24 Apr 2017

Every penguin, ranked: which species are we most at risk of losing?

10 of the world’s 18 species of penguin are threatened with extinction. Discover where they live, and the threats they face, in this illustrated list of the world’s species

Is the Emperor Penguin sliding towards extinction? (© Christopher Michel)
By Alex Dale

Beautiful. Inspiring. Under threat.

The first third of our Protect A Penguin campaign tagline is self-explanatory. Beautiful. Even if you've got a heart as hard as a cement mixer, the sight of an Emperor Penguin chick huddling against the cold, or a flash of the Little Penguin's vibrant blue feathers, is guaranteed to make you melt into a pile of goo.

And as for Inspiring? Well, is there a creature on this planet that better represents survival against all odds than the penguin? Over the course of their existence, these remarkable birds have evolved numerous incredible adaptions that allow them to thrive in some of the world's most challenging marine environments. They can drink seawater, survive in temperatures as low -60°C (-76°F), and they are amazingly agile swimmers. Many can swim faster than we can run.

But they are also Under threat. While the penguins are heavily adapted for their environments, it has taken them millions of years to evolve these features, and human impact is hitting the penguins' environments too hard and too fast for them to cope. This is why over half of the world's penguins are now in real danger of going extinct.

But which ones are we most in danger of losing?

As the Red List authority for all birds on the IUCN Red List, BirdLife regularly collates and reviews the latest data to assess the global status of all the world’s bird species. For the 2016 comprehensive Red List update, penguin updates were informed by the knowledge and experience of the newly-formed IUCN Penguin Specialist Group (PSG) at a workshop funded by the Global Penguin Society. The threat level for each species was reviewed and updated, depending on criteria such as range, numbers and rate of decline. The seven threat levels are (in increasing order of seriousness): LEAST CONCERN, NEAR THREATENED, VULNERABLE, ENDANGERED, CRITICALLY ENDANGERED, EXTINCT IN THE WILD and EXTINCT.

To find out more about the world's 18 penguins, where they live and which ones are in most peril, read on. And don't forget: you can help by donating to our global Protect A Penguin campaign by clicking on the banner below.




Yellow-eyed Penguin Megadyptes antipodes

Threat status: ENDANGERED

How many are left? 3,400

Fun fact: It is also known by its Maori name ‘Hoiho’, which translates as ‘Noise shouter’. If you blunder a little too close to its nest, its tinnitus-inducing trumpet will remind you why.

What threats do they face? On land, invasive species (ferrets, stoats, feral cats) are predators on the South Island. At sea, it is suspected that many are tangled and drowned in fishing nets. Invasive species eradication programmes and vegetation restoration programmes are underway to stem the decline of this highly threatened species.

Snares Penguin Eudyptes robustus

Threat status: VULNERABLE

How many are left? 63,000

Fun fact: This species of crested penguin is named after the Snares Islands, a tiny island group 200km south of New Zealand. This is its only breeding area, and because its range is so small, just one incident (such as a storm, or oil spillage) could easily see the threat status of this species rocket to Endangered or Critically Endangered.

What threats do they face? While the Snares Islands are free of invasive predators, they are also the site of a large squid fishery, bringing the species in competition with humans.

Royal Penguin Eudyptes schlegeli

Threat status: NEAR THREATENED

How many are left? 1,700,000

Fun fact: Unique among crested penguins because it has a white face, the Royal Penguin is sometimes considered to be a sub-species of the Macaroni Penguin.

What threats do they face? The Royal Penguin has no land-based predators; it only breeds on the rocky island of Macquarie Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site situated roughly halfway between New Zealand and Antarctica, and politically considered part of Tasmania, Australia. While it is currently thriving on the island, its limited range means future threats, such as pollution, climate change and overfishing, could escalate quickly.


Erect-crested Penguin Eudyptes sclateri

Threat status: ENDANGERED

How many are left? 150,000

Fun fact: If you’re an anime fan, you’ll recognise this species from the character Pen Pen from Neon Genesis Evangelion, although given that he has claws on his flippers, it’s not a beacon of scientific accuracy.

