Eudyptes schlegeliroyal penguin

Geographic Range

Royal penguins (Eudyptes schlegeli) are native to Macquarie Island located in the southwest Pacific Ocean between New Zealand and Antarctica. The island can be found between 60 and 40 degrees south longitude and 140 and 180 degrees east latitude. Although Macquarie is the main island in which royal penguins colonize and breed, they have been reported in Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica as well. There have also been sightings of royal penguins in the neotropical region; mainly on the Falkland Islands, but also various others including South Georgia, Heard, Prince Edward and Marion Islands. These sightings have yet to be confirmed due to the resemblance of royal penguins to macaroni penguins (Eudyptes chrysolophus) that are native to that region. As a result, experts debate whether royal penguins are migratory, as it is unknown where royal penguins reside during the non-breeding season (mid-April to Mid-September). (BirdLife International, 2015; Borboroglu and Boersma, 2013; Denhard, et al., 2012; ; Higgins and Marchant, 1990)


Royal penguins will nest on Macquarie Island (34 km x 5 km) up to 1.6 kilometers from the shore. The island’s geography has many rocky formations with scant shrub vegetation, providing nesting grounds of unvegetated, level, rocky, or sandy ground surrounded by rocks. Royal penguins nesting on hills or sloped cliffs (up to 200 meters in elevation) use rocks to build their nests and those who nest on the beach use sand. Nests are built near streams that are both a freshwater source and a route to and from the ocean. Royal penguins do most of their foraging for food in the surrounding ocean. They typically dive 6 to 32 meters but if necessary can dive up to 226 meters for food. (BirdLife International, 2015; Carmichael, 2007; Hindell, 1988; Hull and Wilson, 1996a; Hull, 2000)

  • Range elevation
    0 to 200 m
    0.00 to 656.17 ft
  • Range depth
    6 to 226 m
    19.69 to 741.47 ft
  • Average depth
    32 m
    104.99 ft

Physical Description

Royal penguins have black dorsal sides and black crowns, with the exception of a white patch on their rump. The ventral side is white. During the non-breeding season, the dorsal feathers of royal penguins become dull bronze. Once they come ashore to breed, they molt and the new feathers are dark blue or black. The facial cheeks and throats of royal penguins typically are white and merge into the white on their ventral sides. Rarely, royal penguins may have a more grayish color to the cheek and throat region.

Royal penguins’ feet are bright pink with some black on the soles and heel. Their feet also have claws that are a dark brown. Royal penguins have a wingspan ranging from 176 mm to 203 mm. Flippers of royal penguins vary in length with males averaging 189.6 millimeters and females averaging 185.1 millimeters. Their flippers are flattened to enhance maneuverability underwater. Royal penguins have large red-brown bills and an orange-yellow eyebrow that is continuous across the forehead with projecting crest feathers. Due to these ornamentations they often are confused with macaroni penguins (Eudyptes chrysolophus) but macaroni penguins have black faces. The crest feathers also resemble those of the rockhopper penguins (Eudyptes chrysocome) that inhabit Macquarie Island, but rockhopper penguins’ crest feathers flare out at the ends rather than remaining close to the head.

Royal penguins range from 65-75 centimeters in height. Males are slightly larger, averaging 73 cm high and weighing 6 kg. Females average 69 cm and weigh 5 kg.

Juvenile royal penguins closely resemble adults with a few exceptions. The crest feathers don't develop fully until adulthood. Juveniles also have smaller, darker bills that are more brownish, matching their dorsal feathers. They lack the white rump patch of adults. The white patch and change of feather color occurs with the first molt as well as yearly growth. Yearling royal penguins have a mat of yellow feathers in place of a crest. The crest fully grows in and royal penguins achieve adult stature and coloration after the third annual molt. (BirdLife International, 2015; Borboroglu and Boersma, 2013; Higgins and Marchant, 1990; Hull and Wilson, 1996a)

  • Range mass
    5 to 6 kg
    11.01 to 13.22 lb
  • Range length
    65 to 75 cm
    25.59 to 29.53 in
  • Range wingspan
    176 to 203 mm
    6.93 to 7.99 in


