Species

Royal penguin

Content Cover Image

Royal penguin colony. Source: NOAA.

The Royal penguin (scientific name: Eudyptes schlegeli) is one of seventeen species of flightless birds in the family of penguins. It is one of six "Crested Penguins" in the genus Eudyptes which also includes the Macaroni, Fiordland crested, Snares crested and Big-crested penguins.

Like all penguins, the Royal penguin is characterized by its erect posture, stiff wings (flippers), excellent swimming ability, awkward movement out of water, and coloring. The anatomical exterior of black back and white front, make penguins difficult to see when swimming, blending against the sea from above and the sky from below.

 

caption Source Yan Ropert-Coudert/WoRMS/Encyclopedia of Life

 

Conservation Status

 

Scientific Classification

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum:--- Chordata
Class:------ Aves (Birds)
Order:-------- Sphenisciformes
Family:-------- Spheniscidae (Penguins)
Genus:--------- Eudyptes (Crested Penguins)
Species:-------- Eudyptes schlegeli Finsch 1876

Physical Description

Royal penguins differ from the other crested penguins by having white or pale gray faces and chins. They have black crowns, backs and flippers flecked with white; short, stubby orange bills and sulfur-yellow crests above the eyes that join at the top of the head. Female birds are slightly smaller than the males, but otherwise, the sexes are similar. Royal penguins are sometimes confused with the Macaroni penguin (black chin and face), and some authorities consider the Royal a subspecies of the Macaroni.

Royal Penguins are often confused with Macaroni Penguins (Eudyptes chrysolophus). In fact, both of these species were at one time considered to be the same species. They are the largest of the crested penguins standing about 70 cm in height. Females are usually slightly smaller than males. Both have yellow/orange and black crests that run from their sides all the way to the tops of their heads. The one distinguishing difference between Royal Penguins and Macaroni Penguins is that Royals have white chins and the Macaroni Penguins have black chin

Reproduction

Royal Penguins are monogamous. Reproduction only occurs on Macquarie Island from September to March. The season is marked when males arrive and begin building nests made out of grass and lined with small stones. The nests are easily distinguished from other crested penguin nests.

Females arrive in early October and courtship takes place. Males swing their heads up and down and call to encourage the females to become receptive to mating.

Royal Penguins are known to breed in both large and small colonies. The largest colony is estimated to have around 500,000 pairs, while smaller colonies can contain a mere 70 to 200 pairs. Royal penguins are monogamous and often form colonies with the closely related rockhopper penguins. The nests are usually placed a few hundred meters from the sea and the birds make access routes through the tussock grass.

Two eggs are laid in the nest but only the second egg is incubated. Incubation takes approximately 30 to 40 days.

When the chick hatches the male protects and raises it for 10 to 20 days. During this time the female penguin gathers and brings food to the nest daily. After this period, the demands of the chick make it necessary for both parents to collect food, and the chicks usually gather together in small creches. Royal penguins feed largely on krill, small shrimp-like crustaceans, the rest of their diet comprising fish and squid. The parent birds regurgitate partially-digested food from their stomachs to feed their growing youngster.

At an age of about 70 days, the chick is capable of leaving the nest and subsisting on its own. Royal Penguins reach sexual maturity in approximately one year.

Behavior

There is little known about Royal Penguin's often perplexing behavior. The migratory patterns are currently under further study. Also, there is an interesting study that investigates mating signals. Researchers have noted that before mating takes place, a vertical head swinging motion and a call are produced by the male penguin.

Copulation in Royal Penguins does not differ greatly from other similar species. The male stands over the female and pats her back and sides with his flippers. After a short time the male is able to mount securely on top of the female and release sperm on to her cloaca.

Distribution

Royal penguins are migratory birds and outside of the breeding season are believed to spend their time in the southern seas between Australia and Antarctica. Their main breeding site is on Macquarie Island, situated roughly half-way between Tasmania and Antarctica, and managed by the Australian state of Tasmania. However, they were also recorded in the past as breeding in smaller numbers on New Zealand's South Island and Campbell Island.

Habitat

The most important land habitat for the Royal penguin is Macquarie Island, which is dotted with rocks, tussock grass and small shrubs. The birds spend about seven months of the year in the coastal waters around this island.

Food Habits

The diet of Eudyptes schlegeli consists primarily of euphausiid (26%) and myctophid (52%). Other forms of nourishment come from small fish, squid, and various crustaceans. One interesting observation is that different colonies of the penguins on Macquarie Island (notably the east and west coasts) show significant variations in diet.

Conservation Status

The current world population of the Royal penguin is believed to be stable at around 850,000 pairs. There are a number of studies taking place to discover more about the migratory habits of the bird, and their main breeding site, Macquarie Island, enjoys protected status from the Tasmanian government.

Classified as Vulnerable (VU A1be+2be, C1) on the IUCN Red List 2003.

The survival of the species has never been severely threatened. The only fear that scientists have noted is the very limited distribution of the Royal Penguin. A natural disaster could jeopardize the species since breeding only occurs on Macquarie Island.

Threats

Once the subject of a lucrative oil industry in the latter part of the 19th century, Royal penguins are now protected at their breeding sites. The main threats come from south polar skuas, Stercorarius maccormicki, which take both eggs and unprotected young. There is an additional risk from the fact that as the birds' breeding range is so restricted, a natural or man-made disaster could easily wipe out this species.

Economic Importance for Humans

Today the Royal Penguin provides no real economic gain to humans. Perhaps one could count Eudyptes schlegeli's aesthetic beauty that is observed by tourists on the government protected Macquarie Island. In years past, the species were killed and boiled down for their oil (Royal 1998). Fortunately, today there are more effective ways of getting similar oils and Royal Penguins are no longer hunted.

Further Reading

Glossary

Citation

Saundry, P., & Life, E. (2012). Royal penguin. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/155796

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