The 17 Penguin Species Adaptations and Lifestyles

All penguins belong to a single family, the Spheniscidae, because they are obviously closely related and come from a single common ancestor, the bird that left the air to take up the most aquatic existence of any of the many families of birds in the world.  From that original ancestral species evolved the 17 or 18 living penguin species, from the giant Emperor and King Penguins to the tiny fairy penguins.  They are all recognisable as penguins by their body and limb shapes and distinctive black backs, white stomachs, flipper-like wings and pink feet set way back to accomodate a swimming lifestyle and which give the penguin its distinctive waddle.

Their ancestors, like the ancestors of all modern land vertebrates, left the water millions of years ago to evolve through amphibian to reptilian to bird forms.  Then, like the mammalian orders of seals and whales, they returned to the ocean, but with significant changes,  Penguins kept the feathers that being birds bequeathed them, added a thick layer of fat under the feathers and took their supercharged, warm-blooded bodies to the rich waters of the Antarctic region.  In one way only are they still tied to the land:  they must return to the land to lay their eggs and raise their young.

The Great Southern Ocean is vast beyond reckoning, with only the tips of two continents (Africa and South America), one large island (Australia) plus a few microscopic islands scattered at irregular intervals to provide places for penguins to raise chicks.  Their thick fat layer and feathered insulation kept them in cold waters.  The furthest north penguins have managed to get is the Galapagos Islands, helped by a cold northerly current.  All the rest must find secluded beaches and islands in widely separated places or brave the wild Antarctic continent.  Several of these intrepid explorers have done just that:  Emperors, Kings and Adelie penguins can breed and nest where most of us would freeze to death in short order.  The rest can be found on Subantarctic Islands and in a few mainland colonies. 

Here is the list:

In the rules of taxonomy, for every family there must be a Genus of the same name, which shows the characteristics of that family.  So four penguin species belong to the Genus Spheniscus.  These are the African Black-footed or Jackass penguin (Spheniscus demersus), the Magellanic (S. magellanicus), the Peruvian (S. humbolti) and the Galapagos penguin (S. mendiculus).  These four species are medium sized penquins, weighing 2 to 4 kilos and standing about knee high to the average human.  They are all burrow- nesters, which male and female pairs dig together.  The Jackass, known for its braying calls, is found on the coast of Africa from Namibia on the west coast, around the Cape to Port Elisabeth on the East coast. The Magellanic is the largest of the four species, at about 4 kilos and is found around the coast of Patagonia on the southern tip of South America.  Further north on the west coast is the Peruvian penguin and furthest north is the Galapagos penquin.

Six species belong to the Crested Genus, Eudyptes, meaning good diver.  These birds all have distinctive yellow to orange feathers over their eyes like a mad Scotsman’s eyebrows.  These featherbrows can be used to show a range of emotions from surprise, fear, anger and irritation to contentment and even love.  These are also medium sized penguins ranging from 2.5 to 5 kg and they are found on numerous subantarctic islands.

The fjordland Crested penguin (E. pachyrhynchus) is found in colonies on the southwest part of the South Island of New Zealand, Stewart and Solander Island plus some smaller offshore islands.  They make their way into cool wet forests to dig burrows and raise their young.  On the Snares Islands, the Snares Crested Penguin (Eudyptes robustus) makes its burrows in between the grassy tussocks on their windswept islands.  This is the largest of the crested penquins.  On the bare rock of the Bounty Islands and the turrocks of Antipodes, one can find the gregarious Erect-crested penguin (E. sclateri) with smaller colonies on Campbell and Auckland Is.  Alongside these three species can be found the widely distributed Rockhopper, E. chrysocome.  This is the smallest of the crested species, being only about 0.6 m high but makes up for that by being the most aggressive.  It has fierce red eyes and a long drooping eyebrows to add to its menace and it is quite agile, getting its name from its ability to use those short fat legs to advantage on the rocky shores of its homes.  The last two members of the crested clan are the Macaroni (E. chrysolophus) and the Royal Penguin (E. schlegeli).  The Royal is found only on Macquarie Island, in the Australia sub-Antarctic zone.  Within this area though, there are about two million individuals.  Some scientists consider it a subspecies of the Macaroni but it has a distinctive white throat, the only penguin that does not have a black throat.  The Macaroni penguin got its name, not from pasta, but from an old English word for a gentleman-dandy who liked to decorate his black and white suit of clothing with bright cravats and scarves.  The Macaroni is the first of the species we are considering to be found on the Antarctic mainland.  There are small numbers breeding on the Antarctic peninsula but the largest colonies are found on small Islands in the Atlantic and Indian sectors of the great globe-encircling Southern Ocean.  About 40 million Macaroni penguins breed on South Georgia alone.

There are four more genera of penguins:  1.  Aptenodytes – the Emperor (A. forsteri) and the King (A. patagonica). These two elegant species with their coloured neck feathers are the largest of the penguins.  The 40 kg emperors need their size to survive their breeding ground conditions in the heart of the Antarctic winter. If you haven’t seen March of the Penguins, you must if you want to understand how extraordinarily tough these birds are.  Kings are half the size but have more brightly coloured throat and neck feathers.  Many people consider them to be the most beautiful of all the penguins.  They have colonies on sub-Antarctic Islands right around the southern Ocean, including the Falklands, South Georgia, Marion, Heard and Macquarie.

2.  Pygoscelis:  One of the most popular penguins of all is the Adelie (P. adeliae).  This medum sized (5 kg) black and white penguin is the most abundant and widely distributed penguin species on the Antarctic mainland.  It lives on rocky beaches in large noisy colonies and is the penguin that most people think of when they think “penguin”.  Its close relatives are the Gentoo (P. papua) which also breeds in colonies on the Antarctic Peninsula plus many islands in the subantarctic, and the Chinstrap (P. antarctica), which has a distinctive black line across the throat and is often found breeding in colonies of Gentoos and Adelies.

3. Eudyptula:  There are two species of Fairy penguins.  The smallest is the Blue (E. minor), which is divided into five subspecies.  They weigh only about a kilo and their feathers are bluish rather than black.  They nest in burrows right around New Zealand and along the southern coasts of Australia.  A close relation is the White Flippered penguin (E albosignata) which is found only on the east coast of the South Island of New Zealand.

4.Megadyptes.  Last of all is the Yellow eyed penguin (M. antipodes).  It is the rarest of the penguins and the most different, so is placed alone in its genus.  It is found only in southern New Zealand, plus the Campbell and Auckland Islands.  It is the least specialised penguin and is considered by some as the penguin most closely resembling that ancestral penguin species we mentioned at the beginning of this article.  It has an eerie yellow eye, light beak and yellowish head feathers.  It is not very sociable and pairs are widely spread in coastal forests.  Unlike other penguins they still come ashore at night and only go to sea during daylight hours, so they are the most terrestrial of the penguins.  They are also the rarest after a huge number died in the late 1980’s of unknown causes.  There are probably only 1200 breeding pairs in total.

On the one hand, penquins are all very similar and immediately recognisable as penguins.  On the other hand, there is a lot of variation within the group, indicating long periods of isolation for groups of penguins that then evolved into different species.  Although penguins are marvelously adapted to ocean life, they are still small and vulnerable and most do not travel far from their home islands.  This has led to geographic isolation and speciation into the 17 or 18 extant species.

Reference:  Gaskin, C and N Peat  1991. The World of Penquins.  Hodder and Stoghton, Auckland