Adélie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae)

Also known as: Adelie penguin
GenusPygoscelis (1)
SizeLength: 71 cm (2)
Weight4 - 6 kg (2)
Top facts

The Adélie penguin is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Named after the wife, Adéle, of the French Antarctic explorer, Dumont d'Urville (3), the Adélie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) is a distinctive black and white seabird with a characteristic tuxedo-wearing appearance. Adult Adélie penguins have a black head, with white rings around each eye, and a red bill. The back is black, with blue-tipped feathers, while the chest is solid white and the feet are grey-pink (2) (4). Immature Adélie penguins have a bluer back than the adult, with a white throat and cheeks (2), and chicks are downy, with a dark grey head and grey body (4). This soft down provides insulation for the chicks against the Antarctic cold, but is not waterproof, and is replaced by waterproof feathers at around 2 months old (2) (4). Although simple, the plumage of the Adélie penguin provides good camouflage when foraging in the ocean, as the black back will blend into the depths when viewed from above, while the white front keeps the Adélie penguin from standing out against the bright sea surface, when predators approach from below (5).

The Adélie penguin is found all along the coastline and the small islands of the Antarctic continent (6), with the largest colonies concentrated in the Ross Sea region (5). It is a true Antarctic species, entirely restricted to Antarctic coastal waters in summer, spending the winter season on pack ice, sometimes thousands of kilometres from the coast, before migrating to the coastal colonies for breeding (3).

Breeding colonies are formed adjacent to the open sea, on ice-free areas of exposed rock around the Antarctic coastline (4) (6) (7). Almost all colonies of Adélie penguins are found close to persistent areas of open water known as polynyas, so that breeding penguins do not need to walk long distances to reach areas in which they can swim and dive to forage (2) (8).

The breeding season of the Adélie penguin is short and closely synchronised to the Antarctic summer months of October to April (3) (5). The male arrives at the breeding ground first, and begins to build a nest out of small stones, before the female arrives a few days later (4) (7). Following a brief courtship of flipper waving and vocal displays, the pair complete the nest (3) (4), and the female will then lay a clutch of 2 eggs which are incubated by both adults for around 35 days (5) (6). The eggs hatch in early to late December (3), depending on latitude, and brooding of the new chicks is shared alternately by the two adults, allowing the other to feed at sea (5). After 3 weeks, the chicks gather in a small group of 3 to 20 individuals, known as a crèche, before fledging at around 2 months old (4) (5). Until this point, young Adélie penguin chicks at nest sites are very vulnerable, especially to predation by giant petrels and skuas (5). Gathering in a crèche helps protect the young chicks from predation and adverse weather, enabling both adults to forage simultaneously (3) (7). The Adélie penguin displays ‘natal philopatry’ (2) (4), meaning that, under normal circumstances, when breeding begins at between three to five years of age, the bird will often return to the same colony in which it was born (7).

The Adélie penguin feeds mainly on krill and small fish, although the diet also includes amphipods and cephalopods (5) (6). During the breeding season, foraging occurs in coastal waters close to breeding colonies, although migration further afield during the winter months is common (4) (6). The Adélie penguin is capable of diving up to 175 metres to forage for food (2) (5) (7), and is able to reach speeds underwater of 15 kilometres per hour (4). Less elegant on land than in the water, the Adélie penguin is nimble and able to walk long distances at speeds that average 2.5 kilometres per hour; when travelling across snowy terrain, it can conserve energy by sliding across the snow on its front, using its wings and feet to propel itself forwards (2) (4).

One of the most abundant and widespread Antarctic species, populations of the Adélie penguin continue to be either stable or increasing across much of its range (4) (5). However, because the Adélie penguin is associated with sea ice, climate change is beginning to have an impact on the populations of this penguin (5) (8). In some cases, climate change has, so far, benefited the Adélie penguin by optimising foraging opportunities, with increased wind strength leading to more persistent areas of open water close to breeding colonies. For colonies at the northernmost part of the species’ range, warming of the air and ocean is leading to less sea ice, causing a decline in the population of the adjacent colonies. If warming continues in this way throughout the Antarctic, the Adélie penguin will become much more at risk (8).

Other emerging threats to the Adélie penguin include competition with commercial fisheries for the harvest of fish and krill, the penguins’ main food resource (5) (7).

Many colonies of the Adélie penguin are protected as Antarctic Specially Protected Areas under the Antarctic Treaty. Foraging areas, however, remain unprotected from commercial fishing, although the Antarctic Treaty Powers are beginning a process that hopefully will result in the designation of Marine Protected Areas (9).

This species remains one of the best studied Antarctic residents (2), and colonies of the Adélie penguin continue to be monitored right across Antarctica in order to establish the effects that climate change, human impact, the recovery of over-exploited fur seals and baleen whales (competitors with the penguins) and over-fishing will have on the Adélie penguin’s population dynamics in the future (2) (3) (7) (8).

To find out more about the Adélie penguin, and other Antarctic penguin species, visit:

To find out more about Antarctic penguins and climate change visit:

For more information on this and other bird species, see:

Authenticated (25/10/10) by Dr. David Ainley, Senior Ecological Associate of H.T. Harvey & Associates.

  1. IUCN Red List (August, 2012)
  2. Landcare Research - Adélie Penguin Research (July, 2010)
  3. British Antarctic Survey - Adélie Penguin (July, 2010)
  4. - Pygoscelis adeliae, Adelie Penguin (July, 2010)
  5. International Penguin Conservation Work Group - Adelie Penguin (July, 2010)
  6. BirdLife International (July, 2010)
  7. Australian Antarctic Division - Adélie Penguins (July, 2010)
  8. PenguinScience (July, 2010)
  9. David Ainley (October, 2010) Pers. comm.