Skip to main content
All Posts By

Megan Spofford

Spheniscidae Superlatives – Penguin Best of the Best

Emperor Penguin with Mount Erebus

Spheniscidae Superlatives – Penguin Best of the Best

By Megan Spofford

Do you remember the section of the high school yearbook that displayed classmate’s photographs and the various superlatives they had been voted for? Well, take a look at Penguin International High’s 2019 Yearbook and see which superlative each species has been awarded!

Rarest Penguin

Yellow-eyed Penguin – You won’t find many of these birds around, because they are unfortunately the most endangered of the penguin species. The IUCN Red List classifies the Yellow-eyed Penguin as endangered with only 2500-3500 adult individuals of the species, and they inhabit only a small range of land. Additionally, population status shows a decreasing trend. This assessment was last completed in August 2018

A rare Yellow-eyed Penguin
(Source: Penguins International photo library)

Best Make-up

Royal Penguins get best make-up, because they are the only species of penguin with white “cheeks.” It almost looks as though they have applied powder!

Photo credit: ARKive

Coolest Penguin

Adelie Penguins (along with Emperor Penguins) spend their entire lives on the Antarctic continent. The most southerly colony of penguins is made up of Adelies.


It’s a shame that this penguin is the most common in the wild, because they are also the meanest! Macaroni Penguins are known for being terribly territorial and aggressive, which is what qualified them for this superlative.


Fastest Swimmers

Unconfirmed reports clock Gentoos in at a whopping 22 mph (or 35 kph) in the water, making them the fastest swimmers out of all of the penguin species. 


Best Divers

Emperor Penguins have the record for longest dive time of all penguins, but they also hold the record for the deepest dive of all birds. Tracking devices that record diving depths and times were attached to Emperor Penguins while they hunted, and data showed that the average diving depth was between 100-200 m. However, the deepest dive for an Emperor Penguin was recorded at 565 m. Furthermore, the longest record for Emperor Penguin breath-holding was at 22 min. (It’s important to note that this record is on the extreme end of the spectrum, with average Emperor Penguin dive times being much lower around 3-6 minutes.)


Marathon Swimmers

Fiordland Penguins are another species that had tracking devices attached to individuals, and the data those devices revealed was that in a period of 8-10 weeks, Fiordland Penguins had traveled 7000 km roundtrip to hunt for food! This incredibly long journey allowed Fiordland Penguins to hunt as much as possible so they could bulk up, and be ready for molting. Some scientists question whether this has always been a natural route for Fiordland Penguins, or if limited food resources have caused the bird to adapt to more extreme migratory patterns.

Best Beard

Chinstrap Penguins are easily recognizable by the black band that swoops under their necks from each side of the head. No other penguins have this distinctive marking. Do we call it a beard, or a goatee?

Photo credit: ARKive

Gravity-Defying Eyebrows

While there are 7 different penguins that have crest features, the Erect-crested Penguin has one that sticks straight up over its head! The other crested species have longer crests that droop down to the sides.

Best Vocal Group

These birds that belong to the genus Spheniscus, are sometimes called the Banded Penguins not because they are in a rock group together, but because of the distinctive band they have  running across their chests. These 4 species also have the loudest vocalizations, which sound like a donkey braying. The quartet includes the African, Humboldt, Magellanic, and Galapagos Penguins.

The Late Bloomer

The breeding cycle for the King Penguin is longer than that of the other species, with it taking 13-16 months for a full cycle to occur. Because this cycle is longer than one year, there are always chicks of various ages in a King Penguin colony.

Night Owl

Well, I guess technically this one would be a Night Penguin. The Little Penguin is the only species that is truly nocturnal!  

Plain Jane

There is always one of these in the group, and it’s not a bad thing! The Snares Penguin blends in with the rest of the crowd of crested penguins and penguins that are endemic to New Zealand.

Prettiest Eyes

Both Southern and Northern Rockhoppers take this award as they uniquely have red-colored eyes that stand out against the black feathers surrounding them.

Southern Rockhopper Penguin — Doesn’t it have beautiful eyes??
(Source: Penguins International photo library)

With such a unique array of characteristics, it’s no wonder that people easily fall in love with this charismatic animal. Thanks for taking a look at our penguin superlatives!

Wow, who knew about all these penguin awards! Let us know if you think there should be more or a different penguin species should win one of these categories. And please help us to continue to provide you with penguin news articles by donating to Penguins International.

Read more about penguins in some of our other blogs:

Like our penguin blogs? Sign up for our newsletter to get them right in your inbox!