In early October, male royal penguins return to Macquarie Island for the breeding season. The males arrive first and reestablish their nesting sites. Females arrive on the island about 10 days later to find their mate. Those 10 days allow females additional time for building up their fat reserves to have energy for mating. Royal penguins are a monogamous species, returning to the same mate year after year during the breeding season. Occasionally a mate will not show and the estranged penguin will find a new mate if that occurs. Finding a new mate occurs by males swinging their heads and callng out in hopes a female will choose them. (Higgins and Marchant, 1990)

The breeding season for royal penguins is early October to mid- or late-February. This period of time is optimal for reproduction due to the abundance of food. Royal penguins have the physical ability to reproduce when they reach independence, but most do not reproduce until at least 5 years of age. This phenomenon is due to younger penguins experiencing lack of mate, lack of breeding success (fertilization), and the lack of physical stamina to make it back to the island. All royal penguins will breed by the age of 11 years.

Royal penguins mate and produce 2 eggs, 4-6 days apart. The first egg is often smaller (average weight of 100.3g) and is often not fertilized which results in loss of the egg. It has been observed that royal penguins may even discard the first egg from the nest before incubation, though the reason why is unknown. The second egg is larger than the first (average weight of 159.3g). Both sexes participate in incubating the egg over a 32-37 day range (average of 35 days). If the first egg was successfully fertilized and taken care of then both may hatch, but normally only the second egg will mature.

After hatching, chicks will stay with the nest for 10-20 days with the male royal penguins protecting them. After 3 weeks (typically 21 to 24 days), the chicks will become mobile and form groups (called crèches) with other fledglings. About 42 days later (5-6 weeks), the fledglings reach maturity and will leave on their own for the off season. (Higgins and Marchant, 1990; Hindell, et al., 2012; Waas and Caulfield, 2000)

  • Breeding interval
    Royal penguins breed once a year.
  • Breeding season
    The breeding season of royal penguins spans from early October and ends towards mid to late February.
  • Range eggs per season
    1 to 2
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    32 to 37 days
  • Average time to hatching
    35 days
  • Range fledging age
    21 to 24 days
  • Average fledging age
    22 days
  • Range time to independence
    5 to 6 weeks
  • Average time to independence
    5 weeks
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 to 11 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    5 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 to 11 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    5 years

Upon arrival on Macquarie Island, males begin recreating their nests using resources such as rock, sand, and grass from nesting grounds. Both penguins share in egg incubation where one will forage food while the other sits on the egg. Both parents will be present for the hatching of their 1-2 precocial chicks. Once hatched, male royal penguins will stay with the nest to guard the hatchlings until they become fledglings. During this time, the female forages for food leaving an average of twice every three days. Once the chicks are mobile and form crèches, both parents forage for the family. (Borboroglu and Boersma, 2013; Higgins and Marchant, 1990; Hindell, et al., 2012; Hull and Wilson, 1996b; St. Clair and Waas, 1995; Waas and Caulfield, 2000)

  • Parental Investment
  • precocial
  • male parental care
  • female parental care
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female


The lifespan of royal penguins is disputed among scientists and the data are not consistent between findings. The average expected lifespan of most penguins in the wild is 15-20 years. Many royal penguins do not live past the first few years of life, as younger penguins lack the physical endurance to tolerate environmental conditions and threats. Often royal penguins die from plastic ingestion, parasitic disease, or predation. Royal penguins are not found in captivity so the captive lifespan is unknown. (BirdLife International, 2015; Borboroglu and Boersma, 2013; Higgins and Marchant, 1990)


Royal penguins are diurnal. Royal penguins live socially within a colony, but are very territorial of their individual nesting areas (about 2 m^2). The species is a very motile group and is thought to be migratory, but no studies have further investigated migratory patterns. Royal penguins also are natatorial, moving swiftly and efficiently in the water.

Once males have established a nest site they will swing their heads rapidly from side-to-side. This conveys to others that the territory is theirs and they will defend it against any perceived threats. Royal penguins that identify threats or predators out of attack range (about 2 meters) will lean their heads towards the threat and vocalize a sound related to a hiss or cry. When a predator is in closer proximity, the penguins will move their head and flippers in order to intimidate before attacking. The only situation in which royal penguins will not retaliate against attack is when females are incubating the egg. Females that are attacked during this time will lean down and cower, withstanding the pecking against their dorsal side to protect the egg. Royal penguins also attack others close by as a form of entertainment. They will attack with open beaks, which will turn into a tug-of-war when the beaks interlock.

