Latin name: Aptenodytes patagonicus

Population: approximately 2 million

Conservation Status: Least Concern (IUCN, 2009)

Length: 85-95 cm

Weight: 9.3 to 17.3 kg

Mating/Breeding: King penguins have a unique breeding cycle. It takes 14 till 16 months to court, lay an egg and raise a chick. Although it is possible for them to breed twice in three years (this is unique among penguins and possibly among all birds), they mostly breed biennially. King penguins breed in large colonies on flat ice-free areas. The female lays one single egg, which is incubated for 54 days by both parents. They incubate the egg on their feet, against a bare brood patch on their belly, under a fold of skin covered with feathers. The chick remains 30 to 40 days on that place, until it is old enough to regulate its body temperature and can go to the crèche. Now both parents will forage and feed the chick. The chicks moult to their juvenile plumage and fledge at the age of about 13 months.

Hunting Habits: Frequently, they stay at sea for a few days and dive, by day, to depths between 100 and 300 metre, in search for fish. At night, they go fishing too but then at a shallow depth (max. 30 metre).

Feed on: King penguins eat almost only lantern fish, with very rarely a squid or crustaceans.

Threats: They are not globally threatened. King penguins are often chased and killed by orcas and leopard seals. Skuas take small chicks and eggs, while the Snowy Sheathbill scavenges for dead chicks and unattended eggs. Several populations of king penguins were almost extirpated during the late 19th century for their oil. Since then, there has been a long recovery process, with some colonies now apparently over-populated due to lack of competition for food with whales that have failed to recover from mass hunting.

Colour/Looks: The King penguin is the second largest penguin species. They are one of the more colourful penguins. They have a silvery-grey back with a blackish-brown head decorated with striking orange ear patches.

Where found: King penguins range widely in the southern oceans but stay clear of the pack ice. Five of the seven breeding populations live on islands just south of the Polar Front, but they prefer to fish waters just north of the Polar Front, where the surface temperature is around 4.5°C. They are also often found fishing over the slopes of the continental shelf. They stay close to their breeding colonies during summer, but are somewhat pelagic, particularly in winter, and juveniles are regularly spotted several hundred kilometres from the nearest colony.

Interesting Trivia:

  • There are two subspecies, Aptenodytes patagonicus patagonicus, which lives on South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, and Aptenodytes patagonicus halli, from Kerguelen, Crozet, Prince Edward, Heard, and the Macquarie islands.
  • King penguins can reach speeds of 12 kilometres per hour in water.
  • King penguins have adapted well to their extreme living conditions in the sub-Antarctic. To keep warm, King penguins have 70 feathers per every square inch.
  • The pupil of a penguin’s eye is circular. However, when constricted, the pupils of a king penguin’s eye are square.

More info:

Hadoram Shirihai, A complete guide to Antarctic wildlife (2002)

David McGonigal & Lynn Woodworth, Antarctica and the Arctic. The complete encyclopedia (2001)

Tony Soper, Antarctica. A guide to the wildlife (2000)