King Penguins

[mc4wp_form id=”8457″]



  1. About Little Penguins, Penguin Foundation Phillip Island,
  2. “Banded Penguins (Genus Spheniscus).”,
  3. BirdLife International 2018. Megadyptes antipodes. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T22697800A132603494.                                                                                                                           [Downloaded on 01 September 2019.]
  4. “Emperor Penguins Diving and Travelling.” Australian Antarctic Division: Leading Australia’s Antarctic Program, Australian Government, Department of the Environment and Energy, Australian Antarctic Division, 24 Sept. 2014,
  5. Evans, Tessa. “Fiordland Penguins Swim up to 80km a Day.” Scimex, Scimex, 29 Aug. 2018,
  6. “Gentoo Penguin.” National Geographic, National Geographic, 24 Sept. 2018,

“King Penguins.” Australian Antarctic Division: Leading Australia’s Antarctic Program, Australian Government, Department of the Environment and Energy, Australian Antarctic Division, 20 Mar. 2018,

What Lies Inside the Penguin’s Mouth

The inside of a penguin's mouth

What Lies Inside the Penguin’s Mouth

By Megan Spofford

I recall as African Penguin zookeeper how during feeding times, certain penguins preferred to be fed certain types of fish over others, and most preferred to be fed the head of the fish first (only 1 out of the 40 preferred to be fed tail first). If those penguins were offered an unpreferred item, or in an unpreferred way, the penguin would open its bill and sling its head quickly to the side to shake the fish I had given it from its mouth. In those instances, I had quick glimpses inside the mouth of the penguin, and honestly, it almost looked like something out of a horror story!

What the inside of a penguin’s mouth looks like.

A quick description of a penguin’s bill

From the outside, a penguin’s mouth, the bill, is one of its defining characteristics. There are variations in color for each species of penguin, which can be beautiful, like the King Penguin. The bills are hard keratin formations (keratin is the tissue that makes up human hair, giraffe hooves, and rhino horns). It has a hook on the end that helps a penguin to grip items. (This, of course, comes in handy since penguins do not have arms or hands like us.) There are also two nares on either side of the bill so the penguin can breathe with its bill closed, and which additionally serve as exit points for secretion of the highly concentrated salts they ingest.

What are those spiky things inside a penguin’s mouth?

By shifting focus to the inside of the mouth, we encounter that horror that I mentioned. Of course penguins do not have teeth, but it sure looks like their tongue and the roof of their mouth does! Those teeth-looking structures on the tongue and palate are actually comprised of soft keratin spikes called papillae. They appear sharp on the top, and curve backwards toward the back of the mouth.

What are the functions of those papillae on a penguin’s tongue?

First off, you may notice that those spiky papillae all point toward the back of the penguin’s mouth. Those work a bit like a fish hook. The penguin can grab onto a slippery fish and that food will now only move in one direction – down the penguin’s throat!

All tongues have papillae, including ours, but the penguin’s is more pronounced. It is believed that the reason for this is the function of the tongue. Animals that have “protruding papillae” are typically food collectors. Penguins certainly have pronounced papillae, and collect their food in the ocean! Tongues that have papillae that do not appear to protrude are said to use their tongue as a means to push the food around the mouth, and down the esophagus. Penguins can do this as well, although it has not been well documented. More than likely, the movement is limited, but it can move from side to side, and up and down. Finally, there are tongues that are meant to lie flatly so that food can travel down the esophagus when placed in the correct position. For penguins, all three of these functions seem to apply, with the latter being most applicable to chicks.

Anatomy of a penguin tongue

Underneath the papillae are fatty tissue, connective tissue, mucus glands, and serous glands. The salivary glands are present toward the back of the mouth, and secrete both mucus and serum. In a study conducted on Magellanic Penguin oral structures, salivary glands were present from day 1, but continued to develop, and secrete more beneficial mucus as the subjects got older. Most other birds maintain the same level of development of gland and mucus secretion from birth onward. It was once believed that seabirds who ingested foods from the marine environment would have smaller glands that secreted lesser amounts of mucins because the food was already lubricated by water. However, evidence from the study on Magellanic Penguins supports the theory that the salivary glands have a specific purpose other than to function based on their diet. The purpose could be for any of the following reasons: to break down food, protection from minor injuries, and keeping harmful organisms from creating disease in the mouth. 

What about penguin taste buds?

Most species of birds lack the gene receptors for sweetness, but penguins have even fewer taste buds. Some studies have found that only the receptor genes for salty and sour flavors showed up in penguin species. It’s hypothesized that umami, bitterness, and sweetness gene receptors evolved out of the penguin sequence, because their ancestors lived in cold environments where those receptors do not function well. 

How cool, (horrendous!), and unique is the penguin mouth?!?!

Do you want a mouth, or taste buds, like penguins? Did you like what you learned by reading this blog? Leave a comment below. And please help us to continue to provide you with penguin news articles by donating to Penguins International.

Read more about penguins in some of our other blogs:

Like our penguin blogs? Sign up for our newsletter to get them right in your inbox!

