Macaroni penguin (Eudyptes chrysolophus)

French: Gorfou doré
GenusEudyptes (1)
SizeLength: 71 cm (2)
Average weight: 5.5 kg (3)
Top facts

The macaroni penguin is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The macaroni penguin (Eudyptes chrysolophus) is a large, crested penguin, similar in appearance to other members of the genus Eudyptes, but larger than all other species except the royal penguin (Eudyptes schlegeli) (4). Adult macaroni penguins have golden-yellow plume-like feathers that arise from a central patch on the forehead, extending back along the crown and drooping down behind the eye (2) (4). The head, chin, throat and upperparts are black, the underparts are white, and the flippers are black on the upper surface but mainly white below (4). The large bill is orange-brown, the eyes are red and there is a patch of bare pink skin from the base of the bill to the eye. The legs and feet are pink. Male and female macaroni penguins are similar in appearance, but males tend to be slightly larger (4). Immature macaroni penguins lack the head plumes or have a few sparse yellow feathers on the forehead; their bills are smaller than those of adults and are brownish-black in colour, while the chin and throat are dark grey (4).

The macaroni penguin has a circumpolar range (4). It breeds at 50 known sites on sub-Antarctic islands in the South Atlantic and southern Indian Oceans, with one breeding site on the Antarctic Peninsula (2) (4). The main breeding populations are located on the islands of Crozet, Heard, McDonald, Kerguelen and South Georgia (2). In 12 years, study populations on South Georgia have decreased by 65 percent and it is thought that the overall population on South Georgia has declined by 50 percent in the last 20 years (2). Most of the world population of the macaroni penguin has declined by at least 20 percent in the last 36 years (equivalent to three generations), but surveys are required to confirm the status of this species (2). The range of the macaroni penguin outside of the breeding season is unknown, although it is thought that it stays in Antarctic waters (4).

Breeding colonies of the macaroni penguin are situated on rocky slopes or level ground, usually in areas lacking vegetation, although some nests are located amongst tussock grass (4). Little is known of this species outside of the breeding season, but it is believed that it is pelagic, spending all of its time at sea (4).

The macaroni penguin is mainly active during the day. Very little is known about this species outside of the breeding season; most studies have been carried out on breeding birds. The macaroni penguin feeds mainly on krill (shrimp-like crustaceans), although in some areas fish become an increasingly important food source as the breeding season progresses (5). It has been estimated that macaroni penguins alone consume four million tonnes of krill each year (6). In some populations, dives typically take the form of a V-shape, reaching depths of 48 metres (4), although in other populations, the dive profiles are more complex (5).

Macaroni penguins return to the breeding colonies each year in October and November, with males arriving before the females (4). Individuals often have to walk hundreds of metres over screes to reach their nest site (2). Macaroni penguins are monogamous and pair bonds are long-lasting. Each year the pair reunites at the same nest location, recognising each other by means of their calls (4). Pairs often perform a display known as the ‘ecstatic display’, in which their heads are swung from side to side (4). The nest is a simple scrape in the ground, typically lined with small rocks. In some cases, it may be built on a patch of grass and lined with grass shoots (4). Two eggs are laid; the second egg is always larger than the first and is usually the only successful egg per nest. If both eggs are lost, the pair is unable to produce a replacement brood (3).

The incubation of the eggs takes up to 37 days and is shared by the adults in three main shifts. The first shift lasts for 8 to 12 days and is shared by the male and female. The second shift (12 to 14 days) is carried out by the female, and the final shift (9 to 11 days) by the male. During each shift, the non-incubating penguin goes to forage at sea during the day (2) (4). The newly hatched macaroni penguin chicks are helpless, and for the first 23 to 25 days they are guarded and brooded by the male, while the female forages and feeds the chicks each day by regurgitating food (4). After this period, the chicks have developed their first plumage, which allows them to maintain their own temperature and so leave the nest. They cluster into small crèches for protection; at this stage, both adults are able to forage (3). Most chicks will have fledged by 60 to 70 days of age (4), at which point they have developed waterproof plumage (3). The macaroni penguin does not start to breed until five years of age in females and six in males (4).

After the chicks leave the breeding colonies, the adult macaroni penguins feed at sea for around three weeks before the annual moult. During the moult they are unable to forage, as the plumage is not watertight. After the 25 day moult the adults leave the colonies to spend the winter at sea (3).

In undisturbed macaroni penguin colonies, predation is relatively low. Eggs (mainly deserted ones) are predated upon by skuas, sheathbills, and kelp gulls, while weakened chicks, or those separated from the crèche, are taken by skuas and giant petrels. Whilst at sea, adult macaroni penguins are predated upon by leopard seals and Antarctic fur seals (4).

Many penguin species of the Southern Oceans Ecosystem, including the macaroni penguin, share a common set of factors that are causing population reductions (2) (6). Introduced predators such as cats and rats are a great problem for breeding birds on a number of islands, including South Georgia. Over-fishing is a very serious factor, in particular the harvesting of krill, the main food source of the macaroni penguin. Further pressures include oil spills and increasing tourism, as well as potential climate change, particularly as penguins are extremely sensitive to changes in sea temperature and ocean currents and the consequent decrease in prey availability (6).

Although numbers of macaroni penguins are high, the decline of the overall population in the last 30 years has resulted in the classification of the species as globally Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (1). Long-term monitoring programmes are underway at a number of breeding colonies, and many of the islands that support breeding populations of this penguin are protected reserves (2). The islands of Heard and McDonald are World Heritage Sites (2). If the suite of threats facing the macaroni penguin continues unabated, it seems likely that the population declines will continue.

For further information on the macaroni penguin and its conservation, see:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2007)
  2. BirdLife International (March, 2004)
  3. International Penguin Conservation - Macaroni Penguin (March, 2004)
  4. Williams, T.D. (1995) Bird Families of the World – The Penguins. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  5. Green, K., Williams, R. and Green, M.G. (1998) Foraging ecology and diving behaviour of macaroni penguins Eudyptes chrysolophus at Heard Island. Marine Ornithology, 26: 27-34.
  6. Boersma, P.D. and Stokes, D.L. (1995) Conservation: threats to penguin populations. In: Williams, T.D. (Ed.) Bird Families of the World – The Penguins. Oxford University Press, Oxford.