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Aquarium of the Pacific - Online Learning Center - Species Print Sheet

Climate Change:  Vulnerable

Land & Aquatic SpeciesMagellanic Penguin

Spheniscus magellanicus Birds

Magellanic Penguin Our penguins all have distinctive personalities. Roxy is independent and likes to be the first penguin fed. And she is particular about how fish are handed to her. She wants them given to her with the fish’s head pointed to the right, not the left. | Robin Riggs/Aquarium of the Pacific
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Our penguins all have distinctive personalities. Roxy is independent and likes to be the first penguin fed. And she is particular about how fish are handed to her. She wants them given to her with the fish’s head pointed to the right, not the left. Robin Riggs/Aquarium of the Pacific

Species In-Depth | Print full entry

At the Aquarium

The Aquarium’s June Keyes Penguin Habitat is home to Magellanic Penguins. Some of the penguins came from a captive breeding programs at organizations in California. Others were found stranded on beaches in Brazil. After rehabilitation it was determined that they would not survive if returned to the wild.

From March 1 to about July 1 our penguins will be breeding. During this time human interactions with the penguins will be minimized.

The Aquarium of the Pacific participates in the American Zoos and Aquariums species survival program for Magellanic Penguins and nesting burrows have been provided in the Keyes habitat. Our Magellanic Penguins will have a breeding season opposite of that of wild penguins in the Southern Hemisphere.

Our penguins are fed herring, capelin, and squid (rarely). Each penguin gets a measured amount of food that is increased during breeding season and before they molt.

Geographic Distribution

September to mid-April breeding season: Islands off Chilean coast including Juan Fernandez Islands, along coast of southern Chile to islands off Cape Horn, South Atlantic Patagonia coast of Argentina as far north as Valdez Peninsula, and the Falkland Islands. Mid-April to September non-breeding winter season: migrate from breeding ranges north to Peru and the coast of Brazil rarely as far as Rio de Janeiro on the Brazilian coast and back.


During the breeding season the habitats of Magellanic Penguins are dependent on geographic location. They can be found nesting on coastal beaches, sandy dunes or hills of clay, on cliff faces, grassy slopes, in forested areas, and areas with small bushes. During the non-breeding season, they are usually found in ocean waters swimming up to 250 km (155 mi) offshore.

Physical Characteristics

These penguins have a fairly large head, short neck, elongated body with a short wedge-shaped tail, webbed feet set back on the body, and elongated flippers (wings) with a fused wrist joint. Adults and juveniles have the typical black back and white breast and stomach of penguins in general.

Magellanic Penguins have very dense feathers: more than 452 per square centimeter (70 per square inch). Adult Magellanic Penguins have scattered black spots on the breast. They have a symmetrical white band around the mostly black face. The band originates at each eye, arches back on the sides of the black head, and comes together at the throat. They also have two bands crossing the front. One band is a wide black strip under the chin and another is in the shape of an upside down horseshoe on the stomach. Juveniles have only one band. Flippers are black above with white edges, and pale pinkish-white below. During the breeding season, adults lose feathers from around the eyes and hooked bill exposing a patch of pink skin with a dark pigmented center area.

Before developing adult plumage, juveniles have a range of white to dark gray patches on their cheeks and two layers of down. Young birds usually have a blotched pattern on their feet, which fades as they age. The down of chicks is gray-blue on the back and a more faded gray-blue whitish color on the abdomen and chest.


Standing height when full grown: 61-76 cm (24-30 in).

Length, a measurement from tip of the beak to the tail, usually several inches longer.

Weight: 3.8-6.5 kg (8.3-14.3 lb). Males are usually slightly larger. Weight varies seasonally, dropping during breeding and land phase of the molting seasons.


The size and location of the penguin colony influences the type of prey hunted, the distance traveled in foraging, and the length of time spent hunting. Larger colonies must travel a greater distance to feed and foraging takes longer. When food is plentiful, the penguins return to the breeding site during the day; when it is not, they may be at sea for several days. Usually foraging in groups, these penguins prey on small fishes (the species being geographic location dependent), squid, and krill. Dive depths are usually up to 50 m (164 ft). They stay underwater for about 90 seconds. When food supplies are adequate, they swim 16-40 kilometers (10-25 miles) offshore of the colony. Trips are longer when food is scarce.

Using their wings like paddles, they can achieve speeds of over 24 kilometers (15 miles) per hour when foraging. When a school of prey is detected, a Magellanic Penguin accelerates and swims round the fish in circles that become smaller and smaller little by little. It suddenly dashes into the school to snatch what it can. Prey is usually caught underwater and swallowed head first.


Magellanic Penguins usually form life-long pairs, returning to the same breeding location annually. Males start arriving at the colonies in mid-September and if previously mated, reclaim last year’s nest. The nest may be under bushes, in stands of grass, among rocks, or in underground burrows that are dug into soft soil or peat, often on cliffs facing the ocean. Burrows slope downward and are up to 2 m (6 ft) deep ending in a nest chamber higher than the tunnel floor to allow rainwater to collect away from eggs. Females arrive several days later. After finding each other by vocalizing, the pair repair the nest. If they do not have a mate, males advertise for one by making loud braying sounds and body displays in an elaborate courtship ritual.

One egg is laid about 37 days after mating and a second egg is usually laid one to three days later. The female incubates the eggs for the first shift of about 20 days. During this time the male is at sea foraging. When the male returns, the female goes to sea to feed, returning in time for the egg hatching.