King Penguins

[mc4wp_form id=”8457″]


Hall, Danielle, and Bill Fraser. “Penguins.” Ocean Find Your Blue, Smithsonian, 18 Dec. 2018,

Kobayashi, K, et al. “Fine Structure of the Tongue and Lingual Papillae of the Penguin.” Archives of Histology and Cytology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 1998,

Paxton, et al. “The Leeds Histology Guide.” The Histology Guide, Faculty of Biological Sciences, University of Leeds, 1 Jan. 1970,

Samar, Maria Elena, et al. “Histochemical Study of Magellanic Penguin (Spheniscus Magellanicus) Minor Salivary Glands during Postnatal Growth.” Wiley Online Library, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 19 Nov. 1999,

Black and White, the Perfect Combination

Black and White, the Perfect Combination

Black and White, the Perfect Combination

By Megan Spofford

Dressed to the nines – penguin countershading

Penguins are often referred to as “wearing tuxedos”; an anthropomorphism that describes how most penguins have black feathers on their back with white on their belly. 

The tuxedo look of the penguin is known as countershading in the zoological field. Countershading describes how an animal is darker on the part of their body that faces the sun, and is lighter on the part that faces away from it (an example of this can be seen in the image above). It is important to remember that countershading only describes the coloration pattern of an animal, and not to use the term to define what it does for the animal.

Countershading provides penguin camouflage

The evolutionary purpose of countershading is highly debated, but it is most widely believed to function as a type of crypsis when a penguin is in the water. Crypsis is defined as a type of camouflage that protects an animal from predation. There are arguments for which category of crypsis it may fall under: either self-shadow concealment, or background matching. Self-shadow concealment essentially makes the penguin appear as a flat image, and potentially harder to distinguish from other things typically found in the environment, like rocks or ice. Background matching is where the penguin gets lost in its surroundings, because they look identical.

Penguin coloration under the water

It might stretch your imagination to think of a penguin being camouflaged in open water, however, marine habitats are the best at providing optimal lighting for a countershaded animal to blend in. When an animal is in the water, the light source is always directly overhead, making lighter colored objects closer to the surface harder to distinguish. When looking downwards, the ocean continually darkens, so dark objects would be obscured in this area. Because many natural penguin predators are strictly marine animals, it would make sense that they evolved feather colors that would make it harder for those predators to see them no matter where they happen to be located in the water. It is also beneficial for the penguin to be countershaded so that they themselves can prey upon fish and crustaceans!


Fossil evidence for the countershading hypothesis

The idea of countershading for camouflage has intrigued zoologists, artists, and militarists (who utilized the concept for weapons and bomber planes) for years. There are some proponents, however that believe the color of penguin feathers may be attributed to other factors, and the evidence for this is based heavily on the findings of a fossil from an extinct penguin in Peru.

Scientists were able to determine the color of feathers of the giant, extinct penguin despite degradation. They did this by examining melanosomes in the feather under a microscope, and it showed that they were a reddish color, instead of black.

Melanosomes are the organelles which create, store, and move melanin pigments in animal tissue. Melanin can come in one of two forms: eumelanin which has an oblong shape and accounts for darker pigmentation, and pheomelanin which is shorter and rounder (like an oval) and accounts for lighter pigmentation. In a comparison of feather color based on melanin, the fossil showed that it was colored by pheomelanin, while existing penguins are colored by eumelanin. 

What does melanin do, and what could that have to do with the color pattern of extant penguins?

There are a few different reasons eumelanin might have been triggered to be produced. In order to determine why this occurred in modern day penguins, we have to take a look at the environmental conditions that foster its development.

One that most of us are familiar with is its protective properties from harmful UV radiation. When skin, or feather tissue, is exposed to high levels of UV radiation, eumelanin is produced to block those rays, and thus becomes darker. For penguins that spend time at the equator where UV exposure occurs the most, they would need this melanin protection to keep from developing cancers. Obviously, the ventral (belly) side of a penguin is not exposed to UV radiation while swimming, which is why it would be lighter than the dorsal (back) side that is exposed.

Eumelanin has a molecular structure that is resistant to injury and breakage. Having eumalenain in the majority of your feathers would be beneficial for an animal that moves around on jagged ice formations, or has a high amount of drag load placed on their feathers while swimming speedily, like a penguin.

Further benefits of darker melanin are that it limits blinding glare (when light reflects off of a surface and affects vision), and it helps an animal camouflage into its surroundings in certain types of light (as discussed above!)

So, was eumelanin in feathers adapted mainly for camouflage purposes, or did it become a staple of modern day penguin genetic make-up for one of the other reasons, and it just so happens to also aid in crypsis? Researchers continue to test hypotheses to solve the mystery about the function of the countershaded penguin, so maybe one day soon we will have a definitive answer!

A blend of tuxedo and camo. Penguins are amazing animals. Like this story? Have a story of your own? Leave a comment below. And please help us to continue to provide you with penguin news articles by donating to Penguins International.

Read more about penguins in some of other blogs:

Like our penguin blogs? Sign up for our newsletter to get them right in your inbox!

