10 Places Where Penguins Live in the Wild

Group of king penguins on the beach on the Falkland Islands
Penguins outnumber people on the Falkland Islands, a remote island chain in the south Atlantic Ocean. .

Paul Grace Photography Somersham / Getty Images

Penguins are cold-adapted, flightless birds, famous for living in the frigid tundra of Antarctica. But of the 18 penguin species in the world, only two actually live on the southernmost continent. Penguins live on every continent in the Southern Hemisphere, from Australia to Africa. They can be found on the coasts of South America, as well as tiny, rocky islands far out at sea. The northernmost species, the Galápagos penguin, lives near the equator on the Galápagos Islands. A colony of Adélie penguins that nests near Cape Royds, Antarctica is the southernmost species.

From New Zealand to the island of South Georgia, here are 10 places where penguins live in the wild.

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Antarctica

A colony of emperor penguins on an ice sheet in Antarctica
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Antarctica is a land of superlatives. It's the southernmost continent, largely uninhabited, and almost entirely covered in ice. It's also the highest, driest, coldest continent, and the one with the largest penguin population, with more than five million breeding pairs. However, only two species, the emperor and Adélie penguins, make Antarctica their year-round home. Chinstrap, macaroni, and gentoo penguins, meanwhile, will spend time on the Antarctic peninsula, but breed on Antarctic and sub-Antarctic islands to the north.

Though winters in Antarctica are bitterly cold, emperor penguins breed and lay eggs on the sea ice as winter sets in. Male penguins are tasked with incubating the eggs in these harsh conditions, forgoing food for up to four months as they raise their young.

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Australia

A little penguin walks through the brush in Australia

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Though Antarctica is now considered the homeland of penguins, research published in 2020 suggests that ancient penguin ancestors actually originated in Australia and New Zealand. In modern times, only the smallest of the penguin species, the little penguin (also called the fairy penguin), still makes Australia its home. While Australia is generally known for its hot and arid climate, the southern coast has cool waters and a temperate climate that allows little penguins to thrive. They live along the coast of the mainland, but the largest populations are on outlying islands like Phillips Island, which hosts a colony of roughly 32,000.

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Argentina

Two magellanic penguins sit on a grassy coastline in front of a body of water and mountain views

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Argentina is a country in South America that occupies much of the southern portion of the continent. Here, expansive coastlines and chilly south Pacific waters support large populations of Magellanic penguins, a mid-sized species with white stripes on their heads and across their chests. A reserve on the Atlantic coast in Chubut province called Punta Tombo is home to more than 200,000 breeding pairs. Though the overall population is thought to be declining, a new colony was discovered on a remote Argentine island in 2020.

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Falkland Islands

A colony of gentoo penguins nests between tufts of grass on a beach

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The Falkland Islands are a remote archipelago in the south Atlantic Ocean, about 300 miles east of Patagonia in South America. While this chain of rugged islands with sandy beaches and cliff-lined coasts is home to only 3,500 people, it is a true capital on the penguin world. Five species — Magellanic, rockhopper, gentoo, king, and macaroni penguins — nest on the islands, with a total population of nearly one million. The islands support the largest gentoo penguin population in the world (the term "gentoo" has an odd origin story — first used by 16th century Portuguese traders to refer to indigenous inhabitants of India, and perhaps adopted as a common name for the penguins due to head markings that resemble a turban).

The birds nest up to three miles from the coast, and form “penguin highways” as they travel back and forth from the ocean to feed. While penguin populations worldwide are declining, the gentoo penguin population on the Falkland islands has increased substantially over the last 25 years.

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Galápagos Islands

Two Galápagos penguins perched on a rock with a cruise ship in the distance

Bobby Kelly / Getty Images 

The Galápagos Islands are a chain of volcanic islands off the coast of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean. A single species of penguin, the Galápagos penguin, lives here. The islands straddle the equatorial line, making these penguins the only species to live in the Northern Hemisphere. This small penguin, which reaches only 20 inches tall, is able to crawl into caves and crevices along the rocky coastline to avoid the tropical heat on land. Running from Antarctica up the western coast of South America, the Humboldt Current brings cool water and schools of fish that can sustain the penguins despite the northern latitude. With approximately 600 breeding pairs remaining in the wild, the Galápagos penguin is considered an endangered species.

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Tristan da Cunha

A penguin with yellow crests on its head sits on a rocky coastline

Brian Gratwicke / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Tristan da Cunha is a small island chain of extinct volcanoes in the south Atlantic Ocean. More than 1,000 miles separate the archipelago from South America and Africa, its closest continental neighbors, making it the most remote island chain in the world. Though the islands are small, they are important nesting sites for northern rockhopper penguins. Inaccessible Island alone, which is only five square miles in size, is home to a population of 27,000 penguins.

These numbers mark a precipitous decline since the 1950s, when some south Atlantic islands hosted populations of more than a million birds. The species is now endangered, and researchers believe the declining numbers are largely due to rising ocean temperatures and a reduction in prey.

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New Zealand

A penguin with yellow head feathers sits on a nest in a forest

Paul Grace Photography Somersham / Getty Images

Despite its reputation as a tropical destination, New Zealand is home to four species of penguins which thrive in the cold currents of the Southern Ocean — little, snares, yellow-eyed, and Fiordland crested penguins. Penguins can be found along much of the coastline on New Zealand’s South Island, as well as on smaller, outlying islands further south. The endangered yellow-eyed penguin is the largest of the penguins found in New Zealand, and also the rarest, with an estimated population of 4,000. Only the Galápagos penguin has a lower population. 

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South Africa

A colony of penguins on a white sandy beach with houses in the background

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South Africa has only recently become a habitat for penguins. For most of its history, the African penguin has been confined to living on various islands along the coastline of southern Africa, from Angola to Mozambique.  However, in 1980, two colonies were established on mainland beaches near Cape Town. Researchers have determined that these mainland colonies can now thrive because increasing human populations have driven back predators that would otherwise decimate a penguin colony. Across its entire range, however, the African penguin's population has declined rapidly since the 1920s, and the species is now considered endangered.

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Bounty and Antipodes Islands

A band of crested penguins runs across a grassy landscape

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The Bounty and Antipodes Islands are two remote island chains deep in the south Pacific Ocean. Both chains lie more than 400 miles southeast of New Zealand. These uninhabited spits of land are steep, rocky, and the sole breeding grounds of erect-crested penguins. These penguins are among the least-researched, and little is known about their migration patterns. They have been observed to arrive on the islands in September and remain there to breed and raise their young until February. Afterwards, they will return to the sea, and not be seen on land again until the following September.

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South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands

Four macaroni penguins on a rocky coastline

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South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is a steep, mountainous island chain in the south Atlantic Ocean with no permanent inhabitants. In the early 20th century, there were outposts on the islands used by whalers, which have since disappeared. In modern times, they are best known as the breeding grounds for large colonies of penguins, including macaroni, king, and chinstrap penguins. 

One of six species of crested penguins, the macaroni penguin earned its name thanks to the extended, yellow feathers above its eyes that look reminiscent of macaroni noodles. They gather in large, dense breeding colonies in excess of 100,000 birds. In total, there are more than one million breeding pairs of macaroni penguins on the islands.