King penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus)
|Size||Length: 95 cm (2)|
|Weight||13 kg (2)|
- The king penguin chick looks so different to the adult that they were first described as a completely different species altogether.
- While widely spread in the southern ocean you’ll never find a king penguin on pack ice, that is left to its close relative the emperor penguin.
- King penguins are excellent divers and have been known to dive as deep as 300 metres!
- King penguins are one of the few birds that do not build nests, eggs are incubated under the belly on top of their feet.
The king penguin is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).
The king penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) is the second largest penguin in the world, exceeded in size solely by its closest relative, the even more grandly named emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) (2) (3) (4). One of the more colourful penguins, the king penguin has a striking, spoon-shaped patch of orange-gold on either side of the neck that fades into a paler orange upper chest (2) (3) (4) (5). The rest of the head, the wings and the tail are black, while the back is bluish-grey with a silvery shimmer, and the belly is white (2) (6). The downy, brown chicks are so different in appearance to the adult king penguins that early explorers described them as an entirely different species, the ‘woolly penguin’ (3) (7).
The king penguin is found in the waters of the sub-Antarctic, and breeds on many of the sub-Antarctic islands between 46 and 55 degrees south, such as South Georgia, Crozet, the Falklands, and the islands southeast of Australia and southwest of New Zealand (2) (3)(4) (5). Although it ranges widely in the southern ocean, this species does not go onto the pack ice, home to its closest relative, the emperor penguin (2).
Breeding colonies of the king penguin are found on bare ground and amongst vegetation, and may be close to the shoreline on gently sloping beaches, or in valleys several hundred metres from the sea (8).
A highly gregarious species, the king penguin gathers in breeding colonies, ranging in size from the small, around 30 birds, to the immense, hundreds of thousands of birds (3) (4). When ready to mate, a male will advertise its availability with trumpet-like calls, and by stretching tall, with its bill elegantly upraised (2) (5). During pair formation, both sexes engage in an elaborate display of head shaking, strutting, bowing, calling, and high-pointing, where a couple stand face-to-face, and slowly rise to their full height before relaxing again (2). A single egg is laid between November and April, with both parent birds sharing incubation duties in two to three week cycles (2) (3). Instead of building a nest, the egg is incubated on top of the feet under the warm belly, with each pair’s somewhat mobile territory defined simply by pecking-distance (2) (4) (5). After hatching, parental duties continue to be equally shared by both sexes, with one staying on land to brood the chick while the other goes in search of food at sea (2) (3) (4). When the chick reaches around six weeks old, it joins a group of chicks known as a crèche, thus allowing both parents to go foraging at the same time, in order to bring back enough food for the voracious offspring (2) (3). The crèche provides the woolly chicks with protection from predators, as well as the benefit of collective warmth (2). The winter is a testing time for the young chicks, as a scarcity of food forces the parents to spend longer periods at sea, during which time the chicks must fast (2) (4). As a result, chicks that are born late in the breeding season, and therefore weigh less by on the onset of winter, face a much greater risk of not surviving through till spring (2). Those that come through the winter having survived the combined hazards of predation, starvation and freezing temperatures, eventually fledge at around 10 to 13 months old (3). The consequence of this long chick-rearing period, is that the king penguin typically only produces two chicks every three years (3) (4) (5). Although a breeding pair is monogamous whilst raising a chick, only a very small proportion of individuals mate with the same partner the following breeding season (2).
While chicks remain in the colonies year-round and breeding adults must return throughout the winter to feed the chicks, immature birds and non-breeding adults commonly disperse far from the colonies (4). With a body designed for efficiency in water, the king penguin is an expert swimmer and diver (2) (3). In the pursuit of fish and squid, which form the bulk of the diet, the king penguin generally dives down to around 50 metres, but will sometimes descend as deep as 300 metres, particularly during the winter when food is scarce (2) (5) (8). Whilst on land, skuas, sheathbills and giant petrels are a constant threat to young birds and eggs. At sea, however, the main predators of the king penguin are leopard seals and killer whales (4).
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the king penguin was ruthlessly hunted for oil, blubber, eggs and skins (2) (3) (4) (5). Owing to its gregarious nature at breeding colonies, the king penguin was an extremely easy target for hunters, with the result that some colonies were completely exterminated (2). Fortunately, following the banning of commercial hunting, the king penguin population has rebounded, with most breeding locations being once again home to large, secure colonies (2) (3) (4) (5).
With increased human activity around the sub-Antarctic islands, there is an increasing risk of the introduction of a disease, pest or predator that could do swift harm to a dense breeding population (2).
Owing to its wide range, large, growing population, and the lack of any major threats, the king penguin is not currently considered a conservation concern (9).
To find out more about the king penguin, as well as other Antarctic penguins, visit:
British Antarctic Survey:
BBC Wildlife Finder:
For more information on this and other bird species please see:
- Incubation: the act of incubating eggs, that is, keeping them warm so that development is possible.
- Monogamous: mating with a single partner.
IUCN Red List (June, 2009)
- McGonigal, D. (2008) Antarctica: Secrets of the Southern Continent. Firefly Books, New York.
British Antarctic Survey - King Penguin (September, 2009)
Australian Antarctic Division - King Penguins (September, 2009)
MarineBio.org - King Penguin, Aptenodytes patagonicus (September, 2009)
WoRMS World Register of Marine Species - Aptenodytes patagonicus (September, 2009)
- Rubin, J. (2008) Antarctica. Lonely Planet Publications, London.
- Williams, T.D. (1995) Bird Families of the World – The Penguins. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
BirdLife International (September, 2009)