Marine Biology
King penguins at the Newport Aquarium

Courtship and Breeding Cycle of King Penguins



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King penguins at the Newport Aquarium
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"Courtship and Breeding Cycle of King Penguins"
Caption: King penguins at the Newport Aquarium
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Image by: Linda S. Watts
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King penguins are unique when it comes to their courtship and breeding cycle compared to other penguin species. Most king penguins take three to eight years to reach sexual maturity and they also have the longest breeding cycle of any penguin species on the planet. In fact, the king penguin breeding cycle typically lasts fourteen to sixteen months.

They also have to molt before breeding can begin. This is to ensure that old, damaged plumes are discarded so that new plumes can renew the watertight features of the king penguin which shield them from not only the cold waters but the frigid environment as well.

King penguins actually breed in subantarctic islands or small Antarctic islands. There are a few features king penguins consider when choosing a breeding ground. One of which is an area free from snow and ice. They also prefer to have a place that is close to the water. The land is typically a valley or a slope on one of the islands of their liking.

Many penguin species are considered monogamous. The king penguin is one of a few species who may have more than one partner in a life time. It is common for female king penguins to have one to three partners in one breeding season. Male king penguins tend to have only one mate and at the most maybe two females in one breeding season. Mate selection is up to the female. In many species around the world, many times it is the males fighting for the females. In the king penguin world, the females are the ones who compete for the males.

Despite the fact that mate selection is female choice, the males do display a short courtship behavior to get the attention of the female penguins. Male king penguins will raise their flippers and point their beaks toward the sky in an ecstatic way to catch the eye of one or several females. If a female shows interest, she will stand face to face with the male. Both of them vigorously shake their heads. After this occurs, the male will strut around swinging his head from side to side. Many people refer to this as “the advertising walk” of the male king penguin. After this victorious walk, both the male and female face each other again in a sort of dance by shaking their heads while stretching up and bending down in sync with each other. They will also become vocal as well as clapping their bills together.

When it is time for the couple to begin reproduction, the male will wrap his neck around the female and push her to the ground gently. Once she has laid down, the male king penguin steadies himself by standing on her lower back.

Many penguin species have a nest, also known as a clutch. Not the king penguin though. They typically lay one egg every three breeding seasons. They also incubate the egg between the tops of their feet and a brood patch for fifty-five days. The brood patch is loose abdominal skin that has no feathers. The brood patch has many blood vessels that will become engorged with blood to be able to transfer heat to the egg and keep it warm during the fifty-five days.

Whereas other penguin species may be found huddled together, the king penguin is way to territorial for that. During breeding season, they will be scattered at least a pecking distance apart. For any penguins who dare to walk through the group of soon to be penguin parents, they can expect to be pecked, pushed, and even slapped by a flipper.

A king penguin egg is typically pear-shaped compared to the round shape of other penguin species. The egg color can range from white to a bluish color, or even a greenish color.

Once the king penguin chick has hatched, it will stay on the parents feet for about eight weeks. Eventually the chick will join with other chicks in group. However, they still prefer their space like most adult king penguins. Chicks in other penguin species such as the Emperor penguin prefer to huddle together, but this isn’t the case with king penguins.

When the king penguin chick is old enough to join the rest of the chicks, they will no longer have the protection of their parents. Their parents will continue to feed them for a bit longer, but aside from food the king penguin chick is on its own. You might wonder how the parents find their young in a crowd of other king penguin chicks. They can recognize their parents call and the parents recognize the sound of their chick.

King penguin chicks and juvenile look much different than their parents. They are covered in fluffy brown plumage. When they are reaching sexual maturity they will molt all of the fluffy brown plumage to reveal the black, white and yellow prestigious feathers of an adult king penguin. Then the courtship and breeding cycle of the king penguin starts again to preserve future generations.

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