Royal penguins will avoid confrontations by walking swiftly with body upright, head bowed, and flippers held forward. This posture is not perceived as a direct threat and keeps the royal penguins from straight on attacks, though they will be subject to pecking from other royal penguins they pass by.

Males will try to attract females by swinging their heads up and down while calling out in hopes that a female will choose them as their mate. When reuniting with an established mate at the start of the season, royal penguins will turn their heads and lean into each other to touch and show acceptance. Once royal penguins have successfully produced their eggs, there are several ways they may be welcomed upon return to the nest. These include bowing down into the nest, shaking the body, and letting out a cry until they meet and rub necks/heads with their mates. They may also begin to run faster once within 2 meters of the nest until they make contact, touch and then vocalize a sound similar to a trumpet together. (Borboroglu and Boersma, 2013; Higgins and Marchant, 1990)

  • Average territory size
    2 m^2

Home Range

Royal penguins are defensive of their nesting area of approximately 2m^2 around their nest. Royal penguins will travel a range from 68 km to 600 km for foraging. (Borboroglu and Boersma, 2013; Denhard, et al., 2012)

Communication and Perception

Royal penguins communicate vocally. Calls are integral in finding and communicating with others in the colony, including mates and chicks. The main call can be described as a deep sound similar to that of a donkey (Equus africanus asinus). When royal penguins physically attack each other, they will utter a small, short yelp or bark. Male royal penguins are quick to fight and protect their nest, often making a sound similar to a hiss or cry towards threats. There are several other calls that royal penguins can produce, all consisting of brays of different frequencies and pulses. Penguin chicks are limited in their vocalizations, making only a single chirp to beg while they are in their nests. When the young leave the nests, they begin to learn the adult calls.

During the breeding season, royal penguins frequently communicate with touch and vocalization with mates and chicks by letting out a cry until they meet and rub necks/heads with their mates when returning to the nest. They may also begin to run faster within 2 meters of the nest while making braying sounds in harmony with their mate. When they make contact they touch and then trumpet together.

Royal penguins will pause frequently in their activities to use their senses of sight, smell, and hearing in order assess their surroundings and detect predators. Royal penguins have excellent eyesight, particularly while swimming and foraging for prey. The corneas of royal penguin eyes are flat. This allows them to better focus light while underwater and have a greater depth perception. Royal penguins can see violet, blue and green, but not red.Royal penguins use chemical communication to smell prey under water while foraging. (Borboroglu and Boersma, 2013; Higgins and Marchant, 1990; Holmes, 2007; Hull, 1999; Wolkomir and Wolkomir, 1991)

Food Habits

Only information regarding diet during royal penguins’ breeding season is available, as this is the only time their whereabouts are known and can be studied. Royal penguins eat a carnivorous diet of marine creatures. The main component of the diet of royal penguins is euphausiid crustaceans, consisting of species such as Antarctic krill Euphausia valentine. These crustaceans make up about 51% of daily intake, with the remaining 49% made up of fish and squid. Adults often make shorter and more frequent trips for foraging after chicks are born in order to make sure chicks are fed adequately. Chicks are fed regurgitated food from the adult penguins until they mature into the fledgling stage of development (around 65 days). Fledglings are feed by the parents until they have moved from fledgling to a mature penguin (about 5-6 weeks) at which they are independent. (Borboroglu and Boersma, 2013; Higgins and Marchant, 1990; Hindell, et al., 2012; Hull, 1999)

  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • mollusks
  • aquatic crustaceans


On Macquarie Island the only land-dwelling predators that are a risk are black rats (Rattus rattus). The black rats will often enter nesting grounds and consume young and eggs. Other predators that attack penguins are the subantarctic skuas (Cathracta lonnbergi) and southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonine). The introduced Stewart Island wekas (Galliralus australis), European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus), and feral cats (Felis catus) were once major predators to royal penguins. The three species have since been removed and/or eradicated as predators to royal penguins. In the past many royal penguins were hunted and killed for oil production by humans (Homo sapiens). Today, royal penguins are no longer exploited for such uses.