[mc4wp_form id=”8457″]


Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Melanin.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.,

Clarke, Julia A., et al. “Fossil Evidence for Evolution of the Shape and Color of Penguin Feathers.” Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 12 Nov. 2010,

Rowland, Hannah M. “From Abbott Thayer to the Present Day: What Have We Learned about the Function of Countershading?” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, The Royal Society, 27 Feb. 2009,

Stevens, Martin. “Animal Camouflage.” Google Books, Cambridge University Press, 7 July 2011, camouflage&f=false.

The Antarctic Treaty Helps Antarctic Penguins

Antarctic Treaty, antarctica, Antarctic penguins, penguins, when was the Antarctic Treaty signed, what did the Antarctic Treaty do, how many countries signed the Antarctic Treaty, Environmental Protocol protects penguins, Environmental Protocol of the treaty

The Antarctic Treaty Helps Antarctic Penguins

By Megan Spofford

What is the Antarctic Treaty?

The Antarctic Treaty is a document comprised of 14 articles outlining laws about how to govern Antarctica, and was originally signed into agreement in 1959 (but officially enacted in 1961) by 12 different countries. These countries agreed to manage the location only with peace, and as a place for scientific research where ideas were shared amongst each other. Some of the countries had already lay claim to certain regions in Antarctica before the Treaty was signed, and although those particular regions may still recognize those claims individually, as a whole, they are not controlled by any particular nation per the Treaty. The area of coverage this pertains to is anything below 60º S latitude.

Signing of the Antarctic Treaty on December 1st 1959
Source: Antarctic Treaty Image Bank

Who participates in the Antarctic Treaty?

As of 2019, there are currently 54 recognized countries that participate in the governance of the Antarctic Treaty. These comprise of the original 12, and 42 more who were added throughout the years (a full list is in the image below). Not all of the participatory countries are actively involved in research on the continent, however. While 54 countries may not sound like many in the grand scheme of things, in reality it truly is a substantial number because all the countries that are part of the treaty (regardless of conducting research or not) represent at least ⅔ of the world’s population. The leaders from each of the signatory countries engage in yearly meetings to address matters that concern the Treaty.

"Antarctic Treaty". United States Department of State. April 22, 2019.
Signing of the Antarctic Treaty on December 1st 1959
Source: Antarctic Treaty Image Bank
Map of Territorial Claims in Antarctica
Source: CIA World Factbook

The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty

An especially important meeting occurred in 1991 in Madrid where Article 12 was addressed. This article explained that the limitations of the Treaty should be reassessed after 30 years (remember this Treaty was enacted in 1961!), and that if any of the participating entities were disgruntled with any part of it, the committee needed to address it. This is when the Environmental Protocol happened to be drafted. The Environmental Protocol set forth the recognition of Antarctica as a nature reserve, and protects the natural resources and native species of the area. This is the portion of the protocol that protects Antarctic penguins! It was officially enacted in 1998, and since then, revisions have been added to the protocol to better specify its purposes, or extend its reach.

How the Environmental Protocol protects penguins

The Environmental Protocol covers Antarctic flora and fauna (the fauna portion includes penguins). In particular, it gives native penguins and other animals the status of “specially protected species,” and explains that they cannot be removed, injured, killed, or disrupted by human activity (such as by motorized vehicles or pollution of the environment from waste). In some cases where any of these may have to occur for the purposes of scientific investigation, or to preserve the species, permits must be issued by members of the Antarctic Treaty, and researchers must be sure to limit the activity to affect as few individuals as possible. Other protections in this protocol outline that non-native species cannot be introduced to the island, and that the balanced ecosystem cannot be disrupted. Furthermore, population assessments must be conducted on native species regularly enough to evaluate whether they are continuing to thrive. If they are not, then the problems facing the population must be addressed.

Adelie Penguins on an iceberg

Some of the most recent additions to the Environmental Protocol that have beneficial consequences for native penguins include: guidelines for reducing plastic pollution in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean (held in Prague in 2019), a non-native species manual (created in Santiago in 2016), identifying important bird areas in Antarctica (at a gathering in Sofia in 2015), meeting of experts on climate change (conducted in Baltimore in 2009), and many more in between those years, or before.

Setting an example

Thankfully, the Antarctic Treaty provides key protections to the native penguins of Antarctica, which include Gentoo, Chinstrap, Macaroni, Adelie and Emperor. It also sets a precedence across the world for many things: international cooperation for peace, appreciation for the importance of science, and respect for native wildlife. If it can be done there, then hopefully our leaders can use the Antarctic Treaty as a model, and transpose those practices (sometime in the near future) to the rest of the world when dealing with similar issues.

The Antarctic Treaty and Environmental Protocol have done so much to protect penguins. We look forward to seeing what happens in the future. Please help us continue to provide you this type of information by donating to Penguins International.

Read more about penguins in some of other blogs:

Like our penguin blogs? Sign up for our newsletter to get them right in your inbox!

