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Aptenodytes patagonicus Miller, 1778

provided by EG-BAMM, Barbara Wienecke


King penguins are the second largest penguins alive today in terms of size and body weight. The largest penguins are the King penguins’ cousins, the emperor penguins. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature classifies King penguins as “Least Concern”.

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Species details


Species distribution

King penguins have a circumpolar distribution and breeding colonies are located on the sub-Antarctic islands: Marion, Prince Edward, Crozet, Kerguelen, Heard, Macquarie, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands. Currently a new colony may be in the process of becoming established in Patagonia. The colonies are densly occupied and are located on flat ground or gently raising slopes. Their at-sea distribution varies with season. As most of the islands occupied by King penguins lay north of the Antarctic Polar Frontal Zone (APFZ), King penguins tend to travel south towards the APFZ during the early breeding season (November to April). In winter, they head even farther south towards the ice-edge of Antarctica.

King penguin are exquisit divers and in the bird world second only to Emperor penguins. Maximal dive depths were recorded to 343 m (Pütz and Cherel 2005) but most of the time King penguins hunt at depths of around 80 to 130 m. Deep dives appear to occur only during daylight hours while night dives tend to be shallow (~ 30-50 m).

The genus name Aptenodytes (“wingless diver”) had been assigned to King penguins. In 1778, John Frederik Miller, a British naturalist, chose the species name patachonica (later patagonica) for King penguins. Monotypic although subspecies were suggested in the past: In 1911, the amateur ornithologist Gregory Mathews suggested that there were three subspecies of King penguins.
One, Aptenodytes patagonicus longirostris, was dismissed but the two others were accepted by James Lee Peters, an American ornithologist who was the curator for birds at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology (Peters 1931). But Peters accepted Mathews’ notion that A. p. patagonicus was characterised by a ring of blue feathers around the tarsus and occurred at the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. In contrast, the tarsi of A. p. halli were supposed to be white at the front and coloured at the back. A. p. halli was thought to breed at the Kerguelen, Crozet, Prince Edward, Heard, and Macquarie islands. However, examination of images of King penguins from different locations quickly shows that the vast majority of King penguins at any location has the two-coloured feathering on their tarsi. In 1936, Robert C Murphy also dismissed Mathew’s second argument for the division into subspecies, namely that the variations of the colouration in the penguins’ flippers were also ‘proof’ for the existence of subspecies (Murphy 1936). Murphy examined many specimens and found that the variations described by Mathew’s commonly occurred in all King penguin populations. In 1960, Bernard Stonehouse also concluded that there were no grounds to postulate sub-species among King penguins (Stonehouse 1960).
In one of the first genetic studies on King penguins French researchers compared DNA of King penguins from the Crozet and the Kerguelen islands. According to Mathews, these two populations should be very similar. However, the genetic distance between them was relatively high (Viot et al. 1993). This is further evidence that the division into subspecies as suggested in 1911 cannot be upheld.

King penguin colonies are located on solid land. Since they incubate their single egg on their feet they prefer the ground to be rather flat and free of large stones. The colonies are often close to the water’s edge of the sub-Antarctic islands the penguin occupy but some are several hundered metres away from the coast. To a degree King penguins generate their own breeding space. For example, some narrow, flat coastal areas of Macquarie Island are covered in tussock grass Poa cookii. In some places, King penguins established themselves among the tussock which over time became sparse because the plants could not thrive in the nitrogen rich faeces the penguins deposited around them. At Heard Island, the King penguin colonies largely occupy broad valleys away from the coast.

King penguins have the longest breeding cycle among penguins. It takes them 14 to 16 months to rear a chick. Hence, a successful pair is unlikely to attempt breeding more than twice in three years. At no time during the year are their colonies void of penguins, ie there are always penguins present. However, their activities vary with time of year. Many breeders gather in the colonies in October/November. They perform extensive courtship behaviours in the search of for a mate. It is common to see King penguins in triads on the beaches where usually two females compete for the same male. Like Emperor penguins, King penguins do not build a nest but they do fiercely defend a small breeding territory inside the colony area.
The females lay their single egg any time from November till March. Both parents take part in the incubation of their eggs which weigh usually 230 to 380 g. The eggs are carried on top of the parents’ feet and are covered by a skin fold.
Chicks hatch after about 54 d and weigh about 220 g; it takes 2-3 days to get out of the eggs. The chicks are nearly naked when they first leave the egg and entirely dependent upon their parents for warmth and food. For about a month the baby penguins are brooded; both parents share this duty. During brooding, one parent stays with the chick while the other goes out and hunts. When the foraging parent returns, he/she relieves the partner who now goes to sea. The returned parent continues to keep the chick warm and safe and feeds it several times per day.
By April, most chicks have grown up to a point at which they now are able to regulate their own body temperature. They start gathering in creches, kindergardens for penguins. To survive the coming winter they need sufficient body reserves because the parents are largely leaving their offspring in April/May and return only in September/October. A healthy fat chick that weighed about 8 kg in April weighs only about 5 kg when its parents return in the next spring. During the winter, they rarely receive food and gather in large creches to stay warm, as well as seek safety from predatory birds, such as skuas Catharacta spp and giant petrels Macronectus spp.
Upon their parents return to the colony, the chicks are fed again and quickly put on body mass. They now have to get ready for the moult during which they exchange their soft down for “real” feathers that will enable them to survive at sea.
Since during the moult every single feather is replaced, it costs a lot of energy. Chicks and adults whose body reserves are insufficient cannot survive because as long as the new feathers grow their plumage is no longer waterproof. It they were to go to sea to feed before their plumage is ready, they will get wet and waterlogged and are likely to die. The well-fed penguins stay out of the water for about a month when they moult. They lose about half their body weight but their new feathers are soft and shiney and able to keep the penguins warm and dry for another year.

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