Tundra Travel


King penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus).Tundra Travel

King Penguins breed colonially on the sub-Atarctic islands on the lowest latitudes and at the northern reaches of Antarctica. The total population is estimated to be 2.23 million pairs and is increasing. They choose raised beaches, with easy access to the water and extensive flat or shelving ground, sometimes with tussock.





The King Penguin is the second largest species of penguin at about 90 cm (3.0 ft) tall and weighing 11 to 16 kg (24 to 35 lb), second only to the Emperor Penguin.


There is little difference in plumage between the male and female, although the latter are slightly smaller. The upperparts are steel blue-grey, darkening to black on the head, sharply delineated from the pale underparts; the belly is white colouring to orange on the upper breast with bright orange ear patches. Rare individuals have been sighted that have varying degrees of melanism, including one individual spotted on one of our expeditions to South Georgia Island that was completely black.


The 12–13 cm (4¾-5 in) black bill is long and slender. The lower mandible bears a striking pink or orange-coloured mandibular plate.


An immature bird will have yellow- rather than orange-tinged markings, and grey tips to its black brown feathers. It moults into adult plumage at after reaching two years of age.


The chick is first covered with brown-grey down, before moulting into a thick, woolly brown coat borne until around 10–12 months of age. Their mandibular plates are black until the moult into immature plumage.



Courtship and breeding


The reproductive cycle begins in September to November. They then return to the sea for three weeks before coming ashore in November or December. The egg is incubated for around 55 days with both birds sharing incubation in shifts of 6–18 days each. Hatching may take up to 2–3 days to complete, and chicks are born semi-altricial and nidicolous. In other words, they have only a thin covering of down and are entirely dependent on their parents for food and warmth.


The young chick is brooded in what is called the guard phase, spending its time balanced on its parents´ feet and sheltered by its pouch. During this time, the parents alternate every 3–7 days, one incubating while the other forages. This period lasts for 30–40 days before the chicks form crèches, a group of many chicks together. A penguin can leave its chick at a crèche while it fishes as a few adult penguins stay behind to look after them. Other varieties of penguins also practice this method of communal care for offspring.


The average age of first breeding is around 6 years. Although the King Penguin is able to breed at three years of age. King Penguins are serially monogamous. They have only one mate each year, and stay faithful to that mate.


The King Penguin has an unusually prolonged breeding cycle, taking some 14–16 months from laying to offspring fledging. Although pairs will attempt to breed annually, they are generally only successful one year in two, or two years in three in a triennial pattern on South Georgia.


By April the chicks are almost fully grown, but lose weight by fasting over the winter months, gaining it again during spring in September. Fledging then takes place in late spring/early summer.


King Penguins form huge breeding colonies - for example the colony on South Georgia Island at Salisbury Plain holds over 100,000 breeding pairs and the one at St. Andrew´s Bay over 150,000 birds. Because of the long breeding cycle, colonies are continuously occupied.


The King Penguin feeds its chicks by eating a fish, digesting it slightly and regurgitating the food into the chick´s mouth.


Because of their large size, King Penguin chicks take 14–16 months before they are ready to go to sea. This is markedly different from smaller penguins, who rear their chicks through a single summer when food is plentiful. King Penguins time their mating so the chicks will develop over the harshest season for fishing. In this way, by the time the young penguins are finally mature enough to leave their parents, it is summer when food is plentiful and conditions are more favorable for the young to survive alone.





King penguins eat small fish, mainly lanternfish, and squid. On foraging trips they repeatedly dive to over 100 metres (330 ft), often over 200 metres (660 ft). Thus the King Penguin dives far deeper than any other penguin, notably excluding their closest relative, the larger Emperor Penguin.


Corporate image:Xavier Marlí

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