Skip to main content

Wildlife Guide: Adélie Penguin Facts

6 min read

Adélie penguins got their name when they were discovered by French explorer Jules Dumont d'Urville, who named "Adélie Land" (the Antarctic territory from the Southern Ocean coastline of Antarctica to the South Pole) in Southern Antarctica after his wife, Adéle d'Urville.

Adelie Penguins, Paulet Island - Photo by Sam Edmonds
Adelie Penguins, Paulet Island - Photo by Sam Edmonds

Adélie penguins were discovered in 1840 and they are closely related to the gentoo penguin and the chinstrap penguin.

Keep reading to learn more about these medium-sized penguins, their conservation status, where they live, and what they eat.

Regional Habitat: Adélie penguins are one of the five species of penguin that live in the Antarctic (other penguins that live in the Antarctic continent include emperor penguins, gentoo penguins, chinstrap penguins and macaroni penguins.

Name: Adélie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae)

Length/Height: 27 inches (70cm)

Weight: 6-13 pounds (3-6kg)

Conservation status: Least concern

Diet: Fish, squid, krill and other small crustaceans

Appearance: Adélie penguins are medium-sized penguins, and are distinguishable from other penguin species by the white ring around their eyes. They have pink feet with black nails, and females and males are similar in size and appearance and difficult to tell apart.

Where to see Adélie penguins: Join an expedition to Antarctica for your best chance to see the amazing Adélie penguin. Expeditions to the Antarctic include the Antarctic Express: Crossing the Circle, Antarctic Explorer: Discovering the 7th Continent, and Epic Antarctica: Crossing the Circle via Falklands and South Georgia and are great opportunities to see this incredible animal and so much more.

Or explore the Antarctic peninsula for your chance to see Adélie penguins on the Crossing the Circle: Southern Expedition.

Learn more about how to see penguins in Antarctica.

What does an Adélie penguin look like?

When Adélie penguins are born they are typically silvery grey in appearance, but within 10 days days they molt and develop dark smoky grey down feathers. Young Adélie penguins, unlike adults, don't typically get the white ring around their eyes until they are at least one year old.

Adelie Penguin - Photo by Sam Edmonds
Adelie Penguin - Photo by Sam Edmonds

As the immature birds grow up, they lose their down feathers and become black on their heads, faces, and chins, with snowy white underparts on their bellies and legs. Their beaks are mostly feathered, leaving only the tip exposed and while the beak is usually black, it can have indistinct reddish brown markings.

Adélie penguins have a distinct white outline around their eyes that helps distinguish them from other penguin species. While the tops of their wings are black, there is a white trailing edge around the black wing. The underpart of their wings are white, with a narrow black leading edge and black tip.

While Adélie penguins are mid-sized, they are the smallest penguin breed found in the Antarctic region.

Where does the Adélie penguin live?

Like all other penguin species, the Adélie penguin lives in the southern hemisphere. Adélie penguins breed and live along the entire coast of the Antarctic, including the Antarctic peninsula, on or near sea-ice and on small islands marked by ice-free land and exposed rock.

Read more about the best time to visit the Antarctic peninsula.

One of the largest Adélie penguin colonies is located on Ross Island where more than 500,000 Adélie penguins live.

Adelie Penguins, Danger Islands, Antarctica - Photo by Sam Edmonds
Adelie Penguins, Danger Islands, Antarctica - Photo by Sam Edmonds

While many may know the impressive migration of the emperor penguin, Adélie penguins also walk vast distances throughout the year. Annually, Adélie penguins follow the sun as they migrate from their breeding colony to their feeding grounds for the winter months and on average these treks mean adult Adélie penguins migrate 8,100 miles to 10,9000 miles each year.

What do Adélie penguins eat?

Depending on where Adélie penguins live and how much food is available, their diets can be different. Like most other penguin species, Adélie penguins are skilled swimmers and all of their meals come from the sea. While they do not have teeth, Adélie penguins have tooth-like barbs on their tongues and the roof of their mouth that help them eat.

Meals they hunt in the sea close to their colonies typically include fish, krill (including crystal krill, ice krill and sea krill) and amphipods (small crustaceans), whereas meals farther from home and hunted more offshore consist mostly of Antarctic krill. Adélie penguins also eat jellyfish.

