Antarctic curiosity: How do penguins get their names

May 4, 2020 Doug O'Neill

Sometimes the origins of a bird’s name is abundantly clear: red-headed woodpecker, blue jay, snow petrel. Such is the case with some penguins—but not all. For instance, it’s fairly obvious how New Zealand’s Yellow-Eyed penguin earned its moniker—it has the yellowest of eyes—but not so with some of the more popular penguins found in Antarctica.


Macaroni penguins strut their stuff with their attention-getting crest of yellow-orange feathers. Photo: David Merron 

The Macaroni penguin stands out in a crowd. Its large, reddish-orange bill, black face and chin, and conspicuous crest of yellow-orange feathers—in contrast with its black head—could suggest it’s a bit of a show-off. British explorers, upon first sighting this colorful flightless bird, were reminded of a flashy style of dress favored by gentlemen in 18th-century England called Maccaronism, which was synonymous with excessive ornamentation. Historians report that young men who adorned their hats with colorful feathers were called Macaroni—a dandy if you will. In other words, someone who welcomed attention. And Macaroni penguins certainly attract attention.


French explorer Jules Dumont d'Urville named Adélie penguins after his wife, Adèle.  Despite its small stature,  
 Adélie penguins are known for being feisty. Photo: David Merron 

Adélie penguins are common along the entire coast of the Antarctic continent, which is the bird’s only habitat. It’s the most widely spread penguin species. French Antarctic explorer Jules Dumont d'Urville whose team originally recorded the Adélie penguins, decided to name the species after his wife,  Adèle. 

The Adélie, recognized by its signature tuxedo look—of black back and head, white chest and belly, and white rings around the eyes—is the smallest penguin species in the Antarctic. But visitors shouldn’t be be fooled. These penguins are feisty. They’ve been known to attack visiting scientists with their flippers.  Curiously, the scientific name for the Adélie penguin is Pygoscelis adeliae. One wonders of Madame d’Urville was wise to the fact that the genus Pygoscelis means “rump-legged.”


A Magellanic penguin seemingly poses for a photographer in the Antarctic. Photo by Acacia Johnson.

The Magellanic penguin, which is a South American penguin that breeds in coastal Patagonia and the Falkland Islands, is known for its black body and white belly, which provides protection while in the water. When viewed from above, a penguin’s black back blends into the dark ocean, keeping it safe from predators in the sky above. And from below, its white stomach is camouflaged by the light from the sky. The Magellanic penguins are named after Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan who, along with his crew, first spotted the species in 1520.


This close-up of a Chinstrap penguin shows the black band of feathers which looks, of course,
like a chinstrap designed to hold its helmet in place. Photo by Sam Edmonds.

The Chinstrap penguin, which can be found in the Southern Pacific and the Antarctic Oceans, derived its name from the narrow black band of dark feathers under its head. At first glance, it looks like the Chinstrap penguin is wearing a black helmet that’s held tight by a perfectly positioned neck band. Chinstraps are among those penguin species who are seasoned kleptomaniacs, frequently stealing nesting materials from neighboring penguins.


Emperor penguins on the march on Snow Hill Island, Antartica. Photo: David Merron 

Emperor penguins, endemic to Antarctica, live up to their name: they’re the largest, most well-dressed and reportedly the boldest of all penguin species. And, in keeping with the stature (real or imagined) of most emperors, this species towers over all others, sometimes reaching four feet in height and occasionally weighing in at 100 pounds. Emperor penguins are also hardy creatures—they’re the only members of the penguin family to breed on the Antarctic sea ice during winter.  Along with the expected penguin tuxedo, Emperors are also graced with bright yellow-and-orange plumage along their heads, necks and chests. A regal creature for sure.



About the Author

Doug O'Neill

A love of nature and writing has enabled Doug O'Neill to visit almost 50 countries around the world—and to immerse himself in some of the most incredible nature settings. Doug's role as Brand Copywriter at Quark Expeditions has been a natural step on a journey that started with a degree in Environmental Studies and later a Certificate in Journalism. When not travelling, Doug is usually hiking: he's a certified hike leader with Hike Ontario and the Bruce Trail Conservancy. He's the co-author of a nature book, “110 Nature Hot Spots in Manitoba and Saskatchewan,” published by Firefly Books in 2019. Says Doug: "Few destinations rival the Polar Regions—not just for the staggering beauty and incredible wildlife, but for the transformative experiences that occur the moment you set foot in the most remote parts of the world."

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