Geography of Penguins

Caitlin Dempsey

Updated:

While the penguin is the quintessential resident of Antarctica, the Earth’s southernmost continent, these small, flightless birds are found in several regions around the world, mostly south of the Equator.

What are penguins?

Penguins are adapted to a life in the water. While penguins may move slowly on land, their flippers, webbed feet, and streamlined bodies make them fast swimmers. Penguins are considered the fastest swimming bird in the world with some species like the Gentoo reaching underwater speeds of around 36 kilometers-per-hour (22 miles-per-hour).

Penguins have a darker outer body with white plumage on their undersides. Known as countershading, this type of camouflage helps to blend the penguin in the water. The penguin’s back blends in with the dark ocean waters when viewed by predators from above. The white underbelly of the penguin blends the bird with the sky to predators looking up at the penguin from below the surface of the water.

Smallest and largest penguins

Penguins range in size from the blue penguin (Eudyptula minor) which stands at about 33 cm (13 in) high to the largest penguins, the Emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) at 1.1 m (3 ft 7 in) tall.

How Many Species of Penguins are There?

There are about 17 to 19 species of penguin in the world (the number varies due to disagreement among taxonomists). For example, some taxonomists consider the white-flippered penguin (Eudyptula novaehollandiae) a separate Eudyptula species, why others consider it to be a subspecies of the little penguin (Eudyptula minor). Other authorities consider the macaroni penguin (Eudyptes chrysolophus) to be the same species as the royal penguin (Eudyptes schlegeli). The International Ornithological Committee (IOC) officially recognizes 18 penguin species.

All penguins belong to the subfamily Spheniscinae. There are six genera of penguins.

  • The genus Aptenodytes includes two species: the King Penguin and the Emperor Penguin.
  • Pygoscelis comprises three species: the Adelie Penguin, the Chinstrap Penguin, and the Gentoo Penguin, along with several subspecies of Gentoo.
  • Eudyptula contains the Little Penguin and its five subspecies.
  • Spheniscus includes four species: the Galapágos Penguin, the Humboldt Penguin, the Magellanic Penguin, and the African Penguin.
  • Megadyptes is represented by a single species, the Yellow-eyed Penguin.
  • The genus Eudyptes includes six species: the Macaroni Penguin, the Royal Penguin, the Northern Rockhopper Penguin, the Southern Rockhopper Penguin, the Fiordland Penguin, the Snares Penguin, and the Erect-crested Penguin, with subspecies within the Rockhopper group.

List of penguin species and where they live

The International Ornithological Committee (IOC) recognizes 18 species of penguin and 12 subspecies. Some species of penguins live at the South Pole but penguins also live in a range of climates.

Not all penguins are adapted to cold climates. Species of penguins can also be found in temperate climates. For example, Magellanic penguins live in the temperate coastal regions of southern South America. The Humboldt penguin resides along the temperate coasts of Peru and Chile.

Two penguins standing on dark rocks.
Photo: Lieutenant Elizabeth Crapo, NOAA Corps., public domain.

All species of penguins live near coastal areas due to the abundant food supply brought in by ocean currents like the Humboldt  along the coast of Peru and Chile and Cromwell near the Galápagos Islands. These currents carry nutrient-rich waters, which support a diverse marine ecosystem, including the small fish, krill, and squid that penguins feed on. The coastal habitat allows penguins to feed in the water while nesting and raising their young on land.

The IOC recognized penguin species are:

Genus: Aptenodytes

  • King Penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) – Subantarctic islands
  • Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) – Antarctic sea ice

Genus: Pygoscelis

  • Adelie Penguin – Pygoscelis adeliae – Antarctic coasts and islands
  • Chinstrap Penguin – Pygoscelis antarcticus – Antarctic Peninsula
  • Gentoo Penguin – Pygoscelis papua – Subantarctic islands
    • Subspecies: P. p. taeniata
    • Subspecies: P. p. papua
    • Subspecies: P. p. ellsworthi
    • Subspecies: P. p. poncetii

Genus: Eudyptula

  • Little Penguin (Eudyptula minor) – Southern Australia, New Zealand
    • Subspecies: E. m. novaehollandiae
    • Subspecies: E. m. iredalei
    • Subspecies: E. m. variabilis
    • Subspecies: E. m. minor
    • Subspecies: E. m. albosignata
    • Subspecies: E. m. chathamensis