[mc4wp_form id=”8457″]


“Antarctic Treaty Meetings.” Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition,

“Antarctic Treaty.” U.S. Department of State Archive, U.S. Department of State,

“The Antarctic Treaty.” US National Science Foundation (NSF),

“Conservation of Antarctic Fauna and Flora.” Fauna and Flora | Antarctic Treaty, Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty, 2019,

What’s up with “Down”?

King Penguin with its chick showing penguin down feathers

What’s up with “Down”?

By Megan Spofford

Have you ever seen a young penguin that looks like it has completely different feathers than the rest of the members in its colony? Did you think, “What’s wrong with that one!?” Would you describe it as a “floof-ball”? If so, it would serve you to know that the floofiness factor comes from a special type of feather called “down” which is small, lightweight, and FLUFFY. For penguins, the down has a gray or brown coloration. In this article we will explore what makes this type of feather so special, and to show you that no, nothing is wrong with that penguin!

What are the types of down feathers in penguins?

In the grand scheme of down, you will find there are three different types. Regular body down is a layer of lighter feathers found situated underneath and around the external contour ones that we see with our naked eye, and all birds possess it. Down feathers are classified as afterfeathers and plumules. Natal down is the first type of feather a baby bird will get, and it covers the entire body. Powder down is created from feathers that disintegrate into an ashy, powdery substance to coat the feathers of a bird in order to keep it waterproof from rain or any other type of wet substance it may encounter. This type of down is found on birds who typically do not spend time going into water, so a penguin does not have powder down. (Instead, penguins and other water birds have a uropygial gland, also known as a preen gland, at the base of their tail that secretes an oil which is spread over their feathers during preening. This oil serves to waterproof their feathers in the same way powder down does for other birds.)

What types of feathers does a baby penguin have when it hatches?

Altricial or Precocial?

Penguins hatch from an egg with down covering their body, however they are not able to feed on their own or survive if they were to leave the nest/ brood pouch. This characteristic makes them “semi-altricial”. An altricial bird is one that is not able to regulate the temperature of their own body, usually due to being completely or partially featherless. They are also heavily reliant on parental care for feeding. The latter is a particular reason why penguins are not considered precocial. While similar to precocial birds in that they are both born with feathering, a precocial baby will be able to fend for themselves or follow their parents around and to learn how to hunt within the first few weeks of life. On the other hand, as an altricial baby gets older, the down feathering thickens, and they are able to self-thermoregulate, but natal down is not waterproof, so until the penguin’s body is mostly covered in contour feathers that can be waterproofed, the bird cannot go into the water or it could risk drowning and hypothermia. Since penguins hunt in the ocean, the babies must rely on their parents for food until eventually, the young bird is old enough to molt (when a penguin sheds feathers on its body and is restored with new ones) and the down is replaced with adult feathers.

What are the additional purposes of down feathers in penguins?

Down has a few different purposes; a couple of which we have already described when discussing powder and natal down. Looking at the third type of down, body down, an important purpose it serves is as an insulating agent for any bird of any age. This is especially important to penguins who live in the cold Antarctic regions! Additionally, body down helps with a penguin’s movement in water. This help comes in the form of bubbles of air that are trapped in the down feathers and ultimately give the penguin buoyancy or allow it to zip through the water quickly. Sometimes in these high speed instances, a “trail of smoke” can be seen behind the penguin, which is really just the expulsion of those air bubbles from their down.

Close up of penguin feathers

Down feathers for Human Application

Recognizing the special properties of feathers, humans have started research into creating a diving suit made of artificial feathers that would be more insulating and create less drag during underwater excursions. The fluffier down feather would be an important feature for both of those properties to exist. If this ever comes to fruition, we would be the silliest looking penguin there ever was!

Did you know you could get ‘down’ with penguins? Great info! Let us know what you think. And please help us continue to bring you this type of info by contributing to Penguins International.

Read some other information about penguins in more blogs:

Like our penguin blogs? Sign up for our newsletter to get them right in your inbox!

[mc4wp_form id=”8457″]


  4. Jan R. E. Taylor, Thermal Insulation of the Down and Feathers of Pygoscelid Penguin Chicks and the Unique Properties of Penguin Feathers, The Auk, Volume 103, Issue 1, January 1986, Pages 160–168,
  5. Starck, Johannes Matthias. Avian Growth and Development: Evolution within the Altricial-Precocial Spectrum. Oxford Univ. Press, 1998,
  6. Williams, CL, Hagelin, JC, & Kooyman, GL. (2015). Hidden keys to survival: The type, density, pattern and functional role of emperor penguin body feathers. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 282(1817). Retrieved from 

Penguin Architecture – What does a penguin nest look like?

Magellanic Penguin burrow nest

Penguin Architecture – What does a penguin nest look like?

By Megan Spofford

One of the most fascinating characteristics of birds is the fact that they are egg-layers, and because of this, they must create highly specialized shelters to house them — nests. Amongst the penguin species, the variation in nesting materials is almost as diverse as the penguins themselves. Materials available vary based on habitat, but all eighteen species have developed specialized nests to protect their eggs in creative ways.