Adelie Penguin, Paulet Island, Antarctica - Photo by Sam Edmonds
Adelie Penguin, Paulet Island, Antarctica - Photo by Sam Edmonds

I the past, about 200 years ago, Adélie penguins ate mostly fish but the amount of krill in their diets increased when the krill population grew as sperm whales in the area were hunted when the whaling industry thrived.

One of the most fascinating Adélie penguin facts is their ability to monitor how much salt they eat and feed their young. With little access to fresh water, Adélie penguins have learned to eat krill that contains low salt and they can adjust the amount of salt they feed their young by removing potassium and sodium ions from food in their stomachs before they regurgitate food to their chicks.

They also eat snow for fresh water, and a specialized gland in their nose that removes salt from the seawater they ingest when swallowing fish.

Breeding adult Adélie penguins swim an average of 3-74 miles (5 to 120km) while foraging for food that they will regurgitate for their chicks. These hunting trips can last between 5-72 hours.

One of the deepest dives recorded by the Adélie penguin species was 574ft (175m) but, while foraging, most stay in the top 229ft (70m) of water during their feeding trips.

By using satellites to monitor specific Adélie penguins, scientists can track the birds habits while at sea to map sea routes and understand dive depths.

Are Adélie penguins endangered?

Adélie penguins are the most widespread penguin species and their conservation status is currently listed as of least concern.

Scientists estimate they are 2.5 million breeding pairs of Adélie penguins throughout the Antarctic region and the Antarctic peninsula, totaling 10 million individual penguins.

Can Adélie penguins fly?

Adélie penguins, like most other species of penguins, are flightless birds.

While they can't fly, Adélie penguins are excellent swimmers, as well as successful and dedicated long-distance walkers on sea ice. These walks occur during migration and when Adélie penguins walk from feeding trips back to their colonies and/or breeding colony.

The average Adélie penguin walks 1.5mph (2.5km/h) and they can swim 2-4mph (4-8km/h), but to speed up their travels the Adélie penguin, much like other penguin species, are known to toboggan (lay down on their bellies and glide through snow drifts on the ice).

Adélie penguin lifespan

Adélie penguins live an average of 10 to 20 years in their natural habitat.

Adelie Penguins - Photo by Michelle Sole
Adelie Penguins - Photo by Michelle Sole

Predators of the adult Adélie penguins include leopard seals and whales, whereas seabirds and other birds such as giant petrels and skuas are known to take eggs and leave young Adélie penguins vulnerable. Once the penguins mature to adult penguins, they no longer have to fear land predators.

Adélie penguins are bold and fierce, and they are willing to fight animals much larger than themselves by making themselves look bigger and slapping their flippers.

Adelie penguin mating

During breeding season, male Adélie penguins build their nests on sloping breeding grounds so that when the snow melts, the water flows away from their nests. They build their nests out of pebbles they search for and find on dry land and which they roll to their nesting site or carry in their mouths.

Some males are even known to steal rocks from other nests. When the pack ice around their nests hasn't melted, Adélie penguins might have to walk up to 31 miles (50km) to feed where the waters are ice free.

Adelie Penguins - Photo by Michelle Sole
Adelie Penguins - Photo by Michelle Sole

Breeding pairs tend to return to the same mate and the same nest each year when they can.

Once the nests are ready, female Adélie penguins typically lay two eggs in the nest, and each parent alternates with their mate between incubating the eggs and searching for food. At the beginning of the incubation process, each shift can last from 11 to 14 days and as time goes on the shifts become shorter.

Once the chicks hatch, parents continue taking turns feeding and guarding the Adélie penguin chicks, swapping their role every few days.

When the chicks are 3 weeks old, they can be left alone and the adult Adélie penguins can both leave to collect food. While the parents are gone, the young penguins of the colony huddle closely together for warmth and protection, similar to other species of penguin.

Eventually, the chicks replace their down feathers with adult black feathers and tail feathers and when they reach the age of 7 to 9 weeks, they venture to sea on their own. Most chicks will not return to their breeding colonies until they are capable of breeding, between the ages of 3 to 5.

Book your polar adventure to Antarctica today, it's one of the best places in the world to see penguins in the wild.

In this article