After hatching, both parents brood the chicks, feeding them at one to three day intervals depending on food supply availability. However, the first chick hatched tends to be favored by the parents, especially when food is limited and mortality of the second hatched chick tends to be high. The chicks stay on the nest for as little as nine to as long as seventeen weeks depending on amount of food available to the foraging parents. About 10 days before the chicks fledge, the parents stop feeding them.

When the chicks leave the nest, they molt, replacing their down with feathers. When 60 to 70 days old the chicks, now feathered juveniles, are ready to head out to sea.


Molting: In March after the chicks have fledged, adults go to sea for two to three weeks to build up their body mass so as to be able to cope with the energy demands of the molting process. After a pre-molt start at sea the adults return to the land breeding site to actually molt, a process that takes place over a 19-22 day period. During this time they do not eat. If the penguin has not gained sufficient weight while at sea, it may not survive the molt. Molting is a traumatic event demanding high expenditures of energy. During the process metabolism slows down and the birds usually just stand still trying not to expend any energy. Before going to sea, chicks exchange their blue-gray down for feathers.

Ecstatic displays: As part of courtship or just to show territory ownership, Magellanic Penguins often perform an ‘ecstatic display.’ This behavior involves repeatedly stretching their necks, pointing their beak toward the sky, and at the same time, spreading their wings and making braying noises. The display may last for more than an hour. Another penguin may take over when the first stops. Males perform ecstatic display calls in the beginning of breeding season to attract a mate and during fights with other males.

Aggression: Magellanic Penguins are considered to be among the more aggressive penguin species. They are especially aggressive at the beginning of the breeding season when males fight each other for nests and females. Fights start with a loud call followed by a pre-fight. The actual fight, in which real injury can be inflicted, consists of bill bites, massive flipper smacks, and bill duel accompanied by head and eye movement. Females fight with other females over choice of mates.

Vocalization: Magellanic Penguins have a wide range of sounds (including a moo, bleat, cackle, and two-toned bray like a donkey) used as ecstatic, display, and contact calls. In breeding season the noise at the colonies is very loud, with display calls and braying from both males and females. Braying by males is the loudest vocalization. Paired adults can distinguish the calls of the partner. Both call when they meet at the nest in the beginning of the breeding season and when they switch duties during incubation. Chicks can distinguish between the calls of their parents and those of other adults.


Countershading: All adult penguins are countershaded and predators and prey do not see a contrast between the countershaded penguin and the ocean. When viewed from above, the penguin’s dark back blends in with the dark ocean depths. Viewed from below, the light underside blends in with the lighter surface of the ocean.

Body shape: Like penguins in general, the streamlined tapered body shape of a Magellanic Penguin is adapted for swimming. Its body is tapered at both ends and streamlined. Its wings (flippers) function as paddles, enabling the birds to “fly” through the water rapidly. If they get too hot, the structure of their flippers makes it possible for them to extend their flippers upward to increase the amount of surface area exposed to a breeze.

Using the senses: Penguins rely on sight to obtain food. Research suggests that while Magellanic Penguins cannot perceive red, a color rare in the deeper ocean, but they are adept at perceiving blue-green, the colors of the ocean depths.


In the wild: average 10 years with some living as long as 20 years.

In protected environments such as aquariums and zoos: up to 35 years.


Currently listed as near threatened on the IUCN Red List, dependent on geographic location of the populations, the major threats to Magellanic Penguins are over fishing on species they forage on, oil pollution, predation by birds and both land and marine mammals, and disturbance by humans.

Population trend: Overall populations are holding steady in most South American locations and even increasing in some. However, in large colonies such as Punta Tomba, populations are declining. Scientists believe this may be due to competition among the birds for available food supply or a decreasing food supply. The decline in parts of the Falkland Islands has been severe, over 70 percent. The decline is attributed to the impacts of commercial fishing in penguin foraging areas and there are concerns that this population may become extinct. These declines have not occurred in nearby Chile or Argentina where colonies are protected from commercial fishing.

Predators: At sea these include sea lions, seals, and killer whales. At breeding sites chicks and eggs are preyed on by Skuas, giant petrels, gulls, cats, dogs, skunks, and rats. Although prohibited, illegal egg collection still occurs and there is also disturbance by tourists at breeding sites. In the Falkland Islands introduction of stock and the resulting loss of breeding habitat has had an impact.

Climate change: El Niño events increase chick mortality as a result of heavy rains causing collapse of burrows or flooding causing chick death or hypothermia. Extreme weather that scientists believe will result from climate change may lead to heavier rains. There may also be an impact of global warming on fish and krill prey.

Conservation efforts: Protection of colonies in Chile and Argentina from commercial fishing; movement of shipping lanes in Argentina’s Chubut province to lessen exposure to oil pollution; control of tourists at breeding sites; creation of marine parks and reserves; international partnerships of government, nonprofit organizations, and academic institutions developing conservation plans—all are steps taken or being taken to protect Magellanic Penguins.

Special Notes

While most groups of birds are called flocks, a group of penguins has a different name, a waddle, obviously based on the awkward way they walk on land.

From mid-September to mid-April Punta Tombo Peninsula in Argentina’s Patagonia region is home to half-a-million Magellanic Penguins, the largest colony of this species in the world.

The round trip migration of Magellanic Penguins between breeding grounds north to foraging areas and back to breeding grounds can be as long as 6,436 km (4,000 mi).