Genus: Spheniscus

  • Galapágos Penguin – Spheniscus mendiculus – Galápagos Islands
  • Humboldt Penguin – Spheniscus humboldti – Coastal Peru and Chile
  • Magellanic Penguin – Spheniscus magellanicus – South American coasts
  • African Penguin – Spheniscus demersus – Southern African coast

Genus: Megadyptes

  • Yellow-eyed Penguin (Megadyptes antipodes) – New Zealand

Genus: Eudyptes

  • Macaroni Penguin – Eudyptes chrysolophus – Subantarctic regions
  • Royal Penguin – Eudyptes schlegeli – Macquarie Island
  • Northern Rockhopper Penguin – Eudyptes moseleyi – Tristan da Cunha
  • Southern Rockhopper Penguin – Eudyptes chrysocome – Subantarctic regions
    • Subspecies: E. c. filholi
    • Subspecies: E. c. chrysocome
  • Fiordland Penguin – Eudyptes pachyrhynchus – New Zealand
  • Snares Penguin – Eudyptes robustus – Snares Islands
  • Erect-crested Penguin – Eudyptes sclateri – Bounty and Antipodes islands

Antarctica and Penguins

Penguins are the most common species of bird in Antarctica. There are two species of penguins that live year round on Antarctica: Emperor penguin (Aptenodytes Forsteri) and the Adélie penguin (Pygoscelis Adéliae).

Three other species breed on the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula: Gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis Papua), Marconi penguin (Eudyptes chrysolophus), and the Chinstrap penguin (Pygoscelis Antarctica).

Only one species of penguin lives north of the Equator

The Galapágos Penguin is the only penguin species that has populations that live north of the equator. The Galápagos penguin is also the only penguin to breed entirely in a tropical climate. About 95% of the breeding population of these penguins are found on the islands of Fernandina and Isabela. The penguin colony on the northern tip of Isabela juts into the Northern Hemisphere. Deepwater currents, the Humboldt and Cromwell, bring in nutrients during upswells to the surface of the ocean in the form of crustaceans, invertebrates, and small fish such as anchovies and sardines that is a mainstay of the Galápagos penguin’s diet.

Most Numerous Species of Penguin

With an estimated 12 million breeding pairs the Macaroni penguin is considered one of the most numerous species of penguins. Macaroni penguins form huge colonies that can number into the hundreds of thousands.

Using geospatial technologies to count penguins

In addition to field surveys, researchers are able to use geospatial and remote sensing technologies to map and count penguins. For example, scientists from Stony Brook University led a study, published in Scientific Reports in 2018 that used ground counts and drone technology to count 751,527 pairs of Adélie penguins on Danger Island near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Detection of penguin guano on island in the Antarctic. Image: NASA using Landsat 7 imagery.
Detection of penguin guano on islands in the Antarctic. Image: NASA using Landsat 7 imagery.

In 2014, the same Stony Brook University researchers adapted methodologies to use Landsat 7 satellite imagery to estimate Antarctic penguin populations by identifying guano stains. This method helps locate penguin colonies, which are difficult to reach due to unstable sea ice. Using remote sensing has led to the discovery of new colonies, notably in the Danger Islands, and significantly increased penguin counts. Recent surveys discovered 166,000 additional penguins on Brash Island, 23,000 on Earle Island, and 7,000 on Darwin Island.

References

Borowicz, A., McDowall, P., Youngflesh, C., Sayre-McCord, T., Clucas, G., Herman, R., … & Lynch, H. J. (2018). Multi-modal survey of Adélie penguin mega-colonies reveals the Danger Islands as a seabird hotspot. Scientific reports8(1), 1-9. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-22313-w

Gill F, D Donsker & P Rasmussen  (Eds). 2024. IOC World Bird List (v14.1). doi :  10.14344/IOC.ML.14.1.

Hickcox, R. P., Jara, M., Deacon, L. A., Harvey, L. P., & Pincheira-Donoso, D. (2019). Global terrestrial distribution of penguins (Spheniscidae) and their conservation by protected areas. Biodiversity and Conservation28, 2861-2876. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10531-019-01801-z

Lynch, H. J., & Schwaller, M. R. (2014). Mapping the abundance and distribution of Adélie penguins using Landsat-7: first steps towards an integrated multi-sensor pipeline for tracking populations at the continental scale. PLoS One9(11), e113301.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.

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