- Common Name:
- King Penguin
- Scientific Name:
- Aptenodytes patagonicus
- Average Life Span In The Wild:
- 26 years
- 31 to 35 inches
- 30 to 45 pounds
- IUCN Red List Status:
- Least concern
What is a king penguin?
The king penguin is the second largest penguin on Earth. In fact, the bird gets its common name from the belief that it was the largest of all penguin species—a belief that was overturned in 1884 when its close relative the emperor penguin, which can measure nearly a foot taller, was recognized as a separate species.
The easiest way to distinguish a king penguin from the other 17 penguin species is by the splash of yellow-orange feathers the bird sports on its upper chest and by the teardrop-shaped patches of color on the sides of its head. Some other penguins boast yellow feathers too, but none so prominently as the king penguin.
Male king penguins are slightly larger than females, but the sexes look nearly identical in appearance. However, king penguin chicks boast fluffy, dark brown plumage that looks so different from the adults, they were once thought to be a separate species altogether, known as the woolly penguin.
Habitat and diet
While most people tend to picture Antarctica when they think of penguins, king penguins actually live and breed on a number of islands slightly north of the southernmost continent. These are known as subantarctic islands. When they are on land, the birds prefer shores and valleys that are free of snow and ice, and can usually be found near the sea.
King penguins are epic hunters, scarfing down as many as 2,000 fish in a single day. The birds use large flippers to swim at speeds of six miles an hour in pursuit of lanternfish and squid. Sometimes, finding prey requires diving to depths of more than 1,180 feet—that’s about as deep as the Eiffel Tower is tall. This part of the ocean is known as the dysphotic or twilight zone, and it gets darker the deeper one goes. To account for this, king penguins have excellent night vision, even though they do most of their hunting during the day.
Of course, king penguins also have to watch out for predators of their own. In the ocean, these include orcas, leopard seals, Antarctic fur seals, and South American sea lions. On the stony shores they call home, king penguins must also protect their eggs and chicks from avian predators such as giant petrels, skuas, lesser sheathbills, turkey vultures, and caracaras.
King penguins are like emperor penguins in that they do not build nests. Instead, the male and female take turns cradling their eggs on top of their feet and keeping young warm with a special flap of naked skin known as the brood pouch.
The breeding cycle can last between 13 and 16 months. Female king penguins tend to lay one egg each year, though breeding is often only successful every other year. Egg incubation takes around 54 days, after which the parents must keep returning to the chick and regurgitating food into its mouth to help it survive the winter.
It’s a hard living though, and it’s not unusual for a king penguin chick to go several months while waiting for a meal.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies king penguins as a species of “least concern.” This means that with a relatively large range and a global population of around 1.1 million annual breeding pairs, the species is not currently in danger of extinction.
However, research suggests that climate change could threaten some king penguin populations in the future. Rising sea surface temperatures affect the movements of prey species, and models predict that particularly in the South Indian Ocean, king penguins will soon have to travel longer distances to find the same amount of food. Scientists also theorize that changing temperatures could drive prey species deeper into the ocean, possibly pushing king penguins to the limits of their diving abilities.
Disease outbreaks, disturbance from tourism and development, and invasive species round out the dangers known to threaten king penguins.