Southern rockhopper penguin (Eudyptes chrysocome)

GenusEudyptes (1)
SizeLength: up to 52 cm (2)
Weightc. 3 kg (2)

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

Previously classed as a single species, the rockhopper penguin has now been split into a northern (Eudyptes moseleyi) and southern species (Eudyptes chrysocome) (3).

Although both species are similar in appearance, the distinctive yellowish plumes extending from the yellow line above the eye are significantly shorter and less dense in the southern rockhopper penguin (2) (4). The body is small but robust, with slate-grey upperparts and white underparts (2) (4). The bill is short and reddish-brown and the eyes are red. Juvenile southern rockhopper penguins can be identified by the lack of adult yellow markings (2) (4) and by pale grey mottling on the chin (2).

All penguins are highly adapted to marine life, with streamlined bodies and wings which are reduced to powerful, narrow flippers. Their bodies are densely covered by three layers of short feathers (5).

The southern rockhopper penguin breeds on a number of islands in the South Atlantic Ocean. Two subspecies are currently recognised: Eudyptes chrysocome chrysocome, which is found in the Falkland Islands and on a number of islands off southern Chile and Argentina; and Eudyptes chrysocome fiholi, which is found on several subantarctic islands to the south of New Zealand and South Africa (2).

The southern rockhopper penguin nests on cliffs and rocky gullies, and chosen sites are usually situated near to freshwater, such as natural springs or puddles (4).

A gregarious species, the southern rockhopper penguin breeds in large colonies that may comprise over a hundred thousand nests (2) (4). Breeding pairs are monogamous, and usually return to the same nest every year. Egg-laying commences around November, with the female usually producing a clutch of two eggs of unequal size (4). Although in general only the chick from the larger egg survives to maturity, populations on the Falkland Islands frequently succeed in raising both (6).

Incubation takes around 33 days, with both adult birds taking it in turns to sit on the eggs for extended periods of time, while the other forages for food. Incubation is aided by a bare patch of skin on the lower abdomen (known as a 'brood patch') that allows greater heat transfer to the egg. Once hatched, the adult male will remain to brood the chick for the first 25 days, while the female regularly brings food back to the nest. After this time, the chick is able to leave the nest, and will congregate with other chicks in small groups known as 'crèches' while the adult birds forage (4).

In order to maintain its waterproof coat, the southern rockhopper penguin engages in frequent grooming, which helps to flatten the feathers and to spread a waxy substance that is secreted from just below the tail. Grooming is also an important form of social bonding between pairs. After breeding, the southern rockhopper penguin forages extensively in order to build up fat reserves in preparation for its annual moult. It takes around 25 days for the southern rockhopper penguin’s coat to be fully replaced, at which point it leaves the land and spends the winter months foraging at sea, before returning to shore to breed in the following spring (4).

The diet of the southern rockhopper penguin is composed of a variety of oceanic species, such as krill and other crustaceans, squid, octopus and fish (2) (5). Groups of southern rockhopper penguins may often feed together, diving to depths of up to 100 metres in pursuit of prey (2) (7).

Some southern rockhopper penguin nesting colonies have recently shown dramatic falls in the number of breeding pairs. The Falkland Islands once housed the stronghold for southern rockhopper penguins, but over the last 60 years, numbers have declined by 90 percent (2).

A number of threats may be contributing to the declining populations of the southern rockhopper penguin, although the importance of individual threats and how they interact to impact on penguin populations are currently poorly understood (8). 

Pollution and increasing disturbance at breeding colonies are thought to be major factors in driving declining rockhopper populations, due in part to the recent surge in ecotourism (2). Similarly, fishing operations, particularly squid fisheries may affect this species’ food supplies, although to what extent has yet to be fully ascertained (2) (7) (8). 

Climate change is also likely to be affecting the southern rockhopper penguin, with warming temperatures affecting both terrestrial and marine habitats (10), and causing shift in marine food webs (2). Increases in sea surface temperatures associated with changes in the climate have been linked to penguin population declines. However, how this affects prey abundance is not well known, especially given the confounding effects of fisheries and other human activities on the penguin populations (11).

Other threats to the southern rockhopper penguin may include hydrocarbon exploitation off Argentina, energy production and mining within this species’ range, oil spills and oil pollution, introduced predators and invasive species, and harmful algal blooms (2) (7) (8). Smaller penguin colonies in particular may be more affected by land-based threats (8).

Many islands that house breeding colonies of the southern rockhopper penguin have been designated as reserves. The populations of the southern rockhopper penguin in the Falklands and on Marion and Campbell Islands are also regularly monitored and studied (2). Falklands Conservation (12) carries out annual surveys and five-yearly censuses (7). 

Currently, further investigation is required into the population demographics of the southern rockhopper penguin. This includes assessment of the impacts of oil exploitation, commercial fisheries, climate change and introduced predators (2) (7) (9).

Measures to reduce disturbance to seabird colonies from ecotourism would be also be beneficial to the southern rockhopper penguin (2). Alternative methods to protect penguin populations, such as marine zoning, have also been discussed, although further research is required (13).   

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  1. IUCN Red List (June, 2011)
  2. BirdLife International - Southern rockhopper penguin (June, 2011)
  3. Jouventin, P., Cuthbert, R.J. and Ottvall, R. (2006) Genetic isolation and divergence in sexual traits: evidence for the northern rockhopper penguin Eudyptes moseleyi being a sibling species. Molecular Ecology, 15: 3413-3423.
  4. International Penguin Conservation Work Group (January, 2009)
  5. Perrins, C. (2009) The Encyclopedia of Birds. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  6. Poisbleau, M., Demongin, L., Strange, I.J., Otley, H. and Quillfeldt, P. (2008) Aspects of the breeding biology of the southern rockhopper penguin Eudyptes c. chrysocome and new consideration on the intrinsic capacity of the A-egg. Polar Biology, 31: 925-932.
  7. Falklands Conservation. (2010) In: BirdLife International. Rockhopper penguins, A plan for Research and Conservation Action to Investigate and Address Population Changes. Proceedings of an International Workshop, Edinburgh 2008. BirdLife International, UK.
  8. BirdLife International. (2010) Rockhopper Penguins. A Plan for Research and Conservation Action to Investigate and Address Population Changes. Proceedings of an International Workshop, Edinburgh 2008. BirdLife International, UK.
  9. Clausen, A.P. and Uütz, K.P. (2002) Recent trends in diet composition and productivity of Gentoo, Magellanic and Rockhopper Penguins in the Falkland Islands. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, 12: 51-61.
  10. Weimersirch, H., Inchausti, P., Guinet, C. and Barbraud, C. (2003) Trends in bird and seal populations as indicators of a system shift in the Southern Ocean. Antarctic Science, 15(2): 249-256.
  11. Forcada, J. and Trathan, P.N. (2009) Penguin responses to climate change in the Southern Ocean. Global Change Biology, 15: 1618-1630.
  12. Falklands Conservation (June, 2011)
  13. Boersma, P.D., Stokes, D.L. and Strange, I.J. (2002) Applying ecology to conservation: tracking breeding penguins at New Island South reserve, Falkland Islands. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, 12: 63-74.