Etymology of Penguin Names
By Megan Spofford
Let’s take a look at all of the penguin species, and interpret their scientific names!
First, let’s review penguin taxonomy – where do penguin scientific names come from?
WEDGE, Wedge, wedge.
In taxonomy, penguins are differentiated from other birds (Aves) at the order level: Sphenisciformes (the beige color in Figure 1). This order is comprised of all penguins that have ever existed. The word breaks down into sphenisci– which is Latin for wedge, and –formes which means shape. Penguins are kind of wedge-shaped! The next branch, the family, is Spheniscidae and describes only penguins that exist today. We’ve seen the first part of the word before, but the ending -dae means “resemblance.” Penguins branch out from here into 6 genera and then into the 18 recognized species we all know and love.
Now, what exactly do these different penguin names mean?
- Spheniscus is one of the genera that further identifies penguins. It seems a little bit like deja vu, right? This descriptor in Latin means… you guessed it!…wedge-like. So this type of penguin is wedge-shaped, wedge-resembling, and wedge-like. As descriptive as that is, scientists often refer to this group as “banded penguins” because of the thin, black band that runs along the top of their chest. The common names of the penguins belonging to this group are African, Magellanic, Galapagos, and Humboldt Penguins.
- The name that a scientist would use to identify the African Penguin is Spheniscus demersus. Demersus means “plunging” in Latin and is an homage to this banded bird’s diving capabilities.
- The Magellanic Penguin shares part of its common name with its scientific name: Spheniscus magellanicus. Ferdinand Magellan was the first European to explore the area of Chile where these Magellanic Penguins are found. Many places in that region bear his name, including this well-known banded penguin.
- Galapagos Penguins are known as Spheniscus mendiculus. Mendiculus means “little beggar.” Perhaps the scientist who named this species was not impressed with a behavior the Galapagos Penguins seemed to exhibit!
- Spheniscus humboldti is more commonly known as the Humboldt Penguin. Alexander von Humboldt was a German explorer interested in nature throughout central South America. He spent time working in Peru, where this penguin named after him can be found.
2. Pygoscelis is another genus of penguins, and it means “rump-legged” in Greek. This descriptor is kind of a mind bender. Scientists commonly call these penguins brush-tailed since their tail sweeps from side to side as they walk. This genus is comprised of Adelie, Chinstrap, and Gentoo Penguins.
- The Adelie Penguin is scientifically called Pygoscelis adeliae. This penguin’s species name also comes from an explorer, Frenchman Jules Dumont d’Urville. However, Adeliae is nowhere in his name. Instead, Adéle was the name of his wife, and when he discovered this penguin while exploring Antarctica, he committed the ultimate act of romance by naming the adorable Adelie Penguin after her.
- Chinstrap Penguins, or Pygoscelis antarcticus, can be found on many sub-Antarctic islands. The species name reflects this fact. The Chinstrap Penguin’s common name comes from – you guessed it – the black stripe that runs beneath their chin.
- Gentoo Penguins (Pygoscelis papua) was actually misnamed, as the explorer who named them wrongly believed they were in Papua New Guinea when he saw them, however there are no penguins that exist there. The origin of the common name “Gentoo” is unclear.
The largest penguins
3. The Aptenodytes genus can be derived from the Greek words apten- for “featherless” and -dytes for “diver”. This characterization is a bit off, obviously, as penguins have many feathers — but they are great divers! The 2 largest penguin species belong to Aptenodytes; the Emperor and King Penguins.
- Emperor Penguins are called Aptenodytes forsteri. Forsteri comes from the explorer Johann Reinhold Forster. He was a naturalist who traveled with Captain Cook and gave us some of the first accounts of penguins, including being attributed for discovering our largest living species of penguin.
- King Penguins can be found throughout the sub-Antarctic islands as well as in the Patagonia region of South America, creating the origin of their scientific name, Aptenodytes patagonicus.
