Penguins are easily one of the most popular animals on the planet! There are 18 species of penguins that live solely in the Southern Hemisphere, stretching from Antarctica north to the Galapagos Islands and South Africa. Penguins are tough - they have to be to survive their typically freezing environments - so how long do penguins live?
Given that there are 18 species of penguins, their life expectancies vary from that of the Little penguin, the smallest penguin, which lives for around six years, to the larger King and Emperor penguins, that live for more than 20 years.
Bigger does not mean better with regards to a penguin's lifespan, as several medium-sized penguins can live until they're 25 or so in the wild.
There are many cases of captive penguins living into their 30s. Still, the Guinness World Record holder, Olde (which means Great grandmother), a Gentoo penguin, celebrated her 41st birthday at Odense Zoo in Denmark in 2020 and is the oldest penguin on record.
Penguins are exceptionally tough birds, and they're pretty large, too, so their long lives come as no major surprise. However, the life expectancy of penguins is changing as 11 species are Globally Threatened as per the IUCN Red List.
Read on to learn more about the lifespan of these wonderful and emblematic birds!
Emperor Penguins live for over 20 years
All 18 species of penguins are reasonably long-lived, and some have very few natural predators.
However, penguin infant mortality rates are generally high, and as many as 90% of all chicks do not survive their first year. Those penguins who do survive generally go on to live long lives, providing they aren’t cut short by predation, illness or disease.
Here are the lifespans of the 18 species of penguins, in alphabetical order:
As we can see, many species of penguins can live for around 20 years, but these figures largely ignore the immense risk posed to young birds.
Studies have found that as many as 90% of Emperor penguin chicks die, and some 50% of Royal penguin chicks don’t survive winter. As many as 65% of Magellanic penguin chicks die each year. Both adult and young penguins are also vulnerable to mass mortality events, and these are becoming more common due to climate change.
Some 11 species of penguins are now Globally Threatened, and their futures are hanging in the balance.
Macaroni Penguins usually live for between 16 and 20 years
Captive penguins usually live longer lives than wild penguins, but the significant difference is that virtually all penguin chicks born in captivity will survive. There are many cases of captive penguins living into their early 30s, but at least two have touched the big 4-0.
An African penguin, Tess from Pueblo Zoo in Colorado, USA, died in 2015 at the age of 40. Mochica at Oregon Zoo, a Humboldt penguin, lived until she was 31, and another, Rosie, had her 30th birthday in 2020 at Sewerby Hall and Gardens - the UK’s oldest penguin.
An African Penguin lived until the age of 40 in Pueblo Zoo, Colorado
As of 4 October 2020, the longest-living penguin in the world, a Gentoo penguin at Odense Zoo in Denmark, was confirmed to be 41 years and 141 days old. Olde, which means great-grandmother in Danish, hatched at Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland, UK, on 16 May 1979. Olde lived at the Biodôme in Montreal, Canada, for 23 years before moving to Odense Zoo in 2003, where she has remained.
Olde is a remarkable penguin that has raised 16 chicks which are now spread throughout the world. She’s still in pretty good shape, though her plumage is not as watertight as it once was. As the world’s official oldest penguin, she is deservedly pampered, but apparently doesn’t enjoy the limelight!
However, there was a potential competitor to Olde, called Oma, which means granny in German. Oma, a King penguin, was collected as an egg in 1975 and ended up in Wuppertal Zoo. She may have been 46 when she died in 2020.
The oldest living penguin in the world, was a Gentoo Penguin, lived in Odense Zoo, Denmark and reached over 41 years of age
Penguin chick mortality rates are very high, sometimes even exceeding 95%. Young penguins are exceptionally vulnerable during their first year as they tend to grow slowly. Predation by petrels and skuas is a major cause of death, but starvation due to dwindling food supplies and changes to Antarctic ice is a growing cause of catastrophic mortality events.
In 2017, all but two Adelie penguin chicks died in their east Antarctic colony and in 2019, ice movement led to the deaths of thousands of Emperor penguin chicks. Many penguins live in borderline-inhospitable environments, but the impacts of human-caused climate change on penguins and other marine life are reaching a crisis point.
As adults, penguins still face threats from seals, Orca, sea lions, foxes and sharks. Penguins that live further north, such as African penguins and Little penguins, face more threats than those that live further south, which is partly why they have lesser lifespans.
Adelie Penguins usually live for between 12 and 16 years
Penguins have pretty long and complex life cycles. All species of penguins lay a maximum of three eggs, but many, like the Emperor penguin, lay just one.
In the case of Emperors, the eggs are incubated for an astonishing 65 to 75 days. The African penguin, which lives much further north, incubates its eggs for around 38 to 42 days, which is still a long time.
Penguin chicks grow slowly, often taking around three years to reach sexual maturity. Some species won’t look for a mate until they’re about five years of age.
Most species of penguins are not exposed to a huge array of predators, but what predators they do face are generally large and fierce. Orca, sea lions, seals and sharks are common predators for many Antarctic and Sub-Antarctic species of penguins.
On land, some species of penguins face threats from foxes, stoats and possums. This is a particular issue in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, where penguins face more land threats than they do in the far south.
Avian predators include carnivorous petrels and skuas, which prey on penguin chicks. Penguins do also kill other penguin chicks, usually accidentally but sometimes on purpose due to resource competition or territorial behaviour.
King Penguin attacking a Fur Seal
Many species of penguins are excellent at surviving without food. For example, male Emperor penguins can fast for around 115 days whilst they incubate a single egg. Royal penguins fast for around 1.5 to 2 months per year. To make up for fasting periods, penguins spend most other opportunities feeding and can spend nearly all their waking day hunting in the water.
Penguins can certainly freeze to death. Penguin chicks are particularly vulnerable to the cold, which is why some species, such as the Emperors, have protective brood pouches. The chicks take refuge in this pouch - venturing outside for too long would kill them.
Even adult penguins can freeze to death, which is why Emperors engage in huddling to keep themselves warm during torrid conditions. Moreover, if penguin colonies get flooded or waterlogged, then penguins can struggle to stay warm as the water freezes.
A group of Emperor Penguins huddling together
Killed, no, but attacked, yes! Penguins are territorial birds and some are known to engage in vicious, bloody fights. If humans come too close to penguins during the breeding season (which is highly dissuadable in most situations), the penguins may well attack. Penguin beaks are long, strong and sharp and they’d easily puncture human skin. However, there is no documented account of penguins killing humans (yet)!
Adelie penguins are quite long-lived for one of the smaller species and usually live for 12 to 16 years on average. However, some have lived for as long as 20 years.
Rockhoppers live for around 8 to 12 years. This is lower than average amongst other species of penguins.
Close up of a Rockhopper Penguin
Royal penguins have a fairly long lifespan of 16 to 20 years, with some living until they’re around 25.
Little penguins, also known as Fairy penguins, live until they’re around 6. They are the least long-lived penguin species.
King penguins have long lives spanning some 20 to 26 years or so. The oldest King penguin, Oma, may have lived until she was 46 years old.
Do you have a question about this topic that we haven't answered? Submit it below, and one of our experts will answer as soon as they can.
Get the latest BirdFacts delivered straight to your inbox
© 2022 - Bird Fact. All rights reserved. No part of this site may be reproduced without our written permission.