Yellow-eyed penguin

This vanishing New-Zealander is the most endangered penguin species

Richard Giddins

The Yellow-eyed penguin, known by its Māori name “Hoiho” (which means “noise shouter”), holds a unique place among the world’s penguin species. Iit is distinguished not only by its rareness but also by its distinct appearance and behavior. This penguin is one of the most ancient living penguin species, with fossil records dating back to the mid-Pleistocene epoch.

The most striking feature of the Yellow-eyed penguin is its vivid yellow eyes and the band of yellow feathers that extends from each eye around the back of the head. This bright yellow contrasts with its pale, yellowish face, which is speckled with black, and its slate-grey back. The sides of its head and the base of its neck are fawn-brown, creating a unique and easily identifiable appearance among penguins.

Endemic to New Zealand, this species has two main populations: one on the South Island and the other on the subantarctic islands, including the Auckland and Campbell Islands. Genetic research has shown that the subantarctic populations are distinct from those on the South Island, indicating a need for separate conservation strategies.

Yellow-eyed penguins are not colonial like many other penguin species. They prefer solitary nesting sites that can be found in a variety of coastal environments, ranging from dense native forests to coastal scrub and even, occasionally, open pasture. Nests are often situated under dense vegetation and can be up to a kilometer inland, which offers protection from the elements and predators.

As benthic foragers, they dive to the sea floor to hunt, feeding primarily on fish and cephalopods. This foraging method is energy-intensive and requires a pristine marine environment to ensure adequate food supply.

Unfortunately, the future of the Yellow-eyed penguin is precarious. With an estimated population of around 3,400 individuals, their numbers are declining, and projections suggest they could face local extinction within the next two to four decades if current trends continue.

Distribution

Country
Population est.
Status
Year
Comments
New Zealand
3,400
Official estimate
EN
2020
Pacific ocean
2020

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Terrestrial / Aquatic

Altricial / Precocial

Polygamous / Monogamous

Dimorphic (size) / Monomorphic

Active: Diurnal / Nocturnal

Social behavior: Solitary / Pack / Herd / Colony

Diet: Carnivore / Herbivore / Omnivore / Piscivorous / Insectivore

Migratory: Yes / No

Domesticated: Yes / No

Dangerous: Yes / No

Yellow-eyed penguin on banknotes

New Zealand 5 Dollar