The gentoo penguin is one of three species in the genus Pygoscelis. Mitochondrial and nuclear DNA evidence suggests the genus split from other penguins around 38 million years ago, about 2 million years after the ancestors of the genus Aptenodytes. In turn, the Adelie penguins split off from the other members of the genus around 19 million years ago, and the chinstrap and gentoo finally diverging around 14 million years ago.
The gentoo penguin is easily recognized by the wide white stripe extending like a bonnet across the top of its head and its bright orange-red bill. They have pale whitish-pink webbed feet and a fairly long tail – the most prominent tail of all penguins. Chicks have grey backs with white fronts. As the gentoo penguin waddles along on land, its tail sticks out behind, sweeping from side to side, hence the scientific name Pygoscelis, which means "rump-tailed".
Gentoos reach a height of 51 to 90 cm (20 to 35 in), making them the third largest species of penguin after the two giant species, the emperor penguin and the king penguin. Males have a maximum weight of about 8.5 kg (19 lb) just before molting, and a minimum weight of about 4.9 kg (11 lb) just before mating. For females the maximum weight is 8.2 kg (18 lb) just before molting, but their weight drops to as little as 4.5 kg (9.9 lb) when guarding the chicks in the nest. Birds from the north are on average 700 g (1.5 lb) heavier and 10 cm (3.9 in) taller than the southern birds. Southern gentoo penguins reach 75–80 cm (30–31 in) in length. They are the fastest underwater swimming penguins, reaching speeds of 36 km/h (22 mph).
Gentoos are adapted to very harsh cold climates.
The breeding colonies of gentoo penguins are located on ice-free surface. Colonies can be directly on the shoreline or can be located considerably inland. They prefer shallow coastal areas and often nest between tufts of grass. In South Georgia, for example, breeding colonies are two kilometres inland. Whereas in colonies farther inland, where the penguins nest between tufts of grass, they shift location slightly every year because the grass may get trampled over time.
Gentoos breed on many sub-Antarctic islands. The main colonies are on the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Kerguelen Islands; smaller populations are found on Macquarie Island, Heard Islands, South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. The total breeding population is estimated to be over 300,000 pairs. Nests are usually made from a roughly circular pile of stones and can be quite large, 20 cm (7.9 in) high and 25 cm (9.8 in) in diameter. The stones are jealously guarded and their ownership can be the subject of noisy disputes between individual penguins. They are also prized by the females, even to the point that a male penguin can obtain the favors of a female by offering her a nice stone.
Two eggs are laid, both weighing around 130 g (4.6 oz). The parents share incubation, changing duty daily. The eggs hatch after 34 to 36 days. The chicks remain in the nests for about 30 days before forming creches. The chicks molt into sub-adult plumage and go out to sea at about 80 to 100 days.
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