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Wildlife Guide: King Penguin Facts

5 min read

King penguins are the second largest species of penguin. King penguin species are unique in that their colonies have occupants all year long due to the long length of their breeding and maturity cycle. Highly recognizable, the king penguin is featured on the logo of the Edinburgh Zoo.

King Penguin

Keep reading to learn more about the iconic king penguin including its height, where they live, their predators and other fun king penguin facts.

Regional Habitat: Antarctica

Name: King penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus)

Length/Height: 27-39 inches (70-100cm)

Weight: 22-35 pounds (10-16kg)

Conservation Status: Least concern

Diet: Small fish, small crustaceans and squid

Appearance: The King penguins colorful markings and large size make them distinguishable from other penguin species. Their black backs and faces with the yellow orange plumage on their broad cheek patch contrasting their surrounding dark feathers and red bill helps make adult king penguins recognizable. King penguins also have distinctive yellow markings on their necks and chest above the more traditional white bellies of other penguin species.

Where to see king penguins: Antarctic penguin tours are some of the best places to see penguins in the wild.

South Georgia has one of the largest king penguin colonies. You can see for yourself on the South Georgia and Antarctic Peninsula: Penguin Safari. Remember to consider the best time to see penguins when you're planning your trip.

The 20-day Falklands, South Georgia, and Antarctica: Explorers and Kings expedition stops at various Antarctic islands for excellent opportunities to see king penguins in their natural habitat.

How tall are king penguins?

Adult king penguins can reach heights of up to 27-39 inches (70-100cm).

From the time they are born to when king penguins reach adulthood, they go through many different changes including growth and evolutions in their appearance.

King Penguins

In fact, the adult bird with their colorful markings looks so different from a juvenile king penguin that early explorers thought the king penguin chicks and adults were different species. The brown fluffy fur of the young penguins looks absolutely different from the adult birds with their solid bright orange cheek patch and black and white feathers.

King penguin predators

While they are one of the largest species of penguin, king penguins still have natural predators. Sea birds such as the skua, giant petrels, or the snowy sheathbill make king penguin eggs and chicks vulnerable. Adult king penguins must watch out for different kinds of seals including leopard seals and fur seals as well as orcas (also known as killer whales).

The black backs of king penguins and other penguin species are a useful adaptation while they are in the water to help camouflage them from the depths below, while their white bellies help conceal them from predators below by blending them into the surface light above.

In the past, the king penguin species was heavily hunted by humans for their meat, oil, blubber and feathers, but are now fully protected.

Where does the king penguin live?

King penguins live only in Antarctica, and an expedition to Antarctica is the best place to penguins in the wild.

King penguin colonies can be found in South Georgia, in the Antarctic peninsula, and on other temperate islands of the Antarctic region including the Falkland Islands and Tierra del Fuego.

King Penguin

King penguins live in large colonies when they leave the sea and come to breeding grounds during breeding season. In South Georgia, scientists and researchers estimate one colony to have more than 200,000 birds.

Unlike other penguin species whose chicks hatch and take to the sea in one summer season, the king penguin's maturity cycle is between 14 and 16 months. This difference could be due to their large size. Since there is such a long maturity cycle, king penguin colonies have occupants all year long.

In these colonies, king penguins do not build nests and instead the king penguin egg is carried around on the parents feet at all times.

What do king penguins eat?

King penguins hunt for their food, diving to depths over 328 feet (100m). The deepest recorded dive by a king penguin was over 984 feet (300m) and they can spend up to 10 minutes under the water but typically resurface after 5 minutes.

King Penguin

King penguins eat mostly lantern fish, krill and squid. Fish make up about 80% of their diet for most of the year.

Are king penguins and emperor penguins the same?

While at first the king penguin appears to closely resemble the emperor penguin (link to emperor penguin article), the two are in fact two distinct, separate penguin species.

King Penguin

King penguins and the closely related emperor penguin both live in Antarctica, but emperor penguins are larger than king penguins and about a foot taller. Additionally, king penguin and emperor penguins do not typically live in the same areas in the wild.

King chicks and their brown, fluffy fur are distinguishable from the mostly grey emperor chicks and as they age. The adult king's longer bill also helps differentiate the two species.

Do king penguins mate for life?

While king penguins usually reach sexual maturity at 3 years old, it's more common for them to start breeding when they turn 6. Male king penguins are larger than female king penguins and different calls also help tell them apart.

King Penguins

King penguins are known as "serial monogamists." meaning that each year they have only one mate they breed with and breeding pairs work together to hatch their egg and care for their chick. The following year however, king penguins are unlikely to return to the same partner. In fact roughly 70% don't return to the same mate, but find a new mate in the new breeding season.

Mating season begins when penguins leave the sea and return to the land. Every year, king penguins molt, or lose their feathers, to grow a new waterproof coat and during this molting, mating also takes place on land.

Eventually, female king penguins lay one single egg and each parent takes turns incubating the egg and hunting. Each incubation period lasts roughly 1 - 2.5 weeks. Like other penguin species, the parent that stays with the egg does not eat during their incubation shift.

After 50 or 60 days, the egg will hatch and parents continue to take turns keeping their king penguin chick warm and hunting to feed their chick.

After 40 days of being cared for by their parents, king penguin chicks create their own small community with other chicks called a crèche. In this crèche, the chicks rely on each other for warmth and protection from predators while they grow and learn how to survive on their own.

How long do king penguins live?

In the wild, king penguins typically live up to 25 years.

How many king penguins are there?

Estimates suggest there are 2.2 million breeding pairs living worldwide.

King Penguins

Book your Antarctic polar adventure today for your chance to see the unforgettable sights of the king penguin species in their natural habitat.

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