The royal penguin gets its regal title from the distinctive yellow-orange plumes that start at the forehead and run along the sides and top of the head. At first glance, the royal penguin might be mistaken for the macaroni penguin, a species that has similar yellow crested feathers on the head. Some scientists maintain that the royal penguin is a closely related sub-species of the macaroni penguin.
Royal penguins nest in large colonies on Macquarie Island and nearby Bishop and Clerk Islands in Australia. They favor rocky or pebbly beaches during most of the year. They are members of the crested penguin family, but unlike other crested penguins that have black chins, royal penguins’ chins and faces are pale grey or white leading up to their colorful plumes. Fitted with black crowns and short orange bills, these penguins are also the tallest of crested penguins, standing at about 28 inches tall. Females are often slightly smaller than the males. Royal penguins feed primarily on krill, along with other small crustaceans, fish or cephalopods, and may fall prey to fur seals or southern elephant seals.
Breeding season for royal penguins last from September to February and usually begins with the males creating small hollows or nests from nearby vegetation and rocks. Once the females arrive to the colony, the royal penguins form monogamous breeding pairs and lay two eggs. One of the eggs, typically the smallest of the two, is pushed away from the nest and the other is incubated by both parents. About 40 days later, the chick hatches and is looked after by the father while the mother forages for food. Eventually, the chick will join other newly hatched penguins in small groups known as crèches. Once the chick has reached 70 days old, it can begin to forage and protect itself.
Royal penguins were heavily exploited in the 19th century but have since recovered. Today, populations are considered stable, but since potential threats like plastic pollution and overfishing are prevalent in their habitat, royal penguins are listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List. Long-term effects of climate change may also severely impact these penguins’ food supply throughout their range.
1. Royal penguins are endemic to Macquarie Island and nearby islets.
2. Royal penguins leave Macquarie after the breeding season, and researchers are unsure where these penguins go during this six-month period before returning.
3. Royal penguins lay two eggs but discard the first egg for an unknown reason.
4. Royal penguins incubate their eggs for 30 days.
5. Male royal penguins guard their chicks for 3 to 4 weeks until they’re large enough to join other chicks.
6. Royal penguins weigh 9 to 14 pounds (4.2 to 6.3 kg) on average, but fatten up right before molting, reaching weights up to 17.6 pounds (8 kg).
7. Royal penguins are named for the bright yellow plumes on their heads that resemble crowns. The older the penguin, the lusher the plumes.1
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