What threats do they face? Due to a lack of data it’s hard to say, but research needs to be undertaken to find out and fast, because they are declining rapidly. With their breeding grounds secure, the cause is likely to be found out at sea – possibly ocean warming or competition from fisheries.


Little Penguin Eudyptula minor

Threat status: LEAST CONCERN

How many are left? 469,760

Fun fact: At just 33cm, this strikingly blue bird is the smallest penguin in the world. Curiously, colonies have been established in urban areas of New Zealand, such as the capital city, Wellington.

What threats do they face? The Little Penguin’s unusual taste for urban life means it faces some peculiar threats: for example, penguin crossing signs have been established to save these charming birds from being flattened by cars.


Fiordland Penguin Eudyptes pachyrhynchus


Threat status: VULNERABLE

How many are left? 5500-7000

Fun fact: While the Little Penguin can sometimes be found on New Zealanders' doorsteps, you’d have to venture into the remote and rugged rainforests of the South Island to trip over this reclusive species. It is also known locally as the Tawaki, after a Maori god – according to mythology, Tawaki didn’t realise he was a god until he “threw aside his vile garments and clothed himself in lightning”. Take another look at the Fiordland Penguin’s bolt-like crest and perhaps you’ll see the resemblance.

What threats do they face? Introduced terrestrial mammals, including rats and stoats, are a considerable threat as they prey on eggs and chicks. In part because of this, and in part because of marine factos such as bycatch, they have declined by as much as 30% in just ten years.




Macaroni Penguin Eudyptes chrysolophus

Threat status: VULNERABLE

How many are left? Over 10 million

Fun fact: Perhaps unsurprisingly, since Macaroni Penguins form huge breeding colonies numbering into the millions, this species has a reputation for falling out with its neighbours. This famously bad-tempered species solves territorial disputes with vicious beak-wrestling and flipper-slapping battles.

What threats do they face? Apart from themselves, you mean? Despite its huge numbers, the future of this penguin is far from secure. Invasive species and disease outbreaks across their breeding colonies are driving declines, while increasing seal populations are not only preying on Macaronis, but also blocking access to breeding sites, inhibiting colony growth.


Southern Rockhopper Penguin Eudyptes chrysocome

Threat status:  VULNERABLE

How many are left? 2,500,000

Fun fact: The Rockhopper Penguin was split into two distinct species, Northern and Southern, by BirdLife in 2008, due to differences in song, foraging behaviour and also at a molecular level.

What threats do they face: Several populations, such as those on Campbell Island and on the Falklands/Malvinas, have experienced major long-term population crashes during the 20th century. It is not entirely clear why, although it is believed that climate change is the root cause, affecting not only their food supply, but increasing the frequency of the storms that batter their breeding colonies.

Northern Rockhopper Penguin Eudyptes moseleyi


Threat status: ENDANGERED

 How many are left? Unknown

Fun fact: They look similar, but there’s an easy way to tell the Northern and Southern Rockhoppers apart – the Northern has longer and more dramatic ‘eyebrow plumes’.

What threats do they face? The numbers and breeding behaviour of this relatively newly-split species are still poorly understood and tracking projects are ongoing. With 85% of the global population confined to the remote islands of Gough and Tristan de Cunha, single events of oil spillage and storms can have, and have had, a catastrophic effect on the species’ prospects.


African Penguin Spheniscus demersus

Threat status: Endangered

How many are left? 50,000

Fun fact: Africa’s only native penguin species is also known as the Jackass Penguin, due to its braying, donkey-like call.

What threats do they face? Egg collecting has been a historical threat, with 13 million eggs harvested in between 1900 and 1930. By the 1960s, the population had been reduced to just 300,000. That number has been whittled down even further due to overfishing of the species’ favoured prey – sardines and anchovies. BirdLife South Africa is now attempting to re-established new colonies near fish-rich waters in an attempt to reconnect penguin and prey.




