Story: Penguins

On certain stretches of New Zealand’s coastline you may see a road sign saying, ‘Caution: penguins crossing’. These endearing creatures are valued residents in the country with the world’s most diverse penguin population.

Story by Lloyd Spencer Davis
Main image: Snares crested penguins

Story summary

All images & media in this story

New Zealand has six breeding species of penguin, and three more in the part of Antarctica New Zealand administers. Scientists have found bones of penguin ancestors dating back 55 million years. All penguins are protected by law, and five species are endangered. Penguin-watchers visit Ōamaru, Otago Peninsula and Fiordland.

From flyers …

Penguins evolved from birds that could fly. Many other seabirds can fly as well as dive, but it is difficult to be good at both. The ancestors of today's penguins became better at diving and lost the ability to fly. This means that they can reach a bigger range of food from deep in the sea.

… to divers

As the ancestors of penguins evolved into swimmers and divers, they developed special features:

  • shorter, powerful wings for flippers
  • large, heavy body for deep diving
  • insulating feathers to keep them warm
  • streamlined shape for fast swimming.

Smaller penguins dive 10–20 metres underwater, and the amazing emperor penguin can dive 100–200 metres looking for fish, krill or squid. But penguins can’t travel as far or as fast as many seabirds that can fly.

Life on land

Penguins can live for many weeks at sea, but some species come ashore every day or so. They also moult and breed on land. When they are nesting in the soil or among rocks, they can go without food for days or weeks.

Little penguin

Only 40 centimetres in length, these cute penguins come ashore at night. They nest all around the coast in burrows or caves, and lay two eggs each year.

Yellow-eyed penguin

This species has yellow eyes and a headband of yellow feathers, and breeds on subantarctic islands and in the South Island. Nesting in forests, these rare penguins are endangered by human activities such as farming and fishing.

The crested penguins

There are several species, which all have straggly yellow ‘eyebrows’. They lay two eggs, but only one chick is reared – no one is certain why. In Fiordland they nest in rainforest.

New Zealand’s Antarctic penguins

Penguins breeding in Antarctica include the Adélie penguin and the largest of all, the emperor penguin. Emperors breed on sea ice in the middle of winter, and the males stay to incubate their egg on their feet, going without food for four months.

How to cite this page:

Lloyd Spencer Davis, 'Penguins', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 June 2024)

Story by Lloyd Spencer Davis, published 12 June 2006, reviewed & revised 11 July 2016