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Antarctic curiosity: How do penguins get their names

6 min read

Sometimes the origins of a bird’s name is abundantly clear: red-headed woodpecker, blue jay, snow petrel. Such is the case with some penguins—but not all. For instance, it’s fairly obvious how New Zealand’s Yellow-Eyed penguin earned its moniker—it has the yellowest of eyes—but not so with some of the more popular penguins found in Antarctica. For example, why are they called Emperor penguins? Do they rule the Antarctic ice? What about Macaroni penguins? Or other species of penguin?

Let's take a look at some of these funny and fascinating Antarctic creatures and how they were named.

Macaroni Penguins

Macaroni penguins strut their stuff with their attention-getting crest of yellow-orange feathers. Photo: David Merron

The Macaroni penguin stands out in a crowd. Its large, reddish-orange bill, black face and chin, and conspicuous crest of yellow-orange feathers—in contrast with its black head—could suggest it’s a bit of a show-off.

Male and female Macaroni penguins are very similar in appearance, but the male penguin tends to be larger than the female.

British explorers, upon first sighting this colorful flightless bird, were reminded of a flashy style of dress favored by gentlemen in 18th-century England called Maccaronism, which was synonymous with excessive ornamentation.

Historians report that young men who adorned their hats with colorful feathers were called Macaroni—a dandy if you will. In other words, someone who welcomed attention. And Macaroni penguins certainly attract attention.

Adélie Penguins

French explorer Jules Dumont d'Urville named Adélie penguins after his wife, Adèle.  Despite its small stature, Adélie penguins are known for being feisty. Photo: David Merron

Adélie penguins are common along the entire coast of the Antarctic continent, which is the bird’s only habitat. It’s the most widely spread penguin species. French Antarctic explorer Jules Dumont d'Urville whose team originally recorded the Adélie penguin, decided to name the species after his wife,  Adèle. 

The Adélie, recognized by its signature tuxedo look—of black back and head, white chest and belly, and white rings around the eyes—is the smallest penguin species in the Antarctic. But visitors shouldn’t be be fooled. These penguins are feisty. They’ve been known to attack visiting scientists with their flippers.  

Curiously, the scientific name for the Adélie penguin is Pygoscelis adeliae. One wonders if Madame d’Urville was wise to the fact that the genus Pygoscelis means “rump-legged.”

Magellanic Penguins

A Magellanic penguin seemingly poses for a photographer in the Antarctic. Photo by Acacia Johnson

The Magellanic penguin, which is a South American penguin that breeds in coastal Patagonia and the Falkland Islands, is known for its black body and white belly, which provides protection while in the water.

When viewed from above, a penguin’s black back blends into the dark ocean, keeping it safe from predators in the sky above. And from below, its white stomach is camouflaged by the light from the sky. 

The Magellanic penguins are named after Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan who, along with his crew, first spotted the species in 1520.

Chinstrap Penguins

Chinstraps are among the various species of penguins Quark Expeditions' guests can see in Chilean Patagonia.
This close-up of a Chinstrap penguin shows the black band of feathers which looks, of course, like a chinstrap designed to hold its helmet in place. Photo by Sam Edmonds.

The Chinstrap penguin, which can be found in the Southern Pacific and the Antarctic Oceans, derived its name from the narrow black band of dark feathers under its head. At first glance, it looks like the Chinstrap penguin is wearing a black helmet that’s held tight by a perfectly positioned neck band.

Chinstraps are among those penguin species who are seasoned kleptomaniacs, frequently stealing nesting materials from neighboring penguins' breeding colonies. They're also thought to be one of the most aggressive species of penguin, especially during breeding season.

Emperor Penguins

Emperor penguins on the march on Snow Hill Island, Antartica. Photo: David Merron

Emperor penguins live up to their name: they’re the largest, most well-dressed and reportedly the boldest of any living penguin species. And, in keeping with the stature (real or imagined) of most emperors, this species towers over all others.

Both adult male emperor penguins and female emperor penguins can reach four feet in height and weigh in at 100 pounds. Sometimes the similar King penguin is mistaken for the Emperor penguin, though they are approximately 25% smaller.

The northernmost Emperor Penguin colony on Snow Hill Island is notoriously difficult to visit, but offers some of the most incredible opportunities to observe these creatures in their natural habitat.

Emperor penguin colonies are made up of hundreds or even thousands of breeding pairs. They're very hardy creatures—they’re the only penguin species to breed on the Antarctic sea ice during winter. A female emperor penguin will lay one single egg, and then leave it with the male emperor penguin to keep safe and warm.

After the emperor penguin chicks hatch, they'll spend their entire lives on the Antarctic ice, learning to fish from the adult emperor penguins.

Adults will split their time between the Emperor penguin colony and ocean fishing grounds. Both males and females forage for food and care for newly hatched chicks.

Along with the expected penguin tuxedo, Emperors are also graced with bright yellow-and-orange plumage along their heads, necks and chests. A regal creature for sure.

Emperor penguins truly seem like conquerers of the antarctic winter.

Read more about Emperor Penguins, and see these curious and regal creatures up close on the Emperor Penguin Quest: Expedition to Snow Hill expedition.

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