Royal Penguin

(Photo Gallery at bottom of page)

Royal Penguin Portrait Specific Name: Eudyptes schlegeli
Pinguino de Schlegel Gorfou de Schlegel Haubenpinguin
Adult Height: 65-75cm
Adult Weight: 5-6kg
Adult Flipper Length: 22.5cm
Estimated Population: 2 Million (incl. 850000 breeding pairs)


Royal Penguin breeding colonies are only found on Macquarie Island (Australia). The largest colony with an estimated 500000 breeding pairs is located at the southern tip of Macquarie Island at Hurd Point. Royal penguins are considered closely related (formerly often considered a subspecies) to the far more widespread Macaroni penguins, which can be easily differentiated, since the latter usually have a dark chin. Small numbers of darker-chinned morphs of Royal Penguins can however be observed at colonies.

Royal Penguin Breeding Range Royal Penguin


The primary prey species of Royal Penguins are euphausiid crustaceans (i.e. krill) and myctophid fish. Studies performed during the 1984/85 and 1985/86 breeding seasons found that the diet at one colony was composed (by weight) of 51% crustaceans (32% Euphasia vallentini; 10% Thysanoessa gregaria) and 49% fish (incl. 24% Krefftichthys anderssoni). Dietary analysis revealed that E. vallentini consumption was increased during the incubation phase, whilst the diet became more varied during chick feeding (Hindell 1988. Emu 88(4), p.219-226). However, no significant changes in prey taken were observed at different stages of the breeding season in a second study (Hull 1999. J. Zool. 247, p.507-529). The diet varies from season to season and also differs depending on colony location as both affect prey availability.

The foraging patterns of Royal Penguins have been studied by attaching satellite transmitters to birds from the Upper Sandy Bay colony (Hull et al., 1997. Mar. Ecol. Progress. Ser. 153, p.217-228). The birds largely forage offshore in the nutrient-rich Polar Frontal Zone (PFZ) in water depths of over 2000 meters. In particular, they spent most of their time foraging to the SE of Macquarie Island in the up to 5000 meter deep Emerald Basin. Whilst the number of birds tracked was low, it was possible to detect some interesting patterns in foraging behaviour. On longer trips (up to 600 km from the colony), penguins initially headed east, possibly utilizing the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC), later turning onto a more SE course and proceeding to follow a more or less circular clockwise routing which would eventually take them back to the colony with an approach from a SE direction. Long trips of around 20 days were observed during the incubation phase. During the chick provisioning stages, trips were shorter (often 3 days) and of shorter range (100-160 km). These trips followed relatively straight tracks to specific foraging areas east of the colony. Short trips are not only necessary to ensure regular chick feeding, but also mean that a higher proportion of the food is brought back to the chicks instead of being digested and absorbed by the adult. In fact, adults often lose weight during the chick provisioning phase.

The Royal Penguins were found to travel at average speeds of around 7 km/h during foraging trips. According to Hull et al., 1997, no clear transit phase and foraging phases could be distinguished with meandering (associated with foraging activity) being observed at similar levels on each day of the trips. However, most meandering was observed in daylight hours, especially between 7:00 and 18:00, suggesting that this is the most active feeding time.

The diving behaviour of Royal Penguins has been studied using depth-logging devices (Hull, 2000. Can. J. Zool. 78(3), p.333-345). Foraging Royals perform an average of 11 dives per hour lasting an average of 1.7 minutes. Maximum depths of over 100 m were recorded, yet about 80% of dives were to less than 60 m, with an average depth of only 33 m. "Wiggles" (irregular depth measurements probably associated with chasing prey) were performed at an average depth of 47 m. The first day of foraging trips involved less diving and thus, in contrast to Hull et al., 1997, an initial transit phase could be recognized from the data.

Penguins (also incl. King and Rockhopper) at Macquarie account for about 88% of total biomass consumed around the islands. Over 2500 tonnes are consumed every day in January by Penguins alone (Goldsworthy et al., 2001. Marine Ecol. Progress Series 218, p.283-302).