In order to avoid predators, royal penguins will give warning calls to alert others of the threat. Royal penguins have coloration aiding with adaptation against predators in the water. The royal penguins have white ventral sides that blends in with the surface of the water, and black dorsal sides that blend with the ocean depths. This helps them become indistinguishable from the environment surrounding them when in the water. (BirdLife International, 2015; Borboroglu and Boersma, 2013; Hull and Wilson, 1996a; Jones, 1988; Trathan, et al., 2015)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Royal penguins are a colonial species with numerous parasites. Among the most common parasites of royal penguins are several species of lice (Austrogoniodes cristati, Austrogoniodes demersus, Austrogoniodes hamiltoni, Austrogoniodes macquariensis, Austrogoniodes strutheus), fleas (Pagipsylla galliralli), and ticks (Ixodes uriae). Chicks most often are the age class infested with ticks. Chicks frequently are noted to have them around their eyes and mouth and between their toes. Both fleas and ticks often are found not only on penguins, but also in nests. There are also several species in Phylum Nematoda (genera Stomachus and Terranova) that are found in the intestines of royal penguins. Unidentified cestodes also have been discovered in royal penguins. The effects of these parasites are unknown. (Brandao, et al., 2014; Jones, 1988; Major, et al., 2009)

Commensal/Parasitic Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Royal penguins no longer provide positive economic importance to humans. In the early 1900s, an average of 150,000 royal penguins were hunted each year for oil production. Hunting royal penguins was outlawed around 1919-1920. The total number of royal penguins that were killed due to hunting is unknown, but the population grew after abolishment of the practice and is remaining steady at 1.7 million today. (BirdLife International, 2015; Higgins and Marchant, 1990)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Royal penguins are hosts to ticks Ixodes uraie that may transmit Lyme disease. Royal penguins are likely reservoirs for Borrelia burgdorferi (the bacterium that causes Lyme) as other penguins that host the same tick parasite have been proven reservoirs. Royal penguins are the first case of a viable reservoir of Borrelia burgdorferi in the southern hemisphere. (Jones, 1988; Major, et al., 2009; Olsén, et al., 1993)

  • Negative Impacts
  • injures humans
    • carries human disease

Conservation Status

Royal penguins are currently classified as “Near Threatened” on the IUCN Red List. Royal penguins have no special status on the US federal list, CITES, state of Michigan list, and the US Migratory Bird Act.

Before they were actively hunted for oil, the royal penguin population was greater than 3 million, but today royal penguins populations remain steady at about 1.7 million. There are many conservation efforts to help increase the current population of royal penguins. Many of these efforts have involved the eradication of predators such as feral cats (Felis catus), black rats (Rattus rattus), and European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) on Macquarie Island. Management of human interaction also has played a role. Threats to royal penguins caused by humans include habitat degradation, pollution, and disease.

There are several programs that have been proposed to continue conservation efforts. Some of these include surveying the effects on royal penguins when they ingest debris, and monitoring them at times when food is depleted from human fishing efforts. There is also research looking at the potential impact that climate change will have on the species. There are plans to implement a biosecurity plan to actively combat the threat of climate change. (BirdLife International, 2015; Borboroglu and Boersma, 2013; Carmichael, 2007; Higgins and Marchant, 1990; Holmes, 2007; Trathan, et al., 2015)


Kirsty de Wit (author), Radford University, Karen Powers (editor), Radford University, Alex Atwood (editor), Radford University, Marisa Dameron (editor), Radford University, Tanya Dewey (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.



lives on Antarctica, the southernmost continent which sits astride the southern pole.


Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

World Map

Pacific Ocean

body of water between the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), Australia, Asia, and the western hemisphere. This is the world's largest ocean, covering about 28% of the world's surface.

World Map


uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


to jointly display, usually with sounds, at the same time as two or more other individuals of the same or different species


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.


used loosely to describe any group of organisms living together or in close proximity to each other - for example nesting shorebirds that live in large colonies. More specifically refers to a group of organisms in which members act as specialized subunits (a continuous, modular society) - as in clonal organisms.


having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

to jointly display, usually with sounds in a highly coordinated fashion, at the same time as one other individual of the same species, often a mate


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

oceanic islands

islands that are not part of continental shelf areas, they are not, and have never been, connected to a continental land mass, most typically these are volcanic islands.


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


An aquatic biome consisting of the open ocean, far from land, does not include sea bottom (benthic zone).


an animal that mainly eats fish

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

sexual ornamentation

one of the sexes (usually males) has special physical structures used in courting the other sex or fighting the same sex. For example: antlers, elongated tails, special spurs.


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


uses touch to communicate


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.


