Penguins are a group of aquatic flightless birds that almost exclusively inhabit the Southern Hemisphere with just one species being found on the Galapagos islands, north of the equator. They belong to the family Sphenisidae and there are over eighteen species and six genera of penguins. Most live in the Arctic, Antarctic, or sub-Antarctic.
They’re most famous for their cute attributes and waddling walk, but they’re also just as fascinating to learn about. From one-foot-tall blue penguins, the smallest of all penguins, to Gentoo penguins, which can reach speeds of 22 miles per hour in the sea, there’s a penguin to love for everyone. This brings us to the question: how long does a penguin live? With 17-20 different species of penguins, all of which have distinctive characteristics, answering the question “how long do penguins live?” is far from straightforward.
In this article, we’ll be covering the average penguin’s lifespan, lifecycle, what factors affect their lifespan in the wild, and some other interesting facts about these seabirds.
How Long Does A Penguin Live?
The lifespan of a penguin varies depending on the species. Magellanic penguins can live up to 30 years of age – the longest lifespan of any penguin around the world. However, little blue penguins have the shortest lifespan of just up to six years. The two largest species of penguin are Emperor and King penguins, respectively. They both have an average lifespan of 20-30 years in the wild.
However, there are other important factors that can affect the length of time that a penguin lives. Like all other animals, penguins are known to live much longer in captivity as they are protected from their natural predators and have a reliable source of food. Penguin chicks are also more likely to make it into adulthood as a result of the protection from external threats that captivity provides. In comparison to wild penguins, captive penguins have an average life span of 25-40 years.
Fun fact: The world’s oldest penguin is an African penguin who just celebrated her 43rd birthday this January!
Emperor Penguin Lifespan
The Emperor penguin is the tallest and heaviest of all living penguin species and is endemic to Antarctica. It can reach up to 100 cm in length and weigh up to 45 kg (99 lbs). The feathers on its head and back are black and sharply delineated from the white belly, pale yellow breast, and bright yellow ear patches.
The Emperor penguin’s lifespan is typically 20 years in the wild, although observations suggest that some individuals may live up to 50 years of age. However, research suggests that only 1% of penguins reach such an age. This is nevertheless the oldest age ever reported of a penguin. Emperor penguins in captivity have a lifespan of 20 to 40 years.
How Long Do King Penguins Live?
The King penguin is the second largest species of penguin and is somewhat similar in appearance to the Emperor penguin. There are two subspecies of this penguin: A. p. patagonicus and A. p. halli; patagonicus is found in the South Atlantic and halli in the South Indian Ocean.
King Penguins have a maximum lifespan of 26 years in the wild. In captivity, however, they can reach up to 41 years of age.
The Penguin Lifecycle
Similar to other birds, penguins have five life stages too. The five life stages of a penguin are the stages of being an egg, hatchling, chick, juvenile, and adult.
During the breeding season, penguins establish monogamous partnerships. The majority of penguins lay two eggs in a clutch but the two biggest species, the Emperor and King penguins lay only one. Eggs are incubated for one and a half to two months depending on the species before they hatch.
Hatchlings are penguins that have just hatched, whereas chicks are slightly older and bigger. The hatchlings are usually hairless and need to be fed and raised by their parents for up to three months. They shed their down feathers at this age and can now swim and forage while the parent continues to provide nourishment.
Juvies are young adults that can be grey or silver in color depending on the species. They have certain penguin abilities by this age, like foraging and swimming, but they are still learning how to survive on their own. It can take up to 12-13 months for juveniles to grow waterproof feathers and develop the ability to seek food on their own.
The adult plumage on a penguin develops after almost a year. In every species, the chicks are distinguished from adults through their colors and patterns. Individuals that have replaced their juvenile down with waterproof feathers are considered independent adults.
Factors That Affect The Penguin Lifespan In The Wild
There are many important factors that affect the lifespan of penguins in the wild. They are vulnerable to many external issues that they cannot control – many of which are caused by humans. Some of these include:
Overfishing has become a major obstacle for many penguin species to thrive. The overfishing of anchoveta, the Humboldt penguin’s major food source, has contributed to a decline in the population of the species. Krill is now also harvested commercially, mostly for human nutritional supplements and farmed feed. The expansion of the krill harvest in the Southern Ocean has lowered krill numbers and created nutritional stress on krill-eating penguins such as the Adelies and Emperor Penguin.
Penguins are usually preyed on by leopard seals, fur seals, sea lions, sharks, or even killer whales when swimming. Foxes, snakes, feral dogs, cats, and stoats feed on penguin eggs and chicks on the shore. Predatory seabirds such as Antarctic skuas, giant petrels, and sheathbills prey on penguin eggs and chicks too.
The impact of humans on the planet, particularly through climate change, is responsible for changing the lifespans of penguins over the years. Given the range of ocean habitats in which different species live, the actual impact of climate change on penguins varies significantly. However, those found in the Antarctic Peninsula, such as the Emperor penguin, are most at risk.
A rapid increase in temperatures is leading to a reduction in sea ice in Antarctica, the penguin’s habitat and breeding grounds. It is also causing diminished food availability and early mortality rates for chicks not yet prepared to swim in the ocean. Chicks are pushed into the sea before they can live on their own. Thinner sea ice in Pt. Geologie has caused a colony of penguins to decline from 6000 breeding pairs in the 1970s to 3000 breeding pairs in 1998. As a result, the average penguin’s lifespan is in the process of changing at an alarming rate.