The breeding biology of Royal Penguins is much like that of Macaronis. Male birds return to Macquarie in late September and claim nest sites where they build nests made of small stones, usually lined with plant material such as grass. The nests are found in large rookeries with thousands of birds. These may be located as far as 200 m above sea level and 2 km inland. For example, Sandy Bay colony is 1.4 km inland and 108-123 m above sea level. Studies at the site have shown that penguins take at least 45 min to reach the colony (during the guard phase when they transit most rapidly) and thus lose significant time in transit. Energy usage to reach the colony has been estimated, yet seems insignificant at 0.006% of total energy expenditure (Hull and Wilson, 1996. Emu 96, p.135-138).

Courtship is instigated upon return of the females in early October. The two main sexual displays are "Vertical Head Swinging" and "Quivering". The former is usually performed by the male bird early in the breeding season, although can be seen less frequently in both partners throughout. In its classic form, the bird faces the nest with an open bill and starts to make quiet cough-like exhaling noises. As the coughs intensify, the bird points its head skyward and continues to cough, whilst swinging its head from side to side several times. The display usually abates after 3-15 swings of the head, after which the bird returns to a resting position. It may be repeated shortly afterwards. The display is similar to the ecstatic display seen in some other penguins, but differs due to the head-swinging motion. The "Quivering" display involves bowing in the direction of the nest and quietly trembling the bill just above it. The trembling could intensify into a slight head-wobbling motion. The display is often closely linked to nest or egg manipulation. Copulation is similar to in other crested penguins and is initiated by the male approaching the female and patting her on back and sides with his flippers. The female is then gently pushed to the ground after which the male mounts her and stands on her back, still patting her with his flippers. The male delicately contacts the females nape with a gently quivering bill and in response the female raises her tail and exposes the cloaca. The male then dips his tail to bring the two cloaca together and then remains relatively motionless for several seconds as sperm transfer takes place. Finally, once copulation is complete, the male slides off the female. As in many other colonial birds, sexual activity stimulates similar activity in neighbouring birds. Playing back colony sound to breeding Royal Penguins was shown to slightly enhance sexual behaviour (Waas et al., 2000. Animal Behav. 60, p.77-84). This may serve to synchronize breeding more, thus having the benefit of predator saturation. Alternatively, birds may experience a kind of competitive pressure if other birds are making sexual displays nearby.

Royal penguins display an unusual and extreme form of brood reduction which is also observed in two further Eudyptes penguin species (Macaroni and Erect-Crested). Two eggs are generally laid over a period of 4 days in mid to late October. Whilst both eggs are potentially viable, the first is usually ejected from the nest prior to laying of the second, 60% larger, egg. The mechanism was studied in detail at the Caroline Cove and Nuggets colonies on Macquarie Island (Cassady St Clair et al., 1995. Animal Behaviour 50, p.1177-1185). It was found that 70 of 84 (83%) pairs studied "lost" the first egg prior to laying of the second. More than half of these losses were observed in the 24 hours preceeding laying of the second egg, and where subsequent laying of the second egg was actually witnessed, this was found to occur on average 6.6 hrs after first egg displacement. Egg loss was observed to occur by displacement of the egg by the female parent. The egg was either removed from the nest by use of the bill, or was scraped out of the nest with the feet. This usually coincided with a period of increased parental nest-building behaviour preceding laying of the second egg. To what extent displacement was active or occurred accidentally during nest-building activities is difficult to ascertain. Interestingly, in some cases the first egg was returned to the nest, mainly by the male parent. In one case, the male returned the egg three times after displacement.

The purpose of the smaller first egg is not fully understood. Only in few cases (less than 1%) does it appear to give rise to offspring, for example if the other egg is lost or only one egg is laid. Cassady St. Clair found that first eggs removed from the nest after laying and used to replace the second egg when that arrived some 4 days later hatched about 36 days later in 48% of nests manipulated in this way. Nests where the second egg (alone) was retained had a 93% success rate, with hatching occurring after about 35 days. Hence, first eggs are probably less viable than second eggs (although the 4 day storage prior to arrival and replacement of the second egg may have had a negative effect). Successful first eggs were generally slightly heavier than unsuccessful ones.