Types of Penguin Nests

Scrape nests

A scrape nest is essentially an indentation in the ground that has been scraped out by the nails of the penguin that created it. The species that create this type of nest are Snares, Erect-crested, Rockhoppers, Gentoos and Yellow-eyed Penguins. Within a scrape nest, the penguin will add things such as rocks, sticks, vegetation, bone, feathers, etc. — pretty much anything it can grab with its mouth — to create a throne worthy of jealousy. Interestingly, Yellow-eyed Penguins go out of their way to build nests that are not within sight of another penguin (probably to avoid a confrontation over territory). However, nearly all of the other penguin species live in breeding colonies that have nesting sites in close proximity to each other. Erect-crested Penguins, Macaronis and Northern and Southern Rockhoppers additionally utilize tussocks, which are thick and long isolated bushels of grass that protect their eggs.

Mounds or flat ground

While those whole build scrape nests do use various items to fill their shelter with items that include rocks and pebbles, there are species that use only rocks and pebbles without scraping a depression first. These species of penguins build nests on top of rocks and pebbles by gathering and setting them out in an array or stacking them. Adelie, Chinstrap and Royal Penguins almost exclusively build their nests on the rocky shores they inhabit, while Macaroni and Gentoo Penguins utilize this method in some regions. In some cases, especially with Gentoos and Adelies, individuals will steal materials from each others’ nests to add to their own, and spark territory wars in the process. Macaroni Penguins (who only come to shore for breeding purposes) create mounds as well as use tussocks. 

Gentoo Penguins adding vegetation to their scrape nest.
African Penguin nest boxes placed by African Penguin & Seabird Sanctuary, donated by GreenRscreed.
Photo Source: GreenRscreed


Burrows are the most utilized nest by penguins as six of the eighteen penguins use them, but they vary in structure based on what is available. Penguins will use the scraping technique to form a new burrow, but the difference between the two is that the burrow has a covered top, so the entire structure resembles Bag End from The Hobbit, without the door.

Penguins can also utilize natural burrows such as caves, cracks, and holes, or even under tree branches in the case of Fiordland Penguins, who nest in vegetation of the rainforest of New Zealand. Little Penguin burrows are created solely by the males. Magellanic Penguins dig burrows up to 1 meter deep in soil or guano beds. Galapagos Penguins, who nest the farthest north of all the species, do so in between dried lava formations decorated with twigs and leaves; that is if they nest at all. This species is environmentally cued to breed only if cool water temperatures are below 25 degrees Celsius.

The final three species: African and Humboldt Penguins are also burrowers, but they use guano (bird poop!) as their major building tool. They fill cracks and holes in the ground with guano which can build up after many years, and provide great space for burrowing. Unfortunately, it is also nutrient dense and has been harvested by humans as a fertilizer. In doing so, the availability of valuable burrowing area for penguins is severely reduced, and they are forced to lay eggs in more vulnerable locations. Guano harvesting is a contributing factor to the endangered status of the African Penguin, and has led to substantially decreasing numbers in Humboldt Penguins as well. Because of this, scientists have started placing artificial nests made from various durable materials on the islands they inhabit to increase the rate of hatching.

The “no-nesters”

While most penguins have reason to build a nest, there are two species of penguin that are “no-nesters”. The Emperor and King Penguins nestle their eggs on their feet and keep the egg warm by a brood pouch, a patch of bare skin,on the belly of the penguin to protect their eggs from the harsh elements of the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic environments in which they live.

Each type of nest, or lack thereof, is a fascinating natural piece of architecture. If you were a penguin and had all the resources available for each type of nest, which would you choose?

A King Penguin doesn’t use a nest. It incubates its egg on top of its feet.

Isn’t it amazing how different species of the same bird do things so differently? Let us know what you think about all this. We love being able to provide you with this information and can’t do it without your support. Please consider donating to Penguins International so we continue to do so.

And read more about penguins in some of our other blogs:

Like our penguin blogs? Sign up for our newsletter to get them right in your inbox!

[mc4wp_form id=”8457″]


  5. Carlson, A. L. and J. S. Townsdin (2012). Galapagos Penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus), version 1.0. In Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Etymology of Penguin Names

Etymology, Penguins, Names, penguin species, scientific names, taxonomy, birds, latin

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.

Etymology, Penguins, Names, penguin species, scientific names, taxonomy, birds, latin

Now, what exactly do these different penguin names mean?

Scientific names

Banded Penguins

  1. 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.

Brush-tailed penguins

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.
Etymology, Penguins, Names, penguin species, scientific names, taxonomy, birds, latin
Photo Credit: Peppermint Narwhal

Crested penguins

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.)
Etymology of penguin names
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.


And, read more about penguins in some of our other blogs:


Like our penguin blogs? Sign up for our newsletter to get them right in your inbox!

