King Penguins vs. Emperor Penguins: What Are The Differences?

King penguins and Emperor penguins are two of the most well-known and prominent species of penguins. They are also two very indistinguishable penguins, sharing a lot of the characteristics, colors, patterns, and even sizes to some extent. They’re both semiaquatic and flightless birds that might look like the same animal at a single glance. They both belong to the same genus of penguins called Aptenodytes and are very closely related. However, they’re two different species of the seabird and have many major differences in their autonomies, diets, breeding grounds and seasons, and even sizes.

In this article, we’ll briefly go over the major distinctions between a King penguin and an Emperor penguin. In case you are ever at a sanctuary or conservation center, you will be able to tell them apart with ease. Let’s dive in…


The first and foremost difference between the two species is in their respective sizes. The Emperor penguin, as the name suggests, is taller and heavier than the King penguin. Emperor penguins at their largest can weigh up to 100 pounds and grow up to 50 inches tall. They’re not only heavier than the King penguins, but they’re also the tallest and heaviest among all kinds of penguins.

On the other hand, King penguins, only weigh up to 35 pounds and grow up to 35 inches tall. However, they’re both larger birds than most people imagine in most cases. One simple way to remember this fact is that Emperors usually hold sway over larger areas than Kings, so the names of the birds reflect that as well.

Breeding Grounds and Seasons

Another key difference between the species is the difference in their breeding grounds and seasons, and the geographical distribution of the two species. Despite living in the Southern Hemisphere, King penguins primarily live on sub-Antarctic islands like those found off the southern coast of New Zealand. This is where they live and breed. If there’s a picture of a penguin on land that doesn’t have any snow, then they are likely pictures of King penguins.

On the contrary, Emperor penguins live and breed on the continent and mainland of Antarctica. During their breeding season, they move out to the icy watery area along the exterior of Antarctica. However, they can live slightly inland on the continent too. They do not often share the same habitat as one another.

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The Emperor penguin’s breeding season starts in March and lasts until April. It is also the only penguin species that breeds during the Antarctic winter – trekking 100-120 km over the ice to breeding colonies which can contain up to several thousand individuals. The breeding season of the King penguin lasts from October until December. Both of the birds lay a single egg, which is incubated for a period of two months. The Emperor penguin’s egg is incubated only by the male while the King penguin’s males and females share incubation in shifts of 6-18 days each. Both species balance the egg on their feet and incubate it in a ‘brood pouch’. 

Adult Emperor Penguin with outstretched wings with chick at feet

As mentioned before, these birds reproduce and live in different areas of the world. King penguins reproduce on sub-Antarctic islands and Emperor penguins reproduce on the outlying areas of Antarctica itself. 


The King penguin has stronger and more intense colors on its body than the Emperor penguin. The most distinguishable area where we can spot the difference between these birds is on their faces. King penguins have very flashy and intense orange patterns over their ears. These patterns are spoon-shaped and they follow down into the chest area where they remain orange. Juvenile King penguins or newly hatched chicks are mostly brown in color.

On the other hand, Emperor penguins have a less intense orange color on their heads that changes into yellow on their upper chest before fading entirely in their white feathers. Their newly hatched chicks are ashy white except for their black heads, beaks, and eyes. Emperor penguins are less flamboyant in color than King penguins and have a rather muted appearance. 


Both seabirds have curved beaks that are long and narrow – perfect for capturing and eating their prey, which is mostly fish and krill. However, Emperor penguins’ beaks are more curved than the King penguins’. The curve on the King penguin’s beak tapers away on the bottom of the beak until it is nearly flat, while the Emperor’s beak curves down the entire length including the bottom portion. The King penguin has a long black bill, which is about 10-11 centimeters long while the length of an adult Emperor penguin’s beak is around 8 centimeters.

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Despite having beaks roughly the same size as one another, King penguins have a bright orange stripe on their beaks while Emperor penguins have a pink, light orange, or lilac stripe on their beak. The stripe on the Emperor penguin’s beak is also much thinner and lighter in most cases. 


Since both these species of penguin live in separate areas geographically, their diets differ as well. King penguins feed mostly on lanternfish and sometimes squid – which is easily available on the sub-Antarctic islands. 

Emperor penguins, that live in mainland Antarctica, mostly eat Antarctic silverfish and other fish species along with krill and squid. 

Nesting Habits

King penguins nest directly on the ground in small colonies that make up to 500 nests per hectare and are found in large rookeries at very high densities. On the other hand, emperor penguins choose solid ice floes as their breeding habitat and form large colonies that consist of up to 10,000 birds. 

King Penguins in Fortuna Bay South Georgia


King penguins and Emperor penguins are two of the most magnificent species of penguins. They’re the largest of all kinds of penguins with Kings being the second largest penguins in the world. Both of them are very closely related species that were split from a common ancestor about 30 million years ago. They’re both also the bulkiest and heaviest of all penguin species and can dive into the sea deeper than any other bird, including other penguins. They can dive deeper than 100 meters into the ocean, and have been recorded at depths greater than 300 meters. 

King penguins and Emperor penguins have very similar appearances, but when you stop and examine these creatures, it becomes apparent that they have noticeable differences. Their colors, beaks, sizes, and other differences we’ve listed are all simple ways to distinguish these creatures from one another.

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Nadine Oraby

My name is Nadine; I am a passionate writer and a pet lover. People usually call me by the nickname “Joy” because they think that I am a positive and joyful person who is a child at heart. My love for animals triggered me to create this blog. Articles are written by vets, pet experts, and me. Thanks for visiting. Your friend, Nadine!

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