The incubation period lasts for about 35 days. During incubation each parent appears to perform one long foraging trip whilst the other tends the nest. After hatching, the chick is then largely guarded by the male for 3-4 weeks, whilst the female usually performs the 2-3 day short foraging trips during this period. At an age of one month, chicks form creches and both parents can go to sea, performing 2-3 day foraging trips. Chicks fledge in late February. After the chicks have fledged, the parents go on an about 36 day long foraging trip to gain weight (approx. 3 kg) in preparation for moulting (Hull et al., 2001. Emu 101(2), p.173-176). The moult is performed at the breeding site and takes 28 days in the March / April period. Birds lose nearly half of their pre-moult mass during this period. After moulting, Royal Penguins leave the colony and are found at sea, building up weight until the onset of the next breeding season.

Royal Penguin Nest Site Royal Penguin Path to Colony Royal Penguin Colony

Royal Penguin Colony, Sandy Bay

Creek used to access colony

Royal Penguin Colony, Sandy Bay

Juvenile Royal Penguin

Juvenile Royal Penguin. Note only short yellow feathers on head.

General Behaviour:

Royal Penguin behaviour is similar to that of the closely related Macaroni Penguin. As in other penguins found in moderate climatic zones, Royal Penguins indulge in allopreening which removes parasites from the head region (which the penguins are less able to preen themselves) and serves to reinforce the pair bond.

Royal Penguins allopreening Royal Penguins Allopreening

Royal Penguins Allopreening

Royal Penguins Allopreening

Royal Penguins Allopreening Royal Penguins Allopreening

Royal Penguins Allopreening

Royal Penguins Allopreening

Aggressive displays or antagonistic interactions are common and may involve both juvenile and adult birds. Such behaviour can be observed both on land and in shallow water near the landing beaches. Birds may face each other with beaks agape and lunge forwards slightly towards each other. This may be accompanied by a hissing noise ("Jab Hiss"). Also birds may threaten each other standing in an upright stance and trumpeting with a wide open beak pointing forwards ("Forward Trumpet") to the adversary (NB: this display is also used for non-aggressive purposes). Birds may also attack from behind and bite and grip an opponents neck or back.

Nesting birds may also confront each other whilst on or around the nest. Nests are closely spaced in colonies with most being positioned so that two nesting birds at adjacent nests are just about in reach when leaning towards each other. Levels of aggression in nesting birds tend to be low at the beginning of the breeding season, rising gradually after arrival of the female and laying of the eggs. Fighting rarely leads to injuries.

Royal Penguins Chasing Eachother Royal Penguins Fighting

Royal Penguins Chasing Each Other

Royal Penguins Fighting

Juvenile Royal Penguins Fighting Royal Penguins Fighting

Juvenile Royal Penguins Fighting

Royal Penguins Fighting

In undisturbed guard-phase birds, most of the time at the nest is spent resting (over 75%), about 7% of time is spent performing chick-maintenance (largely preening), with 11% of time is spent on self-maintenance (Holmes et al., 2005. Biol. Conserv. 126, p.339-350). Non-sexual states or behavioural actions can be largely grouped as resting/comfort (motionless, yawning, defecating or stretching), maintenance (of nest or body (i.e. preening)), vigilance (staring, alternate staring (head tipping from side to side with beak pointing forwards) or forward neck extension), and agonistic behaviour (reaching out towards and possibly striking at an adversary). A full description of the repertoire of Royal Penguin behaviour is beyond the scope of this text. The reader is referred to Smith, 1974 (Emu 74, p.27-34) or Warham, 1971 (Notornis 18, p.91-115) for more detail.

Preening Royal Penguin Preening Royal Penguin Preening Royal Penguin

Preening Royal Penguin

Preening Royal Penguin

Preening Royal Penguin

Lying down Royal Penguin roosting Juvenile Royal Penguin Roosting Royal Penguin Lying on Beach

Royal Penguin resting in lying position

Juvenile Royal Penguin Resting

Royal Penguin resting in lying position

Royal penguins use pebbles as part of their nesting material and can be often observed playfully picking these up even when far from the actual nesting site. Royal Penguins also frequently try and steal pebbles and other material from nearby nests if these are left unattended.

