Penguins are well known for their distinctive walk and black and white markings and these flightless birds are loved worldwide, but what is the largest penguin in the world? Found predominantly in the Southern Hemisphere, there are currently 18 species of penguin left in the world, with 11 of them classified as being under threat. Although penguins nowadays are smaller than the now-extinct species (more on that below!), there are certainly still some large ones.
Here are the 10 largest species of penguin by height.
#10: African Penguin
You could easily be forgiven for not associating Africa with penguins, but there is indeed an African penguin which is found along the coast of South Africa and comes in at number ten with a height of 26.5 to 27.5 inches. Also sometimes known as the jackass penguin, these birds make a sound much like that of a donkey braying. They are easily distinguished by the pink markings above their eyes which are actually glands that they use to help them regulate their body temperature. They also have a horseshoe-shaped black marking on the underside of their chest. Sadly, they are under threat for several reasons – threats from predators, localized fishing which has resulted in them having to search further afield for food, and oil spills which have significantly harmed their numbers – and they are now classed as an endangered species on the IUCN red list.
#9: Humboldt Penguin
The Humboldt penguin has a similar appearance to the African penguin, having the same horseshoe-shaped black mark on their chest, but they are slightly larger with a height of 28 inches. They are endemic to South America and are often found in Chile and Peru. Their preferred habitat is rocky shorelines and caves where they like to build their nests during the March to December breeding season. The Humboldt penguin feeds mainly on fish, although some colonies of them are known to eat squid and crabs. Due to industrialization and mining as well as predators such as rats eating their eggs, the population is declining and they are now officially a vulnerable species.
#8: Macaroni Penguin
The Macaroni penguin stands at a height of around 28 inches and is found in the Falklands Islands, Chile, and a range of islands around Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. They are a crested penguin and have a yellow or orange crest on their head and a large orange beak. The macaroni penguin is a migratory bird that can be found on rocky cliffs next to the sea during breeding season from October to April and then spend the next six months in the open sea, often travelling as far as the Indian ocean. Although there was once a healthy, thriving population, their numbers have declined in recent years and they are now classed as being vulnerable.
#7: Magellanic Penguin
The Magellanic penguin stands between 24 and 30 inches tall and is found in Argentina, Chile, and the Falklands Islands. They are closely related to both the African penguin and the Humboldt penguin and they have the same horseshoe-shaped band on their chest, although the Magellanic penguin also has a black band around the top of their head as well. Unlike some other species of penguin, the Magellanic penguin mates for life and nest in the exact same place each year, which is usually in places where there is plenty of vegetation to provide shelter. They head out into the sea once breeding season has ended, just like the Macaroni penguin and can often travel thousands of miles before returning to nest again the following year.
#6: Royal Penguin
The royal penguin is the largest of the crested penguins and stands 26-30 inches tall and can weigh up to 18 pounds. Royal penguins have a striking yellow and black crest and a white face with a white belly and chest and a black back and flippers. They are endemic to Macquarie Island in Australia which is where the majority of them nest, but some can be found on the surrounding islands. Although they lay two eggs, usually only one of them hatches. Royal penguins prefer to live on beaches or bare areas near the sea and they feed on small fish and squid.
#5: Yellow-Eyed Penguin
The yellow-eyed penguin stands 24-31 inches tall and is endemic to New Zealand. They are easily recognizable as they have yellow eyes, hence the name, and a pale yellow band which goes from their eyes around the back of their heads and the rest of their head is usually dark brown rather than black. Yellow-eyed penguins can be quite a fussy penguin as they have a habit of not nesting within sight of another pair, although they do mate for life and both the male and female share the duties of sitting on the eggs during the incubation period, and of looking after the chicks once they have hatched. Unfortunately, the yellow-eyed penguin is at risk from an unknown disease which has affected chicks in colonies in several different areas, and as such they are now an endangered species.
#4: Chinstrap Penguin
The chinstrap penguin is widespread across Antarctica, the Falklands Islands, Chile, Argentina, and other surrounding islands. They usually reach 28-31 inches and have a distinctive appearance with the top of their head being black and the rest of it being white but with a thin black band going underneath their chin which is where they get their name from. They build their nests with stones and the eggs are hatched by both parents. Chinstrap penguins often swim around 50 miles per day when hunting, but they are often at risk both on the land and the sea from predators. Their main predators are leopard seals and large seabirds such as skuas and the southern giant petrel. However, despite this, their population remains healthy and is not under threat.
#3: Gentoo Penguin
The Gentoo penguin can reach a maximum height of 35 inches, although the average is around 31 inches. They are found predominantly in Antarctica, the Falklands Islands, and South Georgia. Gentoo penguins have a black head with a white stripe across it, which makes them easily recognizable from other species of penguin. They make their nests in piles of stones and they can be extremely territorial over them, with fierce fights often breaking out between males. Although other large seabirds often prey on the eggs and chicks, healthy adults have no predators on land, but killer whales and seals pose a threat to them while they are on the water.
#2: King Penguin
Reaching the second spot on our list is the king penguin, which can grow to be 33-37 inches tall, can weigh 40 pounds, and is found in Antarctica, South Georgia, and the surrounding islands. As well as the traditional penguin markings of a black back and white underside, they have a black head with orange patches on each side and an orange marking on their upper chest area which gives them a stunning appearance. King penguins are able swimmers and can dive to depths over 200 feet when hunting for small fish and squid. The species are particularly unique as their eggs are pear-shaped and they don’t build nests, instead, king penguins carry the eggs around on their feet and incubate them in a pouch. Although overfishing threatens their food source, king penguins aren’t considered to be under any threat and the population remains healthy.
#1: Emperor Penguin
The largest penguin in the world is the emperor penguin. Standing at 45 inches, these giants can even weigh up to 100 pounds. They are quite similar in appearance to the king penguin but have pale yellow markings on their upper chest and head instead of orange. Emperor penguins are endemic to Antarctica and they breed during the harsh winter. During this time the male penguin incubates the egg on his feet and doesn’t eat at all for the entire 65 to 75 days it takes for it to hatch. Emperor penguins commonly huddle together for warmth as they endure the harsh conditions that they endure, with youngsters in the middle where they are more sheltered.
The emperors are also known for being able to dive the deepest of any species of penguin – even deeper than the king penguins – and they have been recorded at diving to depths of over 1,000 feet. Due to a decreased hatching rate and the effect of fishing on their food source, the emperor penguins are now classed as being near threatened on the IUCN red list.
Bonus: The Largest Penguins Ever!
The largest penguin ever to roam the Earth was the “colossus penguin” (Palaeeudyptes klekowskii). The massive species of penguin grew up to 8 feet tall (twice as tall as large emperor penguins today) and weighed upward of 250 pounds.
The first colossus penguin skeleton remains were found in 2014, and are incomplete, so there’s still a lot to learn about this ancient species! It’s believed colossus penguins lived about 37 million years ago. Yet, the colossus penguin may not hold the title of largest penguin forever. With ancient penguins having lived in Antarctica where fossil remains often lay locked under massive snow drifts, a future species of even larger penguins may some day be found!
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