King Penguin

Written By: Stephanie Punt, Biology 487, Autumn 2009


Photo by Mark Dickson

Aptenodytes patagonicus

Least Concern
Populations are stable and most have increased in recent years particularly due to a decline in commercial whaling9. Total population is over 1,000,000 breeding pairs in the wild. Presently human activities are not directly threatening their populations, however fisheries may soon pose a threat via competition.



The most important threats include the potential for competition with fisheries in the future and the increasing rain events at colony sites.

Human: Past sewage disposal on the Antarctic continent has been found to impact benthic fish species and thus fish populations.4 Human fishing may one day exploit the King Penguins’ primary food source (Myctophidae) causing King Penguins to travel further distances in search of food and ultimately resulting in an increase of penguin mortality.10As human activity continues to threaten the ice pack in this area, less ice pack will be available to King penguins which will effectively increase the interaction between penguins and some predators such as Killer Whales.

Climate variation: Changes in the Earth’s orbit, the way the atmosphere and the ocean interact, solar events, and human generated activities have led to an increase in mean climate temperatures. This increase in mean climate temperature has led to an increase in rain events in place of snow.4 Chicks with down cannot insulate themselves against the rain and become hypothermic and can die.


Current threat mitigations include continued research and public education about climate change in order to protect the King Penguin and its future.

Steps should be taken to ensure that the fish, specifically the Myctophidae family, that these penguins are dependent upon do not become overfished. With improved education and awareness there is hope that overfishing will not threaten the King Penguin population in the future.


King_chick_adultPhoto by Janice Tipping


Adults: Both males and females have similar plumage. The head, chin, and throat are black and have a greenish hue when new. Bright orange auricular patches extend around the neck region to the lower breast. The upper breast is a golden orange with yellow coloration which fades to white. These birds are ventrally white and dorsally a dark blue-black color.
Juveniles: Plumage is similar to adults, but their auricular patches are less bright, having a yellow hue instead of an orange hue. Their throat is grayish-white, their crown feathers are black with grey tips and mandibular plates are black with pink. After two years they molt into adult plumage.
Chicks: Chicks hatch with a brown/grey down, which is replaced with a wooly thick brown down coat until 10-12 months of age. Their mandibular plates remain black until they molt into juveniles.


In general the females tend to be of smaller stature than the males. Plumage is similar in both males and females.

Weight: 16.0 Kg
Height: 126-139cm
Beak: 13.7 cm
Flipper: 34.3 cm
Foot: 18.5 cm

 14.4 Kg
Height: 126-139 cm
Beak: 12.9 cm
Flipper: 33.1 cm
Foot: 17.8 cm

Bill depth average for both sexes: 1.66 cm


Sexual dimorphism is present in call structure. The male’s calls tend to be higher pitched than the female’s calls. There are two distinct call types and these calls vary in duration and syllables depending on geographic location.

1. Contact call: given by arriving birds to recognize partners, is monosyllabic in nature, lasting 0.4-0.8 seconds with a frequency of 0.25-5 Hz and maximal intensity of 1 kHz

2. Sexual calls: are solitary, can be either short (2.62 seconds at 1.5-5 Hz) or long (3.47 seconds at 2-5.4 Hz), and are polysyllabic and loud. Short calls are utilized for information exchange between individuals and long calls are utilized later during courtship and pair-bonding.


There are two subspecies: A. p. patagonicus and A. p. halli. A. p. patagonicus breeds on South Georgia and the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. A. p. halli breeds on Kerguelen, Crozet, Prince Edward, Heard, McDonald, and Macquarie Islands.

Please see distribution reference list for colony references






From various colonies throughout the King Penguin range.


Average arrival date: September-January; Arrival date is highly variable as it depends on the reproductive success of the bird during the previous breeding season.
Nests: King penguins do not build nests. Instead eggs rest on the adult’s feet and are covered by the adult’s brood patch. The brood patch is an area of featherless skin located on the abdomen that is highly vascularized and is used for egg incubation.
Egg laying average date: November-March; The egg laying period is highly variable due to the 14-16 month breeding cycle. Eggs are relayed. If the first clutch is lost before December, then the female can breed again and relay within 39-45 days.
Incubation: 54 days: 53.8 days at Possession Island, 54.1 days at Marion Island, 53.2 days at Crozet Islands, 54-55 days at South Georgia.
Egg weight: 319 g
Egg length: 10.5 cm
Egg breadth: 7.6 cm
Chick rearing: 31 days
Fledgling period: 313 days: The fledging period occurs from December 30-February 25 on South Georgia and from late October until early April on Marion Island. Geographic location also increases the variability of dates.
Average Annual Reproductive Success: 1.0 chicks/nest.
Age at first breeding: 5.9 years
Max lifespan: 26 years; 41 years in captivity 6
Average lifespan: 15-20 years 1
Molt: A prenuptial molt occurs among breeding birds, but the main molting period occurs in January of year 2 (16 months into the breeding cycle) after the chicks of successful breeders have fledged. Molting takes 31 days and 22.7 days for early and late breeders, respectively. Early breeders are King Penguins that breed earlier in the breeding cycle in September and late breeders are defined as King Penguins that breed later in the breeding cycle in November. Weight loss during the molting process averages approximately 375g/day and 50.6% and 44.9% loss of initial body weight for early and late breeders.
Mate fidelity: Once these birds begin to breed, they will breed twice out of every three years because of this 14-16 month breeding cycle. They are monogamous, but tend to have lower pair fidelity than other bird species because of their prolonged breeding cycle. 



Lanternfish (Myctophidae), Escolars (Gempylidae), Barracudina (Paralepididae), Squid (Cephalopods), and Crustaceans (Crustacea). King Penguins’ main diet consists of lanternfish and squid varied seasonally. During the summer mostly lanternfish are consumed as this is when the Lanternfish population peaks. During the winter more squid are consumed and other sub-species of Lanternfish are relied upon. On average, at South Georgia Island, the Lanternfish, Escolars, and Barricudinas comprise 99.5% of the King Penguin diet, while squid comprise 0.5%.

On land Leopard Seals (Hydrurga leptonyx) predate adults, juveniles, and chicks. Giant Petrels (Macronectes giganteus) attack juveniles and chicks, and Skuas (Stercorarius spp.) and Snowy Sheathbills (Chionis alba) predate solely upon King Penguin chicks.

At sea Leopard Seals (Hydrurga leptonyx) and Killer Whales (Ornicus orca) predate adult, juvenile, and fledgling King Penguins.