Royal Penguin picking up stone Royal Penguin Holding Stone Royal Penguin picking up pebble

Royal Penguin picking up stone

Royal Penguin holding stone

Royal Penguin picking up stone


Historically, Royal Penguins were subject to exploitation for their oil. In the early 1900s, Joseph Hatch acquired a license to process Royal (and King) Penguins on Macquarie Island. Four steam digesters were set up at the Nuggets and about 3500 penguins were boiled down per day, with an additional 500 serving as food (source: Invercargill Museum). After loading the digester, the carcasses were cooked at 30 psi for about 12 hours. Water was then pumped in and the oil floated to the top of the tank where it could be withdrawn. The refuse at the bottom of the tank was then removed and disgarded. At the height of this industry some 150000 birds were harvested in the three month season, yielding nearly 70000 litres of oil for use largely in rope and binder twine manufacturing. Interestingly, public outrage at this form of penguin exploitation was sufficiently strong, that the Tasman Government revoked the licence in 1920.

Fisheries around Macquarie are strictly regulated. Patagonian Toothfish has been harvested in the vicinity since 1994, yet no negative effect on Royal Penguin numbers has been documented.

Currently, the large numbers of Southern Skuas (Stercorarius maccormicki) at Macquarie are responsible for numerous egg and chick losses. Skua levels are high due to the current abundance of rabbits, a favoured Skua prey, on Macquarie. The rabbits are also damaging vegetation and may increase erosion in the vicinity of colonies. A program aimed at complete rabbit eradication from Macquarie is under preparation and should be implemented in the next years.

The fact that the entire breeding population is situated on Macquarie is also a potential problem, since a major disease outbreak, environmental disaster or change in food availability due to changing ocean temperatures could threaten the species as a whole. Numerous viruses can be isolated from Royal Penguins, yet none of these has been associated with significant mortality. For example, antibodies against Newcastle Disease Virus (NDV), Paramyxovirus and the tick-borne Sakhalin and Kemerovo group viruses have all been detected in sera from Royal Penguins. Particularly virulent strains of these viruses could pose a threat (Morgan et al., 1981. Austral. Vet. J. 57, p.333-335).

In general, even though population levels are high, the situation of the Royal Penguin could be considered precarious, since there are no nearby islands which the penguins could easily move to in case local conditions become unfavourable.

The number of boats visiting Macquarie Island is relatively small and landings are generally restricted to two main sites. Hence, the impact of tourism is likely to be negligible on the population as a whole. Nevertheless, studies have addressed the effect of approaching Royal Penguins, in particular to see if tourists at the minimum allowed approach distance of 5 meters were significantly disturbing the birds. One study used artificial eggs to study changes in heart rate in incubating birds, and combined this with video analysis of penguin behavioural responses (Holmes et al., 2005. Biol. Conserv. 126, p.339-350). Penguins were subjected to a single person walking towards them wearing a bright red jacket. About 65% of birds responded when the person reached a distance of 10 m, and 100% responded at a distance of 5 m. At 5 m, the penguins pulse reached 70% above normal and behavioural acts correlating to a state of vigilance, such as head-turning or neck stretching, increased 6-fold. Interestingly, comfort behaviour (e.g. yawning, defecating or stretching) significantly increased when the pedestrian was close. Any movement such as crouching or standing up resulted in a response which gradually tailed off, reaching near baseline within a couple of minutes if no further movements were made. The peak heart rate following human approach was higher than that elicited by skua overflights or antagonistic interactions with other penguins. A further study performing video analysis on responses to the same pedestrian stimulus in guard phase birds showed increased vigilance and agonistic activity and lower resting levels in approached penguins (Holmes, 2007. J. Wildlife Manag. 71(8), p.2575-2582). This study also addressed the effect of the same stimulus on King and Gentoo penguins and found that the responses were broadly similar although differing in detail.

Penguin Digesters Macquarie Island Skuas

Penguin digester on Macquarie Island

Skuas on beach near penguin colony

Where To See:

Macquarie Island can be visited by boat. Landing permits are required and need to be obtained in advance. Access is highly restricted and only possible in accompaniment of a ranger at very specific locations. Only few companies (e.g. Heritage Expeditions) offer adventure cruises which include short visits to Macquarie Island in their itineraries. No access to nesting sites was possible in 2009 due to the collapse of the wooden walkway to the nesting area above Sandy Bay. If visitors are patient and sit quietly without making any rapid movements, penguins may approach even interact with them, since they are naturally inquisitive.

Royal Penguin pecking boot Royal Penguin climbing on visitor

Royal Penguin inspecting footwear

Royal Penguin climbing on photographer

Photo Gallery:

Royal Penguins

Royal Penguins Allopreening Royal Penguins

Penguin Index

Photovolcanica Full Index