King penguins

King Penguins at Green Gorge
King Penguins at Green Gorge (Photo: Clint D)
Moulting king penguinKing penguin diving underwater, Macquarie Island King penguin chicks in their crèches, with attendant adults

Scientific name: Aptenodytes patagonicus

Physical description and related species

King penguins are the second largest penguin, standing 85–95cm tall. Males weigh approximately 16.5 kg and females 14.3 kg. They have a patch of bright golden-orange feathers on their neck.

King penguins are exceeded in size only by emperor penguins.

Distribution and abundance

King penguins form colonies that range in size from less than 30 birds to hundreds of thousands of birds. The colonies occupy beaches, and valleys and moraines free of snow and ice, preferring level ground near the sea.

King penguins breed on many of the subantarctic islands between 46° and 55°S. In 1993, the population of king penguins south of the Antarctic Polar Front was estimated at approximately 1.5 million breeding pairs.

Immature and non-breeding birds disperse and travel far from breeding localities. However, chicks remain in colonies throughout the year and breeding adults return to feed chicks on an irregular basis throughout the winter. The chicks fast for long periods between meals while the adults are away feeding at sea.

Conservation status: least concern

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the oil, flesh, eggs and skins of king penguins were used by sealers as fuel, food and clothes where sealing occurred. Populations are now increasing at most breeding localities, in particular where recolonisation has occurred.

Breeding

At any one time chicks of various ages are present in the colonies due to the long breeding season. Eggs are laid from November to April.

King penguins typically breed in two years out of three. From courtship to the fledging of the chick may take 14 months or more. Both parents share incubation of the egg and brooding of the chick, which takes approximately 15 weeks. King penguins have no nests and their eggs are incubated on the adults’ feet. Chicks are fully fledged after nine months.

At their breeding colonies King penguins are highly gregarious, although the breeding adults remain separated from non-breeding birds. Fighting among birds in these colonies is rare.

Diet and feeding

King penguins forage for squid and fish at the Antarctic Polar Front (where Antarctic and subantarctic surface waters meet). They feed by pursuit-diving, using their flippers to ‘fly’ underwater.

At sea, predators of king penguins include Leopard seals and killer whales. In the colonies, skuas, sheathbills and giant petrels take eggs and young birds.

This page was last modified on 12 August 2010.