In our expert king penguin guide learn all about this spectacular aquatic flightless bird, including how to identify, their diet and natural habitat.

What is a king penguin?

King penguin, Aptenodytes patagonicus is the second largest species of penguin after the emperor penguin. King penguins are known for forming enormous colonies of up to 100,000 breeding pairs.


How many king penguins are there?

The total population of king penguins is about 2.23 million breeding pairs. That's a lot of penguins! Their population is increasing too, and due to their extremely large range and numbers the IUCN lists them as of Least Concern in terms of extinction risk.

King penguins form vast breeding colonies, for example a colony on South Georgia Island holds over 100,000 breeding pairs.

Thousands of king penguins in a colony on South Georgia Island, near Antarctica. Arturo de Frias photography
Thousands of king penguins in a colony on South Georgia Island, near Antarctica. © Arturo de Frias photography/Getty

All is not so rosy however, the colony that was previously the world's largest, on the French island of Île aux Cochons, has shrunk by almost 90% in the last three decades. This colony once numbered over two million king penguins, now, only 60,000 remain. This decline is thought be be due partly to decreased territory, avian disease, and 'density dependent effects' such as increased competition between individuals for food in larger groups. The full story behind this massive colony shrinkage remains a mystery however.

Where do king penguins live?

King penguins an be found on most of the subantarctic islands, with the largest colonies now found on Crozet Island (in the southern Indian Ocean), and the islands of Kerguelen, Prince Edward (a Canadian province), and South Georgia (a British Overseas Territory in the southern Atlantic).

King penguins on South Georgia. Frank Krahmer/Getty
King penguins on South Georgia. © Frank Krahmer/Getty

What do king penguins eat?

Fish! And lots of it. Fish makes up about 80% of their diet, and they are particularly partial to small bioluminescent lanternfish. They are however also known to feed on squid and crustaceans. King penguin chicks will eat regurgitated seafood from the mouths of their parents.

A king penguin chick eats regurgitated seafood from its parent. Anne Dirkse/Getty
A king penguin chick eats regurgitated seafood from its parent. © Anne Dirkse/Getty

What threats do king penguins face?

King penguins are predated on by orca, leopard seals, fur seals, and South American sea lions. Giant petrels are also known to attack their chicks, and skuas will snatch small chicks and eggs if left unattended.

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A skua stealing a king penguin egg. Paul A. Souders/Getty
A skua stealing a king penguin egg. © Paul A. Souders/Getty

King penguins also suffer from habitat loss in some parts of their range . In some places this has been due to buildings and road construction encroaching on nesting space, and in others rabbits, an invasive species, have caused erosion triggering landslides onto colonies.

In the future these penguins may also become more and more threatened by the effects of climate change, as global warming restricts and fragments their habitats and they are forced to move elsewhere and travel further distances to forage.

Other threats include occasional entanglement in discarded commercial fishing nets, and oil spill pollution.

Which is the most famous king penguin?

The most famous king penguin is perhaps Brigadier Sir Nils Olav, colonel-in-chief of the Norwegian King's Guard! The distinguished penguin lives at Edinburgh Zoo, and is the third of their king penguins to be a member of the King's guard since the rank of Corporal was bestowed on Nils Olav I in 1982.

Sir Nils Olav. © RZSS/Katie Paton

This tradition stems from when the Scandinavian country presented the zoo with its first ever king penguin at its opening in 1913. When the Norwegian King's Guard visited the Edinburgh Military Tattoo for a drill display in 1961, a lieutenant called Nils Egelien became interested in the zoo's penguin colony, and in 1972 arranged for the regiment to adopt a penguin. This penguin's successor was awarded a knighthood in 2008, which was approved by the Norwegian King, and in 2016 the current Sir Nils was promoted to the rank of brigadier.

RZSS/Katie Paton
Sir Nils Olav. © RZSS/Katie Paton


Main image: A group of king penguins. © Mint Images - David Schultz/Getty


Leoma WilliamsAnimal behavior researcher and science writer

Leoma Williams is currently studying for a PhD at the University of Manchester, and writes periodically for both the website and print magazine