There are only 18 species of penguins, yet they are some of the most familiar and most easily recognizable birds in the world. Unfortunately, many of them are also extremely vulnerable to climate change, pollution, predators, oil spills, and other hazards. Only five penguin species are not endangered, vulnerable, or threatened according to BirdLife International and its conservation monitoring, but all hope is not lost for these iconic birds. Learning the different types of penguins and recognizing each distinct species is a critical first step to be sure all penguins are protected.
Different Types of Penguins
Even though there aren't many distinct species of penguins and they all belong to the bird family Spheniscidae, these birds can be divided into several groups of the most closely related species. These groups are based not only on physical characteristics and appearances, but also on genetic testing that has determined how closely related different penguins are and how closely they evolved from early penguin ancestors. There are four main types of penguins:
- Large or Great Penguins
The two largest penguin species, the king penguin and emperor penguin, are so much larger than other penguin species that they are a distinct group of their own. Emperor penguins can weigh up to 50-90 pounds (22-40 kilograms), and can be as tall as 40-48 inches (101-122 centimeters) in height. King penguins are slightly smaller than their emperor cousins but are still far larger than any other penguin species.
- Brush-Tailed Penguins
These mid-sized penguins have distinct bristled, brushy tails that are longer than most penguin's tails and are useful as rudders when swimming or toboganning. The chinstrap penguin, gentoo penguin, and adelie penguin all belong to this group, and their tails are excellent field marks for proper identification. While all three of these penguins are closely related, they are still distinct, individual species.
- Crested Penguins
The aptly-named crested penguins all have some type of bushy eyebrow crests that show how closely they are related. The length, density, and coloration of the crests varies between the different crested penguin species. This group of penguins includes seven individual species: the erect-crested, royal, macaroni, northern rockhopper, southern rockhopper, Fjiordland, and Snares penguins. Occasionally, the yellow-eyed penguin will also be included in this group though it lacks the more prominent crests and instead only has the coloration of a crest-like marking without any actual bushy feathers.
- Banded Penguins
Smaller penguins with unique body plumage that includes a band or stripe around the breast and underparts are the banded penguins. These birds also often show some minor spotting within their white underparts, and those spots are distinct to each bird, like feathered fingerprints. Another field mark for all the penguins in this group is pink skin on the face, especially around the eye and the base of the bill. The extent of the skin and its coloration varies between each species as well as individual birds. The African, Magellanic, Humboldt, and Galapagos penguins are all part of this group.
The only type of penguin not included in a specific group categorization is the little penguin, which is very unique from the other penguin species and may have been one of the first flightless penguins to evolve. There are several subspecies of little penguin, and if this bird species is successfully split, it is possible that another type of penguin will be defined that includes several little penguin species.
Alphabetical List of Penguin Species
Sorted by Common Name
* - Listed as threatened or vulnerable due to declining populations and increasing survival threats
** - Listed as endangered and in critical danger of extinction if conservation is not implemented
- Adelie Penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae)
- **African (Jackass) Penguin (Spheniscus demersus)
- Chinstrap Penguin (Pygoscelis antarcticus)
- *Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri)
- **Erect-Crested Penguin (Eudyptes sclateri)
- *Fiordland (Crested) Penguin (Eudyptes pachyrhynchus)
- **Galapagos Penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus)
- Gentoo Penguin (Pygoscelis papua)
- *Humboldt Penguin (Spheniscus humboldti)
- King Penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus)
- Little (Fairy) Penguin (Eudyptula minor)
- *Macaroni Penguin (Eudyptes chrysolophus)
- *Magellanic Penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus)
- **Northern Rockhopper Penguin (Eudyptes moseleyi)
- *Royal Penguin (Eudyptes schlegeli)
- *Snares (Island) Penguin (Eudyptes robustus)
- *Southern Rockhopper Penguin (Eudyptes chrysocome)
- **Yellow-Eyed Penguin (Megadyptes antipodes)
Note: The split between the northern rockhopper and southern rockhopper penguins is not always universally recognized among ornithological and birding classification groups. Further genetic testing and study will be necessary to determine if the species split is valid or should continue to be challenged.