Scientific name: Aptenodytes patagonicus
When king penguins were first discovered by European explorers in the early 18th century, they were thought to be the largest penguin species alive. It was only in 1844 that George Robert Gray from the British Museum separated them from the even larger emperor penguin that had been seen for the first time during Captain Cook’s second voyage.
King and emperor penguins are close relatives. They both belong to the genus Aptenodytes derived from the Greek meaning ‘featherless diver’.
King penguins are the second largest penguin. Males tend to be slightly larger than females. Their body mass changes throughout the breeding season. When the birds return to their colonies and start courting they weigh 10–15kg. By the end of the breeding season, they may weigh only 8–11kg.
King penguins have bright orange ear patches that extend via a thin strip to the upper chest.
Two subspecies are now recognised:
- A. patagonicus patagonicus at South Georgia, the Falkland Islands and in southern Chile
- A. patagonicus halli at the Kerguelen Islands, Crozet Island, Prince Edward Islands, Heard Island and McDonald Islands, and Macquarie Island.
King penguins are the closest relatives of emperor penguins. Kings are thinner and the colouration of their ear patches differs from that of emperors. Their flippers are larger in proportion to their body size than those of emperors.
Distribution and abundance
King penguins breed on many of the sub-Antarctic islands between 45°S and 55°S.
King penguins are occasionally seen on the South Sandwich Island off the Antarctic Peninsula and a couple of new colonies appear to be establishing in Patagonia.
Some large colonies appear to have decreased, however, the global population appears to have stabilised in recent decades at approximately 1.6 million breeding pairs.
King penguins tend to form large, dense colonies. Several hundred thousand breeding pairs occupy the largest populations (found at South Georgia and Crozet islands). The colonies occupy beaches, valleys and moraines free of snow and ice. They prefer level ground near the sea.
Immature and non-breeding birds disperse and travel far from breeding localities. Chicks remain in colonies throughout the year. Breeding adults return to feed chicks on an irregular basis throughout the winter. The chicks fast for long periods (sometimes several months between meals) while the adults are away feeding at sea.
Conservation status: least concern
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the fur seal population was decimated by the sealing industry. Sealers on sub-Antarctic islands then turned to the exploitation of king penguins as a source of oil. Many king penguin populations were nearly wiped out by these activities.
In the decades since the end of sealing, populations have increased at most breeding localities.
King penguins have a much longer breeding cycle than any other penguin. Including the pre-moult period, the breeding cycle lasts 13–16 months. Eggs are laid from November to April.
King penguins do not build a nest, but incubate the eggs on their feet.
Incubation lasts about 54 days. The males take on the first incubation shift. If the male’s body reserves become insufficient to sustain himself before the female returns, he will abandon the egg. Abandoned eggs are usually not replaced.
Breeding birds tend to lay eggs every year. If an adult finishes their moult in October, they can have an egg by November. These chicks have time to grow and put on enough body mass to last the winter, increasing their chance of survival. Late breeders will be even later the following year, and their chicks are usually too small to survive the long winter. Breeding king penguins are most successful every second year.
King penguins are highly gregarious, although the breeding adults remain separated from non-breeding birds. Fighting among birds in colonies is rare.
Diet and feeding
King penguins are quite specialised in their prey. They mainly eat lantern fish (myctophids), especially during the breeding season. Over winter, the percentage of squid in their diet increases.
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. At the Falkland Islands (Malvinas), turkey vultures and caracaras also feed on eggs and chicks.