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Rockhopper Penguin

Eudyptes chrysocome

Photo: Close-up of a penguin.

Photo: Close-up of a penguin. (View larger version)

Photograph by Michel Gunther, Photolibrary

Published

Rockhopper penguins are distinguished by the irreverent crest of spiky yellow and black feathers that adorns their head.

Biologists left little ambiguity about this species’ preferred habitat when assigning its name. Rockhoppers are found bounding—rather than waddling, as most other penguins do—among the craggy, windswept shorelines of the islands north of Antarctica, from Chile to New Zealand.

These gregarious marine birds are among the world's smallest penguins, standing about 20 inches (50 centimeters) tall. They have blood-red eyes, a red-orange beak, and pink webbed feet.

During annual breeding times, rockhoppers gather in vast, noisy colonies, often numbering in the hundreds of thousands, to construct burrows in the tall tussock grasses near shore. They return to the same breeding ground, and often to the same nest, each year, and usually seek out their previous year's mate.

Both parents take turns incubating the eggs, aggressively pecking at anything, big or small, that may stray too close.

Rockhoppers ply the frigid waters of their range using strong, narrow, flipper-like wings for propulsion. They usually stick to the shallows, but are capable of diving up to 330 feet (100 meters) in pursuit of fish, crustaceans, squid, and krill.

These penguins are among the most numerous on the planet, but their population is in rapid decline. Colonies on the Falkland Islands were once the largest anywhere, but commercial overfishing, pollution, and other factors have cut the penguins' numbers by 90 percent. Breeding colonies on other islands are in trouble as well, and some estimates say rockhopper penguins have declined by more than 30 percent over the past 30 years.

They are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, and if declines continue, they are likely to be uplisted to endangered in the near future.

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