While they are often almost exclusively associated with the icy polar reaches of Antarctica, penguin colonies actually inhabit a diverse range of countries, continents and habitats. Although most live in the Southern Hemisphere, one unique species resides in the tropical Galapagos Islands, just north of the equator.
In general, the flightless aquatic birds congregate on isolated isles or along secluded shores where they can easily catch fish, krill and squid. As they spend up to half their lives in water, penguins are very agile swimmers with their flippers both propelling them after prey and away from predators.
While all penguins are countershaded black and white, the seventeen species vary in size with the largest – the majestic emperor penguin – towering to over a meter. In contrast, the tiny blue penguin reaches just thirty centimeters in height.
What Is the Average Lifespan of a Penguin?
In the wild, penguin lifespans range from 6 to 25 years depending on their species and the particular aquatic ecosystem they inhabit. On average, however, penguins usually live to between 15 and 20 years.
While the little blue penguins of Australia and New Zealand only live up to the age of six, Magellanic and African penguins can reach the ripe old age of 25.
Penguin Lifespan in Captivity
In captivity, many penguins enjoy longer lifespans than they would in the wild. This is because they don’t have to search for food or fend off predators and are provided with the best medical care.
In aquariums and zoos around the world, various species of penguin have been known to reach the age of 30 with the mortality rate of chicks also being much reduced in captivity. On rare occasions, some even live to over 40 with the oldest ever, Oma, having died at 46.
The Life Cycle of a Penguin
While most species breed from spring through to summer, some such as the little blue penguin nest throughout the year with emperor penguins only breeding during the freezing Antarctic winters. The penguins normally breed in large colonies with couples forming monogamous pairs.
Most females usually lay two eggs in a clutch, although the larger emperor and king penguins only lay one. Almost all of them only lay one brood in a season with both males and females sharing the incubation duties.
While one parent guards and keeps the egg warm for days or even weeks at a time, the other will be off fishing for krill, squid and fish; their main food sources. The incubation period lasts between one or two months, depending on the species.
After the chick hatches, parents regurgitate food for them with partially grown chicks often coming together in creches. Around the age of one they attain their adult plumage, generally reaching sexual maturity between three and eight.
Probable Causes of Deaths
Due to a variety of different threats, most penguin populations around the world have unfortunately been in steep decline in recent decades. While they have adapted to live in difficult conditions, both human activity and habitat loss, as well as climate change, mean some species now face extinction.
While young chicks already face a struggle to survive and a high mortality rate due to starvation, irresponsible overfishing has only increased the burden on the beautiful birds. Both penguin hunting and egg and guano harvesting were also huge problems in the past.
Penguins are also threatened by plastic pollution and oil spills while invasive species introduced to their islands can wreak havoc on their colonies. Other than non-indigenous dogs, cats and rats, they have to watch out for predators, such as sharks, orcas and leopard seals when they take to the water.
Climate change is also a huge threat and cause of death to penguins as the increasing temperatures and changing water currents disrupt their food sources and breeding seasons.
Oldest Known Penguins
Oma – Appropriately meaning ‘Grandma’ in English, Oma reached the impressive age of 46 when she finally passed away in 2020. Since 1975, she had entertained people and educated them about penguins in Germany’s Wuppertal Zoo.
Olde – Outdoing Oma in name but not age is Odense Zoo’s ‘Great-Grandmother’ – 41-year-old Olde. Over the decades, the current Guinness World Record holder also lived in Scotland and Canada and surpassed a gentoo’s natural lifespan in the wild by several decades.
ET – The oldest African penguin ever recorded, ET turned 41 in January of 2021. One of the Metro Richmond Zoo’s favorite residents, she lived about double the lifespan of an African penguin in the wild.