28 Apr 2023
COMING TOGETHER TO PROTECT THE ROYAL PENGUIN
Emily Grilly, Antarctic Conservation Manager
Can you name all 18 penguin species? We know that some penguins are more famous than others, such as the emperor or Adelie penguins that have both risen to fame with their own Disney movies. But what about the more uncommon but no less iconic species? We want to bring your attention to one of the lesser-known penguins…
On an island halfway between Australia and Antarctica, the most noble of all penguin species comes together each year. Named for the black crowns and striking yellow crests that extend from their beaks to the tops of their heads, the royal penguin (Eudyptes schlegeli) is endemic, meaning they are limited to a small regional area, to Australia’s sub-Antarctic Island territories - Macquarie Island and the nearby Bishop and Clerk Islets.
Like other penguin species, royal penguins are highly sociable animals that form large colonies for breeding. Over 850,000 breeding pairs can be found from September to March on Macquarie Island – one of the greatest congregations of seabirds in the world.1 Royal penguins that congregate here rely on the surrounding waters to forage, often feasting on krill, small fish and squid.2
During the breeding season, each pair will carve out a small hollow or nest in preparation for laying two eggs. In a somewhat ruthless parental act, the pair will often push out the smallest of the two eggs and reserve their energy to incubate the egg deemed ‘“stronger’” of the two.3
While the ethics of the royal penguin’s parenting style remains questionable, it must be considered successful. Royal penguins were heavily exploited in the late 19th century, with millions of royal, gentoo and chinstrap penguins estimated to have been harvested for oil.4 While the penguin populations at Macquarie Island mostly recovered, they have also had to overcome a century of serious threats owing to introduced species competing for vegetation as well as preying on penguin chicks. Following a successful eradication program that removed feral cats, rabbits and rodents from the island, the seabird populations are again in recovery mode.
Now a serious and even more pressing threat to the future of the royal penguin population emerges. Macquarie Island is vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. In February 2022, the hottest temperatures on record (17°C) were captured at Macquarie Island – three degrees higher than the previous record.5 As global temperatures increase, the risk of warming sub-Antarctic waters and ocean acidification increases, which could impact biodiversity in this region.
Macquarie Island is remote, over 1,500km southeast of Tasmania, with no other substantial land mass nearby, thus the marine ecosystem here is interconnected and sensitive to change – a decrease in one population could have flow-on effects to predators, such as a decrease in fish affecting penguins and seals, or a decline in penguins affecting killer whales. The royal penguin plays a crucial role in maintaining the delicate balance of its ecosystem. They serve as both predators and prey, helping to regulate the populations of other species in their habitat. Thus, their disappearance could lead to a cascading effect that could threaten the survival of other species in the ecosystem.
There is a clear opportunity to afford royal penguins additional protection. Highly protected marine reserves that limit human activities will provide a refuge for the island’s iconic species to adapt to the changing climate. A proposal to increase the size of the existing Macquarie Island Marine Park from 162,000km2 to three times its current size was announced by the Australian Government in February 2023.
WWF has welcomed this proposal for increased protection in one of the unique regions on our planet. You can help, by adding your voice to safeguard this unique and fascinating species for future generations. Please, submit your comments through this link here.
1. Kerry, K. 1999. Royal Penguins at Macquarie Island, Ver. 1, Australian Antarctic Data Centre, Accessed: 2023-04-19
2. Center for Biological Diversity. 2023. Royal Penguin, Accessed: 2023-04-19
3. Boag, P.T. 1995. Unfit Mothers? Maternal Infanticide in Royal Penguins. Animal Behaviour, 50 (5), pp. 1177–85, doi:10.1016/0003-3472(95)80034-4
4. Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water. 2012, Accessed: 2023-04-19
5. Bureau of Meteorology. 2022. Accessed: 2023-04-19