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King Penguin Characteristics & Facts | What is a King Penguin?

Learn about the king penguin and compare king vs. emperor penguin characteristics. Study their behavior and habitat and the characteristics of king penguin chicks. Updated: 06/23/2022

What is a King Penguin?

The king penguin is the second-largest penguin in the world, second only to the emperor penguin. Its name comes from the belief that it was the largest penguin on the planet. This belief was overturned in 1884 when the emperor penguin was distinguished as a separate species. The scientific name for the king penguin is Aptenodytes patagonicus. The king penguin is distinct among penguins due to its height and coloring. It has a long bill, vivid golden-yellow spots of color, and a tall, upright posture.

King Penguin Characteristics

Adult king penguins have unique coloring. Their back feathers are black and their chest and undersides are white, as with many species of penguins. The unique aspect appears with the bright orange or golden-yellow feathers below their throats and on their ear patches. The color below their throats fades into a pale yellow and then white as it goes down the chest. They also have a stretched-out teardrop-shaped spot on their lower bill. Juveniles are similar in color but have gray tips to their black feathers. The ear patches are more of a yellow color and the neck is a grayish-white.


A king penguin.

Color photo of a king penguin standing tall, slightly behind a boulder.


King vs. Emperor Penguin

The king penguin is often confused with the emperor penguin, but there are several differences between the two species. First, the emperor penguin is the larger of the two species. The emperor penguin reaches a height of 130 cm (about 50 inches) long and weighs 25 to 45 kg (55 to 100 pounds), making it the largest penguin in the world. A king penguin, the second largest penguin, can range from 85 to 95 cm (33 to 37 inches) long and weigh 14 to 17 kg (31 to 37 pounds). In both species, the males are usually bigger than the females.

The coloring of the two species is also a key difference. While the emperor penguin does have some orange feathers on it, the king penguin has a much larger and brighter ear patch and color on its neck. The beak of the king penguin is also longer than that of the emperor penguin, with king penguins having the longest bill of any penguin species.


A close up of an emperor penguin.

Color head shot of an emperor penguin with some orange on the ear patch and beak.


The coloring of a king penguin is much more vibrant.

Close up color photo of a king penguin with a bright orange ear patch, orange neck, and orange on the bill.


King Penguin Habitat

King penguins live in subantarctic regions. Several islands in this region, such as the Crozet Islands, Falkland, Prince Edward, and South Sandwich Island are home to the king penguin. A few colonies are located in southern Chile and Argentina. Harsh weather can exist in these subantarctic regions with mountains, snow, and extreme cold. Some colonies do live in warmer places where there are rocky coastlines and green landscapes.

The main food source for the king penguin is fish, especially lantern fish. Squid, crustaceans, and snake mackerels are also occasionally part of their diet. They use large quantities of energy each day, requiring large amounts of food. At night they hunt in shallow waters and get small amounts of food, and during the day they hunt in deeper waters where there is an abundance of food. They dive and can spend several minutes underwater investigating the sea bed for food. They can consume hundreds or even thousands of fish in one day. If a parent is feeding a chick, it can eat eight pounds (3.6 kg) of food in a day and regurgitate part of it to feed its baby.

King Penguin Behavior

King penguins are excellent swimmers. They can swim at speeds of 5 to 10 km (3.1 to 6.2 miles) per hour and can travel over a thousand km/miles away from the coast to find food. They can also dive as deep as 228 meters (748 feet) and stay underwater for up to seven minutes. When they are on land they get around by walking or tobogganing.

King penguins are a group bird, gathering in large colonies and sharing territory with several other species of penguins. However, they typically do not interact with them. With the long period required for breeding and raising chicks, these colonies are populated all year round.

Mating & Reproduction

Mating season occurs between September and November. The penguins come to shore in huge colonies that can contain thousands of penguins. While on shore they molt, shedding their old, worn-out feathers for new ones. Once molting has taken place mating season then begins.

In order to attract a mate, a male will perform an ecstatic display. To do this, he stretches his head up to look as tall as possible, then creates a trumpet call. If a female is interested, the two display together, shaking, throwing back, and dropping their heads down toward their chests. The pair is then monogamous for the remainder of the season, but not necessarily in the following years. Around 70% of king penguins find a new mate the next season.

King Penguin Chick

After mating season, an egg is laid sometime between November and March. Once laid, it is placed on top of one parent's feet in the brood patch, a patch of skin that covers the egg. Both parents take turns alternately caring for the egg and hunting for food, each spending about one week to two and a half weeks with the egg while the other hunts. The parent who stays with the egg does not eat during this time.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are 5 interesting facts about king penguins?

King penguins have vibrant orange or golden yellow spots on their ear patch, neck and bill. The king penguin is the second-largest penguin species. These penguins can dive and stay underwater for up to seven minutes. The female lays one egg during the season and both parents take turns caring for the egg and chick after it hatches. King penguins do not build nests, but carry the egg around on their feet and cover it with a brood patch.

Why is it called a king penguin?

It was thought to be the largest penguin, so was called the king penguin. In 1884 the emperor penguin was recognized as a separate species, so the king penguin became the second-largest penguin.

Where do the king penguins live?

King penguins live in islands in the subantarctic region. They also can be found in southern parts of Chile and Argentina.

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