[mc4wp_form id=”8457″]


  1. Chrono-Biographical Sketch: Philip Lutley Sclater,
  2. 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.
  3. “Dictionary by Merriam-Webster: America’s Most-Trusted Online Dictionary.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster,
  4. Kellner, Charlotte L. “Alexander Von Humboldt.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.,
  5. Macdougall, Doug. Endless Novelties of Extraordinary Interest. The Voyage of H.M.S. Challenger and the Birth of Modern Oceanography. Yale University Press, 2019.
  6. Reunes-Vanhaevre, Hedwig. Pinguins Info – Penguin – Information about Spheniscus Penguins,
  7. Roy, Tui De, et al. Penguins: the Ultimate Guide. Princeton University Press, 2014.
  8. “Schlegel’s Curse, a Natural History Story.” JCM Natural History Photography, 7 Nov. 2017,
  9. Troelstra, Anne S. A Bibliography of Natural History Travel Narratives. ebook, KNNV Uitgeverij, 2016.

Malaria and the African Penguin

african penguin

Malaria and the African Penguin

By Megan Spofford

Africa’s only species of penguin is in serious danger of extinction. Threats to the species have come to a head from guano and egg harvesting (that took place until the 1930s), competition for food resources due to increasing ocean temperatures and humans overfishing, invasive species, and oil spills. African Penguins are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List. An assessment of the species was last done in August of 2018 that concluded the population trend of roughly 50,000 adult individuals was still in a major decline. The assessment goes on to state that the “…trend currently shows no sign of reversing, and immediate conservation action is required to prevent further declines.” ¹

All penguins are susceptible to malaria

Because of this warning, many institutions have pledged to take part in rehabilitation and breeding efforts to save the African Penguin from extinction. Unfortunately, all penguins are incredibly susceptible to malaria and the disease has a higher occurrence rate in penguins under human care than those in the wild. The disease was first noted in African Penguins in 1968. Specific action against avian malaria must be taken to successfully contribute to conservation efforts that occur in human care for this species.

Details about malaria in penguins and other birds

P. relictum in african penguin
Blood smear showing P. relictum infection (stained purple) within red blood cells. Public Domain.

Malaria itself is interesting, because it is a parasitic disease caused by Plasmodium protozoans of which there are 7 different species that occur in penguins. The parasite is injected into the host organism (penguin) during a blood meal from a vector (mosquito) after it has been picked up from a reservoir (wildlife in close vicinity).

Recent studies involving blood smear analyses from wild penguins that go into rehabilitation facilities showed that roughly ⅓ of the birds admitted were positive for malaria-fighting antibodies, meaning they had already had a malaria infection at some point in their life. These initial samples were taken upon admittance to the facility, so data could determine whether subsequent samples showed presence of new or original disease infection.

Weekly blood samples were then taken of all African Penguins and data shows that malaria infection acquired while being rehabilitated most likely resulted from infection by a different species of Plasmodium than the one that had showed up in some of the initial testing. 

There is a concern at this point that when a penguin infected with the new species of Plasmodium is integrated back into its original colony, it then becomes a reservoir for that new species to infect the other members.

Because symptoms of infection do not typically appear until the disease has progressed to the point that it is difficult to successfully treat, diagnostic testing of blood samples while still in human care can be routinely done to check for infection, and should be utilized for early detection. 

Treatment for malaria in penguins

Early treatment with anti-malarial prophylactics such as chloroquine and primaquine have proven to be successful in limiting symptoms, but not curing the disease. With African Penguin numbers declining, we could hardly imagine the idea of using them as a human-disease model, but malaria affects penguins and humans in the same manner, so these drugs that have worked for penguins have also worked for humans. 

During summer and early fall months, when temperatures are most conducive to mosquito activity, prophylactics can also be given as a preventative measure. Chronic use of prophylactics is not suggested because it is not cost effective during cooler months, but most importantly because it can limit the development of a penguin’s natural immunity.

Evidence shows that once an African Penguin has been infected and overcome a malaria infection, the antibodies are able to better fight off reinfection. (Females may even pass this immunity to offspring!) Vaccines, which introduce infections to the body in small enough amounts that do not cause sickness, but do signal antibodies to be created, have shown effectiveness against mortality from malaria if administered yearly. 

african penguin

Prevention of avian malaria in penguins is the most important key

Above all, the best form of protection is prevention. Simply enclosing housing facilities with mosquito-proof netting and using mosquito repellants around the facility can drastically reduce the chance that a mosquito will infect an African Penguin with malaria at all.

As research uncovers more information about how to better prevent and/or treat malaria infections in African Penguins being cared for by humans, this conservation problem will cease to exist. And wouldn’t that just be ideal!?

* Note: African Penguins are not the only species of penguin who are capable of contracting malaria… they all are! Especially those that spend time in sub-tropical locations, or anywhere mosquitoes exist.

Did you know penguins could get malaria? Let us know what you learned from this blog. Also, please help us continue to learn more about penguins by donating to Penguins International.