A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.


uses sight to communicate

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born


BirdLife International, 2015. "Eudyptes schlegeli" (On-line). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015:e. T22697797A83454995. Accessed September 08, 2016 at

Borboroglu, P., P. Boersma. 2013. Penguins: Natural History and Conservation. Seattle, Washington: University of Washington Press.

Brandao, M., J. Moriera, J. Luque. 2014. Checklist of Platyhelminthes, Acanthocephala, Nematoda, and Arthropoda parasitizing penguins of the world. Checklist Journal of Species Lists and Distribution, 10/3: 562-573.

Carmichael, N. 2007. Macquarie Island: Its conservation and management. Papers and Proceedings of the Society of Tasmania, 141/1: 11-17.

Denhard, N., K. Ludynia, A. Almeida. 2012. A royal penguin Eudyptes schlegeli in the Falkland Islands?. Marine Orinthology, 40/2: 95-98.

Erskine, P., D. Bergstrom, S. Schmidt, G. Stewart, C. Tweedie, J. Shaw. 1998. Subantarctic Macquarie Island – a model ecosystem for studying animal-derived nitrogen sources using 15N natural abundance. Oceologia, 117/1-2: 187-193.

Higgins, P., S. Marchant. 1990. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds. Melbourne, Victoria: Oxford University Press.

Hindell, M. 1988. The diet of the royal penguin Eudyptes schlegeli at Macquarie Island. Emu, 88/4: 219-226.

Hindell, M., C. Bradshaw, B. Brook, D. Fordham, K. Kerry, C. Hull, C. McMahon. 2012. Long-term breeding phenology shift in royal penguins. Ecology and Evolution, 2/7: 1563-1571.

Holmes, N. 2007. Comparing king, gentoo, and royal penguin responses to pedestrian visitation. Journal of Wildlife Management, 71/8: 2575-2582.

Hull, C. 1999. The foraging zones of breeding royal (Eudyptes schlegeli) and rockhopper (E. chrysocome) penguins: An assessment of techniques and species comparison. Wildlife Research, 26/6: 789-803.

Hull, C., J. Wilson. 1996. Location of colonies of royal penguins, Eudyptes schlegeli; Potential costs and consequences for breeding success. Emu, 96/2: 135-138.

Hull, C., J. Wilson. 1996. The effect of investigators on the breeding success of royal, Eudyptes schlegeli, and rockhopper, E. chrysocome, penguins at Macquarie Island. Polar Biology, 16/5: 335-337.

Hull, C. 2000. Comparative diving behaviour and segregation of the marine habitat by breeding royal penguins, Eudyptes schlegeli, and eastern rockhopper penguins, Eudyptes chrysocome filholi, at Macquarie Island. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 78/3: 333-345.

Jones, H. 1988. Notes on parasites in penguins (Spheniscidae) and petrels (Procellariidae) in the Antarctic and Sub-Antarctic. Journal of Wildlife Diseases, 24: 166-167.

Major, L., A. Hyatt, J. Gardner, J. Cowley, A. Suhrbier, R. Slade, W. Schroder, M. Linn. 2009. Ticks associated with Macquarie Island penguins carry arboviruses from four genera. PLoS ONE, 4/2: e4375.

Olsén, B., L. Noppa, J. Bunikis, S. Bergstrom, T. Jaenson. 1993. A Lyme borreliosis cycle in seabirds and Ixodes uriae ticks. Nature, 362: 340-342.

St. Clair, C., J. Waas. 1995. Unfit mothers? Maternal infanticide in royal penguins. Animal Behaviour, 50/5: 1177-1185.

Trathan, P., P. Garcia-Borboroglu, D. Boersma, C. Bost, R. Crawford, G. Crossin, R. Cuthburt, P. Dann, L. Davis, S. Puente, U. Ellenberg, H. Lynch, T. Mattern, K. Putz, P. Seddon, W. Trivelpiece, B. Wienecke. 2015. Pollution, habitat loss, fishing, and climate change as critical threats to penguins. Conservation Biology, 29/1: 31-41.

Waas, J., M. Caulfield. 2000. Colony sound facilities sexual and agnostic activities in royal penguins. Animal Behaviour, 60/1: 77.

Wolkomir, J., R. Wolkomir. 1991. The eyes have it. National Wildlife (World Editition), 29/6: 48.