Emperor Penguin Aptenodytes forsteri

Threat status: NEAR THREATENED

How many are left? 595,000

Fun fact: The largest, heaviest and most famous of the penguin species, the Emperor Penguin is the only species that dares to breed during the bracing Antarctic winter, forming huddles of up to several hundred birds to shield the juveniles from temperatures that can drop as low as -60°C (-76°F)

What threats do they face? The Emperor Penguin population is pretty stable right now, but climate change projections suggest they will decline by 20-29% over the next three generations, as a decrease in sea ice thickness makes it more difficult for them to find suitable breeding areas.


King Penguin Aptenodytes patagonicus

Threat status: LEAST CONCERN

How many are left? Unknown

Fun fact: Capable of diving to depths of up to 300 meters (1,000 feet). The King Penguin manages to find food at such depths by hunting out bioluminescent (light-producing) prey such as squids and lanternfish.

What threats do they face? Rising sea surface temperatures are slowly driving this species’ range southwards, and forcing some northern colonies in the Indian Ocean to travel further for food.


Adélie Penguin Pygoscelis adeliae


Threat status: LEAST CONCERN

How many are left? 7,580,000

Fun fact: One of only two species of penguin (along with the mighty Emperor) resident on mainland Antarctica. The Adélie colony at Cape Royds, Ross Island is the southernmost bird colony in the entire world.

What threats do they face? Although Adélie numbers are actually increasing, areas of the species range that have shown to be impacted by climate change have seen numbers fall accordingly. The rise of research stations and tourism is also disturbing some breeding colonies.


Gentoo Penguin Pygoscelis papua


Threat status: LEAST CONCERN

How many are left? 774,000

Fun fact: The fastest swimmer of all the penguins, reaching underwater speeds of 36 km/h (22 mph).

What threats do they face? Egg collecting at its Falkland Islands/Las Malvinas colony has been a historical threat. Oil exploration around the islands is an ongoing concern, as is disturbances from tourism.


Chinstrap Penguin Pygoscelis antarcticus


Threat status: LEAST CONCERN

How many are left? Unknown

Fun fact: In 2004, a New York zookeeper noticed that a pair of male Chinstrap Penguins had paired up, and were trying to ‘hatch’ a rock. The keeper substituted an egg from another couple, and the two males hatched and raised the chick inside – a story immortalised in the children’s book, And Tango Makes Three.

What threats do they face? Antarctic krill comprises a large part of their diet, and overfishing by humans could be a threat in the future if left unchecked. Recent volcanic activity near large Chinstrap colonies in the South Sandwich Islands has killed an as-yet unknown number of birds – possibly enough to raise its threat status.




Magellanic Penguin Spheniscus magellanicus


Threat status: NEAR THREATENED

How many are left? Unknown

Fun fact: It is named after the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who saw the bird in 1519 as his fleet passed South America. The voyage would later become the first successful circumnavigation of the Earth, although Magellan would not live to complete the journey.

What threats do they face? In addition to climate change and becoming entangled in fishing nets, oil spills are a major cause of mortality – in the eighties and nineties, it was estimated that 20,000 birds were killed every year on the coast of Argentina. It remains an ongoing concern today, especially as further extractions are being considered in off-shore areas of Uruguay and Patagonia.


Humboldt Penguin Spheniscus humboldti


Threat status: VULNERABLE

How many are left? 32,000

Fun fact: Named after the Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who was the first (western) person to discover the species. Many other species endemic to the continent are named after him, including the Humboldt Squid and, less flatteringly, the Humboldt’s Hog-nosed Skunk.

What threats do they face? Almost a full house of threats: over-fishing, climate change, invasive species, habitat loss and exploitation are all combining to chip away at the Humboldt’s numbers.


Galapagos Penguin Spheniscus mendiculus

Threat status: ENDANGERED

How many are left? 1,200

Fun fact: Since the Galapagos archipelago straddles the equator, this is technically the only species of penguin to venture into the Northern Hemisphere – albeit only by a beak’s length.

What threats do they face? Climate change is the main one. The world’s rarest penguin is dependent on the whims of the ocean currents for its food supply. Prolonged periods of warm sea temperatures lead to famines, which in the past have led to catastrophic population crashes which take years for the species to recover from. The fear is that rising global temperatures will increase the regularity of these famines, wiping them out entirely.

All penguin images are courtesy of HBW/The Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World.