Check out some of our other blogs, too:


  1. BirdLife International 2018. Spheniscus demersus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T22697810A132604504. Downloaded on 22 August 2019.
  2. Botes, Annelise, Thiart, Hanlie, Parsons, Nola J., & Bellstedt, Dirk U.. (2017). Conservation implications of avian malaria exposure for African penguins during rehabilitation. South African Journal of Science, 113(7-8), 1-8.
  3. Dashiell, N. (2019, June 25). Animal Research and the Fight Against Malaria – FBR. Retrieved from
  4. M. L. Grilo, R. E. T. Vanstreels, R. Wallace, D. García-Párraga, É. M. Braga, J. Chitty, J. L. Catão-Dias & L. M. Madeira de Carvalho (2016) Malaria in penguins – current perceptions, Avian Pathology, 45:4, 393-407, DOI: 10.1080/03079457.2016.1149145

Zookeepers Help Penguin Conservation

Penguin zookeeper

Zookeepers Help Penguin Conservation

By Megan Spofford

National Zoo Keeper Week 2019 is July 21-27.

Zoos have evolved over the years from being individual organizations that collected animals, to now using their space to house animals for educational purposes or if a species needs human intervention to keep from going extinct. Additionally, zoo workers have developed more of a community and collaborate with each other between facilities, amongst scientists, and with scholars to create conservation programs to save species. This article will delve into some of the work that zoos are doing for penguin conservation.

Penguin zookeeper
Penguin enclosure, London Zoo, Camden, taken 1967
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Christine

*Warning: Background that is a little dense

Organizations like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) put together teams of experts, many of whom are zoo professionals, to reform policy around the world to benefit wild populations. In the United States, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) has developed Taxon Advisory Groups (TAGs) to determine which species deserve the conservation spotlight within their taxa, based on their plight. They then create Species Survival Plans (SSPs) for the chosen ones, and studbooks are used to manage breeding populations who are on SSPs. Studbook keepers are typically working animal caretakers that manage the records in addition to their typical day job. Success stories from these programs have led to captive-bred wild releases to restore populations for black-footed ferrets and Panamanian golden frogs. These are just two examples of how species individuals can be successfully released into the wild through reintroduction programs as long as they are not habituated to humans.

Now the Penguin Conservation stuff!


There is a Penguin TAG that has developed SSPs for ten of the penguin species, which include African, Chinstrap, Gentoo, Humboldt, King, Little, Macaroni, Magellanic, Northern Rockhopper, and Southern Rockhopper Penguins. However, there are currently no reintroduction programs through AZA for penguins. This is because the issues within the environments in which the penguins live need to be addressed before releasing animals into them. Releasing more individuals into the current conditions (oil spills, rising ocean temperatures, food scarcity, etc.) that are causing population declines would not solve the problem. The IUCN has a Species Survival Commission- Penguin Specialist Group that identifies goals to effect change for penguins and their environments through the year 2020 in a report on the IUCN website. The SAFE program developed by AZA has similar goals as the IUCN, but specifically for African Penguins.

“This may even inspire you to take action to help save wild penguins”

penguin zookeeper

Until the time comes for reintroduction programs to be put into action for penguins, TAGs maintain a healthy and genetically diverse population of various penguin species in zoos as “stock.” The penguin “stock” also serve another purpose under human care as ambassadors for their wild counterparts. More simply put: A penguin animal ambassador is a living, breathing example of an extraordinary animal that you would never typically see without traveling to their natural habitat. Getting to see them up close at the zoo brings you into their world, and fosters a connection between you and the animal. Hopefully this causes you to care more about penguins in general. This may even inspire you to take action to help save wild penguins, whether it be by reducing your use of plastics, donating financially to organizations like Penguins International, or environmental tourism to help save a particular species.

If you decide to volunteer with an organization that cares for wild penguin populations, you would likely be working amongst a few zookeepers. At zoos, keepers learn species specific behavior and husbandry, so they are able to transfer those skills while working in situ (Latin word for on site!). An example of this is Maryland Zoo’s work with SANCCOB in South Africa. SANCCOB is an organization that rehabilitates then releases wild seabirds; one of which is the African penguin. During hatching season, which is in the fall, the facility is inundated with abandoned chicks that are reliant on human intervention in order to survive. Zookeepers from Maryland Zoo travel to the facility and contribute their working knowledge to assist in chick-rearing. Smaller facilities that do not have the means to send a keeper to help on site or facilities that are accredited by organizations other than AZA often find conservation groups to fundraise for so that the work can be carried out by field scientists.

More information about penguin conservation projects


You can find out information about conservation projects at specific zoos by looking at their websites or talking with a zookeeper. In honor of National Zookeeper Week (July 21-27, 2019) and the work keepers contribute to animal conservation, we say, “Thanks!”

Did you know all of this about penguins and zoos? Let us know! Also we more that appreciate any support you can provide so we can continue to provide this type of information to you.

Check out some of our other blogs, too, about penguins: