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Magellanic Penguin

Spheniscus magellanicus [sfen' is kuhs maj eh lan' ik uhs] This penguin is named after explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who spotted the birds in 1520.


This penguin is most easily identified by the white bands which loop over the eye, down the side of the neck and meet at the throat. A thick black band also runs adjacent to the border of the breast and belly, extending down the flanks to the thighs

.Magellanic Penguin

A medium-sized penguin, the Magellanic stands 24-28 inches tall and weighs 8-13 pounds.

Distribution and Habitat

The Magellanic penguin breeds around the southern tip of South America, from 40S in Argentina to 37S in Chile, as well as on the Falkland Islands. The largest colonies are found on the Atlantic side of South America. Most individual birds follow oceanic currents northward into more tropical latitudes during the winter, but vagrants have been recorded as far away as South Georgia, on the Antarctic Peninsula, Australia, and New Zealand.

During the breeding season, Magellanic penguins nest on shoreline grassland habitats that provide adequate, shrubby vegetative cover, but are always near the ocean so parents can easily forage. This species may also nest within burrows on cliff faces. When not breeding, they spend nearly all of their time in the waters off the coast.


The Magellanic penguin's diet consists primarily of fish, mainly anchovies and sardines, supplemented by cephalopods and crustaceans. They can swim at speeds of up to 15 miles per hour and dive more than 250 feet beneath the surface when pursuing prey.


Magellanic penguins arrive at their breeding grounds in September. If not already paired, the male makes a loud braying call to advertise for a mate. This is followed by walking in a circle around an interested female, and finally engaging in flipper patting, in which the male's flippers are vigorously vibrated against the female's body. Once formed, breeding pairs tend to stay together for life. Although there may be as many as 400,000 birds in one breeding colony, breeding pairs try to maintain some distance between themselves and neighbors.

The preferred nest is a burrow dug into soft soil, but if digging is not possible a shallow scrape on sheltered ground will suffice. Breeding pairs have been known to reuse the same burrow for several consecutive years, repairing as necessary each season. Two equally sized eggs are laid 4 days apart in mid-October. Incubation takes around 40 days, with the female incubating the eggs for the first shift, while the male feeds at sea. He forages at distances of up to 300 miles away from the breeding site before returning to relieve the female some 15 or 20 days later. She then goes to sea for a similar period, and when she returns the two birds change over at regular intervals until the eggs hatch.

Both parents continue to brood the chicks in turn on a daily basis, for a period of about 30 days. Chicks are fed daily, with adults leaving the colony in early morning, and returning with food later the same day. Magellanic penguins mostly forage within 20 miles of the nest site during chick-rearing, except in the Falklands where longer foraging trips are forced by conflict with commercial fishing. After the first month, the parents leave the young unattended and only return to feed them every one to three days. The chicks will conrinue to be fed by their parents until fledging at about 60-70 days.

Sexual maturity is reached at about 4 years, and Magellanic penguins can live up to 30 years in the wild.

Other Information

Like other penguins, Magellanics have tightly packed feathers and fat to keep them insulated from the cold, but these penguins are also adapted to warm temperatures. To cool off during the heat of the South American summer, they shed feathers around their bill. When they get too hot, they can pant like dogs and stand with their flippers extended to catch a breeze.

These noisy, charismatic sea birds bray like donkeys, and the males' loud calls to attract females can be heard up and down the coast.

The Magellanic penguin is listed as near threatened due primarily to competition from commercial fishing. Individual populations are currently stable, however, and its total numbers appear to be good.

Scientific Classification

phylum Chordata
subphylum Vertebrata
class Aves
order Sphenisciformes
family Spheniscidae
genus & species Spheniscus magellanicus

Animal Diversity Web
Penguin World
Wildlife Conservation Society

Ferdinand Magellan

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The Robinson Library >> Science >> Zoology >> Birds >> Order Sphenisciformes

This page was last updated on April 10, 2018.