There’s no question that the Antarctic Peninsula is warming, and this is having big, often visible impacts on the ice, ocean and life.
Right now, most penguin populations around the world are in decline, and some species are looking down the barrel of extinction in the not too distant future. Did you know that 10 of the world’s 17-19 penguin species are endangered? And if we continue on our current trajectory, emperor penguins and predicted to decline by more than half within 80 years, and end up extinct? Yeah. It’s not a good situation.
We can do something
There are lots of things humans do, which pose a threat to penguins: harmful and illegal fishing practices, introducing invasive land predators, burning too many fossil fuels, and that’s just a few.
But it’s not all bad news. There are some great organisations working to support penguins through conservation projects, meaningful research and education. If you want to help penguins, you might like to support one of these organisations.
Here are a couple of others we think are great:
And if you want to find out more about Antarctic conservation in general, check out the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition.
This blog post was written by Nina, an Antarctic guide based in Australia. If you have an Antarctic question for Nina, you can submit it here or send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can support Nina’s work by shopping below or at The Antarctic Shop.