Photo Credit: Peppermint Narwhal
4. Eudyptes are crested penguins whose name means “good diver.” The common names of penguins belonging to this genus are Erect-crested, Fiordland, Macaroni, Northern Rockhopper, Royal, Snares, and Southern Rockhopper Penguins.
- The Erect-Crested Penguin is Eudyptes sclateri. Sclateri is given to this species name as an homage for the British zoologist Philip Sclater, who is most well-known for mapping out regions of the world based on zoogeography.
- Fiordland Penguins were given the name Eudyptes pachyrhynchus, with the latter meaning “thick beak” in Greek.
- Eudyptes chrysolophus (which means “golden crested”) is a great name for the Macaroni Penguin!
- The Northern Rockhopper Penguin is sometimes also called the Moseley’s Penguin, hence the species name Eudyptes moseleyi. Moseley was yet another exploring naturalist who described this species while encountering them aboard the H.M.S. Challenger. Because Moseley was not an ornithologist and had only heard about penguins, he first thought they were some sort of pygmy dolphin until he saw them leap from the water to land.
- Hermann Schlegel was a German zoologist who, ironically, opposed Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. Schlegel has 7 species of reptiles, 1 species of fish and 1 species of penguin (the Royal Penguin- Eudyptes schlegeli) named after him.
- Snares Penguin, Eudyptes robustus, is so named because of its robust bill.
- Southern Rockhopper Penguins (Eudyptes chrysocome) are as aptly named as Macaroni penguins, because similarly chrysocome means “golden hair.”
The smallest penguin
5. Eudyptula covers only one species: the Little Penguin. As with Eudyptes, the name means “good diver,” but the -ula at the end of the word is a diminutive suffix that implies this one is smaller. Hence, the Eudyptula member is a good little diver.
- The Little Penguin is known by the species name Eudyptula minor. Minor, of course, reinforces the smallness of this penguin.
A penguin all on its own
6. Megadyptes also has only one species of penguin under its genus, but it means “large diver.” The Yellow-eyed Penguin fits into the phylogenetic tree of life here.
- The Yellow-eyed Penguin is identified as Megadyptes antipodes. The species is named after the region where it breeds (Australia and New Zealand as a unit are sometimes referred to as the Antipodes.)
The evolutionary history of penguins. From: Cole et al. (2019) Molecular Biology and Evolution
Great info about how penguins got their names. Did you know about this? We love bringing you all this information. And, we can’t do it without your help. Please consider donating to Penguins International.
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- Chrono-Biographical Sketch: Philip Lutley Sclater, http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/chronob/SCLA1829.htm.
- Cole, T. L., Ksepka, D. T., Mitchell, K. J., Tennyson, A. J. D., Thomas, D. B., Pan, H., … Waters, J. M. (2019).Mitogenomes uncover extinct penguin taxa and reveal island formation as a key driver of speciation. Molecular Biology and Evolution.
- “Dictionary by Merriam-Webster: America’s Most-Trusted Online Dictionary.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/.
- Kellner, Charlotte L. “Alexander Von Humboldt.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alexander-von-Humboldt#ref3367.
- Macdougall, Doug. Endless Novelties of Extraordinary Interest. The Voyage of H.M.S. Challenger and the Birth of Modern Oceanography. Yale University Press, 2019.
- Reunes-Vanhaevre, Hedwig. Pinguins Info – Penguin – Information about Spheniscus Penguins, http://www.pinguins.info/Engels/Spheniscus_eng.html.
- Roy, Tui De, et al. Penguins: the Ultimate Guide. Princeton University Press, 2014.
- “Schlegel’s Curse, a Natural History Story.” JCM Natural History Photography, 7 Nov. 2017, https://naturalhistoryphotography.net/schlegels-curse-a-natural-history-story/.
- Troelstra, Anne S. A Bibliography of Natural History Travel Narratives. ebook, KNNV Uitgeverij, 2016.