Chinstrap penguin (Pygoscelis antarcticus)

Synonyms: Pygoscelis antarctica
GenusPygoscelis (1)
SizeLength: 72 cm (2)
Weight3.8 kg (2)

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The chinstrap penguin owes its name to a thin band of black feathers that runs just below the chin from ear to ear (2) (3) (4). In addition to the characteristic chinstrap, this species is readily distinguished from its congeners (Adelies and gentoos) by a white face that extends above the eye (3) (5). While the throat, chest and underparts are also white, the crown, back, tail and the dorsal surface of the wings are bluish-black (3) (6). The bill is black and the legs and feet are pinkish, with black soles. Immature chinstrap penguins are distinguished by black spotting around the face, up until the first complete moult at around 14 months old (3).

The chinstrap penguin inhabits the sub-Antarctic and the Antarctic, with the vast majority living within the South Atlantic Ocean (2). The breeding colonies are mainly found on the Antarctic Peninsula and on sub-Antarctic islands of the South Atlantic (2) (3), although there is also a small breeding population on the Balleny Islands, south of New Zealand (7).

Being agile climbers, the chinstrap penguin prefers to breed on ice-free areas of coast such as rocky slopes, headlands, rough foreshores, and high cliff edges (2) (3).

Chinstrap penguin breeding colonies are often enormous, with over 100,000 pairs congregating at some locations (4) (6). Breeding pairs form close bonds, with most individuals returning year after year to the same nest site with the same partner (3) (4). In late November, at the beginning of the Austral summer, the female usually lays two eggs, in a nest comprising a circular platform of small stones with a shallow nest cup (3) (4) (6) (7). The male and the female share incubation duties, and also take it in turns to attend the chicks after they hatch (3) (5). Unlike other penguin species, chinstrap penguin parents do not give preferential treatment to stronger offspring, but instead feed both chicks equally (4) (5) (7). The chicks usually fledge when they are around seven to eight weeks old, but breeding success is highly variable, with a much smaller proportion of chicks surviving in years when sea-ice persists near the colonies, restricting sea-access for foraging adults (3) (4) (6) (7).

During the breeding season, the chinstrap penguin forages close to the breeding grounds, spending most of its time near the surface at depths of less than 40 metres (2) (4). A specialist feeder, crustaceans, and in particular krill, form the bulk of this species’ diet (2) (3) (4). Prey is caught by pursuit-diving at all times of the day and night, with most effort concentrated around noon and midnight (3) (4) (7). At sea, the leopard seal is the main predator, while on land sheathbills and skuas are a threat to chicks and eggs (5) (7). To move about on land, the chinstrap penguin will often toboggan on its belly, propelling itself forward with its feet (7).

In autumn, the chinstrap penguin leaves the breeding colonies and heads for the open waters north of the pack-ice, where large groups congregate over winter (2) (5) (7). It is only in the following spring, around October, that this gregarious bird makes its way back to land and the breeding colonies (2).

The chinstrap penguin is a vastly abundant species, with a population estimated at around 8 million individuals in 2001 (4) (7) (8). Furthermore, in contrast with the current global trend of biodiversity loss, this penguin’s numbers actually appear to be increasing, while its range is also expanding. The reason for its success is not completely understood, but is possibly attributable to a rise in the krill population following over hunting of krill-eating whales, as well as increased reproductive success in response to a reduction in Antarctic sea-ice associated with climate change (2).

Owing to its wide range, and its large growing population, the chinstrap penguin is not currently considered to be a species of conservation concern (8). Nonetheless, efforts are being made to protect this species by regulating krill fishing and tourist activity near breeding colonies (5)

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  1. IUCN Red List (July, 2014)