King Penguin: a Royal Line in Trouble

New Zealand was once home to a gigantic species of penguin, as tall as an adult male human. Like many megafauna species of the planet, this species is now extinct and exists only as fossil remains held in museums.

Two other very large penguins, the Emperor penguin and the King penguin, live in huge colonies around the southern seas. They were so numerous that it appeared there was no risk of them following New Zealand’s fossil Giant penguin into extinction. This, however, may no longer be true of the King penguin. The once numerous bird may be already be an endangered species. The end of the current century, according to scientific research, might signal the end of this royal branch of penguins through the effects of climate change on ocean currents and sub-Antarctic habitats.

1. King penguin with egg

Taxidermied King penguin with egg. Ref: 1802.1688

King penguins live and breed between latitudes of 45 and 55 degrees south, on sub-Antarctic islands and northern parts of Antarctica. The most numerous colony, with about half of the global population of King penguins, has historically been the Crozet Islands in the Southern Indian Ocean. In 1982 the King penguin population of these islands was estimated, through aerial survey, to be around two million individuals. Recent analysis of satellite images taken over the last thirty-five years indicates that the population has plummeted by 90% to around 200,000 birds, with just 60,000 breeding pairs. While this is still a very large number, such a rapid decline is concerning. So what has changed?

Researchers suggest the causes may be overcrowding and the resultant competition for resources; disease such as avian cholera; or the possible arrival of invasive pest species. A non-migratory species, such as the King penguin, relies on the continued health of its sub-Antarctic habitat for survival. King penguins leave their young and swim south to forage for fish and squid along the polar front, where cold, deep water meets more temperate sea.

2. King penguin egg

King penguin egg. Ref: 1802.5822

The research team suspects that climate change could be contributing to the decline, as it has with colonies of penguins in parts of Antarctica. In 1997, a strong El Niño weather event warmed the southern Indian Ocean and temporarily pushed fish and squid, normally eaten by King penguins, further south, beyond their foraging range. The result was population decline for all King penguin colonies in that region. Although El Niño events are cyclical, they can be amplified by global warming. The researchers have concluded that based on current climate change predictions the Crozet Islands, once home to half the world’s population of King penguins will become uninhabitable for these penguins by the mid-century.

With nowhere else to go, the Crozet Islands population of King penguins will be in serious trouble. It would be such a shame if one of the world’s most iconic and loved penguins exists only as taxidermied specimens in natural history museums.


Margie Beautrais is the Educator at Whanganui Regional Museum.


The Great Auk – the original penguin

Skeleton of a Great Auk

Skeleton of a Great Auk

If you visit the new House of Bones exhibition at the Museum can see, amongst all the skeletons, a middle-sized bird sitting upright on a pedestal. At first glance it looks like a penguin. Which is true and false – it’s the original penguin, the Great Auk.

Today, what we call penguins only live south of the equator. But in the North Atlantic, “penguin” (from the Latin pinguis, or fat) originally referred to this huge flightless seabird which nested in large breeding colonies on offshore islands near Scotland, Iceland, and Newfoundland. When explorers first visited the southern oceans, the flightless seabirds there looked so similar they called them penguins as well.



Lithograph of Great Auk from John Gould’s 1837 publication The Birds of Europe. Eleven years later the bird was extinct

Lithograph of Great Auk from John Gould’s 1837 publication The Birds of Europe. Eleven years later the bird was extinct

Great Auks had no fear of humans, and so were easy pickings for hungry sailors. Slaughtered in their thousands for flesh, fat, feathers, and eggs, not much thought was given to their conservation. In prehistoric times they’d lived on the Atlantic coasts of Europe and Canada. Rare in the 18th century, by 1838 ornithologists were warning they were in danger of extinction. By the 1840s Great Auks could be found on just one island, off the coast of Iceland. Three specimen hunters went there in 1844, and located the last nesting pair. Two men strangled the parents, and the third, perhaps wanting to do the job throroughly, smashed their egg with his boot. That was the end of the line for the species, though a single lonely bird was sighted in the North Atlantic in 1852. Today, all we have left are some eggs, skins, and 24 mounted skeletons, one of which is in Whanganui.

Detail from skeleton of a Great Auk

Detail from skeleton of a Great Auk

When I was doing my PhD research in the USA, I visited Harvard’s famous Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge, Massachussetts, and was surprised to see a moa skeleton on display. How did it get there? It turns out it came from Whanganui. The town had a treasure-trove of moa bones nearby, and the Museum in its early days was keen to acquire specimens from around the world, so traded one of its extra moa with Harvard, one extinct bird for another. So the skeleton in House of Bones is one of the few old-school penguins in the Southern Hemisphere.

Mike Dickison is the Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum