The emperor penguin is the most familiar of the 17 penguin species in the world, and it is also the largest, weighing in at up to 90 pounds. That extreme weight is essential since these members of the Spheniscidae bird family are not able to feed for up to two months while incubating their single egg; instead, they live off their fat reserves. This fact sheet can help you learn even more about these captivating birds, including how to better appreciate them and even see them in the wild.
- Scientific Name: Aptenodytes forsteri
- Common Name: Emperor Penguin
- Lifespan: 20-25 years
- Size: 44-48 inches
- Weight: 65-90 pounds
- Wingspan: 30-35 inches
- Conservation Status: Near threatened
Emperor Penguin Identification
The barrel-shaped body, upright waddling posture, and pied, tuxedo-like plumage immediately help identify penguins, but birders need to look a bit more closely to be certain they are seeing an emperor penguin. Genders are similar with a black or silvery head, back, and wings that may be darker at the shoulder and along the edge of the dark plumage. The chest and abdomen are white and may show a yellow wash beneath the chin. There is a blended yellow and white ear patch that is darker at the top, and the birds have dark gray-black feet. The dark bill is narrow and tapered, with a pale peach-pink grin patch. Males are generally heavier than females, though there is size overlap between the sexes and a heavy female may be larger than a light male.
Juveniles are initially covered with fluffy, light gray down with a white face and black head, but as they grow their down turns muddy brown until it is shed as they molt into adult plumage. While molting, they will have a very patchy, scruffy appearance.
Sound is crucial for emperor penguins to identify one another, both as chicks and adults, and they have the widest call variations of any penguin species. Typical calls include raspy “craaaaal” sounds, whistles and ululations.
Emperor Penguin vs. King Penguin
The emperor penguin and king penguin look remarkably similar, but there are key differences that distinguish each species. King penguins are more colorful, with a bold orange ear patch and a darker grin patch than emperor penguins. King penguins also have more orange on the upper part of the chest and their grin patch is darker and much more orange than peach-colored. Emperor penguins are noticeably larger than their king cousins, and their range is restricted to Antarctica, whereas king penguins range further north.
Emperor Penguin Habitat and Distribution
Emperor penguins can be found along the coast of Antarctica on ice shelves as well as in the sea, where they spend a good deal of time hunting. Nesting colonies are typically found near iceberg and rock outcroppings that provide some shelter from Antarctic winds, but it is not unusual to find these penguins out in the open on the Antarctic ice.
These penguins have a short term migration between nesting colonies and the sea for feeding, but they stay year round in Antarctica, enduring temperatures as cold as -80 degrees Fahrenheit (-62 degrees Celsius).
Emperor penguins are very social birds and form colonies that routinely include thousands of birds. During the harsh winters, the birds will huddle together for warmth, often shifting positions so different birds are on the colder edge of the huddle at different times. They may also change their posture to scrunch down and better preserve body heat.
These birds are agile, powerful swimmers and can dive up to 1,600 feet below the surface where they can stay submerged for up to 20 minutes. Their swimming speed can be as fast as nine miles per hour. On land, they often use tobogganing to slide more quickly along the ice, using their flippers and feet to help propel them along. This allows them to move more quickly than their short, stubby legs can walk.
Like all penguins, emperor penguins are flightless.
Diet and Feeding
Emperor penguins are piscivorous and eat mostly fish, along with smaller quantities of krill, squid, and crustaceans. The Antarctic silverfish is a favorite food, but they will take any fish they can successfully hunt. They feed only in the water while swimming, and zigzag to chase prey. While adults will regurgitate partially digested fish to feed their chicks, very young emperor penguin chicks are fed crop milk.
These are monogamous birds that do not construct any type of nest. Instead, the male parents will incubate their egg by holding it on their feet and covering it with a brood pouch for 62-67 days, going without food themselves while the females migrate to the sea to hunt.
The emperor penguin is one of only two penguin species that incubate eggs during Antarctic winters, the other being the Adelie penguin. Eggs are laid in May.
Eggs and Young
Emperor penguins produce only one single pale, plain white egg annually. After the chicks hatch and the females return from their foraging trip, both parents work to rear the hatchling, alternating hunting and parental care periods. As chicks age, they may be left in a communal flock of young emperor penguins with several adult guardians, while both parents leave to hunt. Young emperor penguins will not seek mates and begin breeding until they are 4-6 years old.
Emperor Penguin Conservation
The species is very sensitive to climate changes that affect their Antarctic habitat, which can change the layout of the ice they rely on for nesting. Changes in water temperatures and currents can also dramatically impact the availability of suitable prey or how far the birds must walk and swim to find food. Emperor penguins also suffer from predation by petrels and skuas that will eat eggs and chicks, as well as leopard seals and orcas that kill adult penguins. Other threats to these penguins include oil spills, overfishing, and irresponsible tourism in their habitat. Strict conservation programs to protect the integrity of the Antarctic habitat are essential to sustain emperor penguins.
Tips for Backyard Birders
These are obviously not backyard birds, but they are common in zoos and aquariums around the world. Birders who want more personal experience with emperor penguins can visit them in captivity, and many penguin-friendly facilities offer behind-the-scenes tours or meet-and-greet options for closer interaction.
How to Find This Bird
It is possible for birders to plan a trip to see these penguins in their native habitat, either with a birding or wildlife watching tour or a photography tour. To protect the penguins, it is essential to choose reputable tour operators who make the birds' best interests and safety a priority.
Explore More Species in This Family
The Spheniscidae bird family is a familiar one, as birders and non-birders alike can easily recognize penguins. These charismatic birds are always favorites to see and enjoy, and you can learn more fun facts about penguins or discover more penguin species, including:
Don't miss all our wild bird profiles to learn more about your favorite species, and check back often for new and updated bird fact sheets!