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What is a King Penguin?

Debra Durkee
Debra Durkee

The king penguin is the second largest of the penguin species, with a mature height of between 33 inches (85 cm) and 37 inches (95 cm) and a weight between 24 pounds (11 kg) and 33 pounds (15 kg). It is found on islands throughout the sub-Antarctic regions in the South Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. Highly social animals, they live in colonies that can be made up of thousands of penguin pairs that are monogamous through the breeding season. The lifespan for a wild king penguin is between 15 and 20 years, and individuals have lived up to 40 years in captivity.

Often mistaken for emperor penguins, the smaller king penguins have a sleek frame that allows them to walk on land with ease instead of hopping like emperor penguins. Males and females are similar in appearance, with white bellies, dark, silver-gray backs, and darker heads. Both sexes have bright orange patches on their throats and ears, and have pink patches on their beaks. Adults are slightly darker than juveniles, but their appearances are similar.

Adult king penguins are hunted by seals.
Adult king penguins are hunted by seals.

The thick plumage of king penguins protects them from cold temperatures both on land, where they care for their young, and in the water, where they primarily hunt. The outer layer of feathers is waterproof, with an oily texture. Three inner layers of feathers provide insulation from the bitter temperatures; king penguins also huddle together for warmth from the other members of their colony.

Killer whales prey on adult king penguins.
Killer whales prey on adult king penguins.

King penguins have the longest breeding season of any type of penguin, and every cycle results in a single chick from a pair of monogamous parents. A single egg is laid and passed from female to male and back again; one parent cares for the egg and regulates the temperature while the other parent forages for the pair. Once the egg hatches, the cycle continues for about three weeks. Then the chick is herded together with other chicks of a similar age, and both parents continue to bring their chick food until it is self-sufficient, up to 60 weeks later.

Incredibly energy-efficient when swimming, a king penguin is able to travel hundreds of miles to forage for food. They survive on a diet of mainly fish along with some cephalopods and occasionally crustaceans. In turn, adults are hunted by killer whales and seals, while eggs and chicks can be prey for shorebirds. The king penguin was also once hunted by humans for oil and flesh, and the eggs were harvested for food. Laws against poaching were enacted in 1905 and 1959.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a King Penguin?

The King Penguin is the second-largest species of penguin, known for its striking appearance with a silvery-grey back, white belly, and vivid orange markings on its head and chest. They inhabit sub-Antarctic islands and are adept swimmers, diving to depths of over 100 meters to hunt for fish and squid.

How can you distinguish a King Penguin from other penguins?

King Penguins are notable for their size, standing at about 70-100 cm tall, and their distinctive coloration. Unlike the closely related Emperor Penguin, King Penguins have a more pronounced orange ear patch and a sleeker body shape. Their vibrant orange cheek patches extend down to their chest, which helps differentiate them from other species.

What is the typical diet of a King Penguin?

King Penguins primarily feed on small fish, squid, and krill. They are exceptional divers, with the ability to dive to depths exceeding 300 meters, according to the Australian Antarctic Division. Their diet varies depending on the availability of prey in their habitat, which can influence their foraging behavior and breeding success.

Where do King Penguins live and breed?

King Penguins breed on the sub-Antarctic islands, with large colonies found on South Georgia, the Falkland Islands, and other islands in the Southern Ocean. They prefer beaches and valleys free of ice and snow for breeding. During the breeding season, they form dense colonies, which can number in the tens of thousands.

How do King Penguins raise their young?

King Penguins have a unique breeding cycle that lasts over a year. They lay a single egg, which both parents take turns incubating on their feet under a flap of abdominal skin called a brood pouch. After hatching, the chick remains in the brood pouch until it can regulate its own body temperature.

Are King Penguins endangered?

As of my knowledge cutoff in 2023, King Penguins are classified as 'Least Concern' by the IUCN Red List. However, they face threats from climate change, which affects their food supply, and human activities such as fishing and pollution. Conservation efforts are important to ensure their populations remain stable.

Discussion Comments


Did you know that king penguins and other species of penguins can dive depths farther than a submarine?!? I think that is a neat fact, especially since I can't dive more than a few feet! Penguins are also pretty friendly and sociable, even in their natural habitat! This fact makes them all the more cuter! Penguin researchers say that when they are studying them in places like Antarctica, the penguins come without an arm-length or two from them! So penguins are one of the easiest animals to collect research on, since most do not mind us. Most penguins give us the benefit of the doubt, which is cool!


I think penguins are one of the most adorable birds in the world! Whenever I think of penguins I think of the movie Happy Feet. The main penguins in that movie were emperor penguins, but king penguins are similar to emperor penguins. King penguins are a bit smaller and skinnier than emperor penguins, but other than that they seem to be pretty similar. I just recently heard that Happy Feet Two is going to be out in November!

I like how in the movie Happy Feet they include accurate facts about the penguins, about how they monogamously mate and how the fathers care for their egg until their chick hatches, while the mother finds food for all of them. Although with some species of penguin, the mother and father penguins switch off the egg watching duty and then join together to raise their chick for the first year or so.


@ceilingcat - That's funny about your friend. People have some strange misconceptions about Alaska, I'm sure. I know they do have a lot of interesting wildlife there though. Just not penguins!

Speaking of penguins, I think king penguins are adorable. However, I do wonder a little bit about those orange patches they have. The patches don't seem like they serve any kind of purpose. In fact, it seems like it would make a penguin pretty visible in a cold climate, which probably isn't very desirable.


Every time I hear the word "penguin" I always think of a girl I knew in college. She was from Alaska, and people she met at school were always asking her if there were penguins in Alaska. I know the article already said this, but let me reiterate: penguins come from the Southern hemisphere!

Anyway, one thing I think is really interesting about king penguins is their breeding habits. These birds are serial monogamists! (I'm sure we all know a few people like that, right?)

What I mean when I say that is that they are monogamous, but only for one mating season. They usually pick a different mate for the next year. Although a small percentage of them choose the same mate the next year.


When I think of penguins I think of our trip to Sea World. I don't know if they were king penguins or not, but they were sure fascinating to watch.

My kids were as interested in the penguins as they were all the other sea animals. I really was surprised by how smart they were.

It was amazing what these trainers could have them do. I would have never guessed they could remember so much.

We took a lot of penguin pictures while we were there, and of all the pictures, these are my sons favorite ones. We even bought him a stuffed penguin before we left as a fun memory of the time we spent there.


@ElizaBennett - I've been there, too! They also have polar bears, but those poor guys are outside in the heat! Fun to watch, though.

When I watched them feed the penguins, they had some baby penguins that were just learning to feed. (I guess when they're very young, their parents feed them.)

The baby penguins kept trying to jump out of the water because they didn't really get what was going on. So the keepers had to keep picking up the baby penguins and tossing them back in! It was one of the cutest things I've ever seen. I guess eventually the little guys notice that there's fish in the water and start trying to get some.


There's a really great penguin and puffin exhibit at the St. Louis zoo. They have a bunch of different species of penguin there. My favorite are the rockhopper penguins; they're the funniest looking (they have these weird tufts of feathers).

It's really a nice habitat. There are rocks for the penguins to jump around on (which is so incredibly cute, by the way) and a nice big pool with an acrylic wall so people can watch them swimming around.

If you go, make sure to find out when the feedings are; you don't want to miss it! They toss fish into the water for the penguins to go after.

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    • Adult king penguins are hunted by seals.
      By: Erni
      Adult king penguins are hunted by seals.
    • Killer whales prey on adult king penguins.
      By: desertsolitaire
      Killer whales prey on adult king penguins.