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Shedd Aquarium is home to more than 40 raucous, robust, riveting penguins in the Polar Play Zone habitat on the lower level of the Abbott Oceanarium.

Two species inhabit the re-created rocky shoreline habitat that serves both well: the rockhoppers (Eudyptes chrysocome), which are native to subantarctic islands in the South Atlantic, Indian and South Pacific Oceans, and the larger Magellanics (Spheniscus magellanicus), found along the rugged coasts of southern South America.

Rockhopper penguins have short stumpy legs but can jump from rock to rock on shore quite easily.
Two rockhopper penguins sit together, shwon from the chest up. One has its head tucked into its stout body, the other has its beak lifted and is peering at the camera.

Rockhopper Penguins

Shedd has had rockhopper penguins since the Oceanarium opened in 1991. In fact, two of the original birds are still here: Wellington and Magdalena. In their mid-30s, they are among the most senior penguins in U.S. zoos and aquariums, benefiting from lifelong excellent care and advances in veterinary geriatric medicine.

Rockhoppers were named for their unique mode of locomotion. Unlike other penguin species, these 1½-foot-tall birds hop — almost bounce — from place to place, a useful adaptation to the rocky terrain of their windswept islands.

Rockhoppers are also rock nesters. Each March, before breeding season, our animal care experts place a big pile of small river rocks and other nesting materials such as lavender sprigs in the center of the penguin habitat.

A rockhopper penguin, distinguished by its yellow crested feathers, holds nest materials in its beak for nesting and mating season.

The males scramble for the choicest rocks with which to build their nests. A carefully arranged circle of stones keeps a pair’s egg from rolling off a nesting ledge during the 32- to 34-day incubation period. A nice nest will attract, or reinforce the pair bond with, a female. Hauling the rocks one by one in their beaks, the males are not above stealing better-looking building materials from their neighbors.

Rockhoppers also use their distinctive crest feathers in mating displays, shaking their heads rapidly to make the long, chrome yellow feathers whirl.

Shedd’s first successful rockhopper hatching was in 1995. Since then we’ve welcomed more than a dozen chicks, most recently a female chick in 2023, the offspring of mated pair Edward and Annie.

It’s not unusual for caregivers to move an egg from its biological parents to an experienced foster pair to improve hatching success. Indeed, it’s a standard practice if a pair lays two fertile eggs to place one with another proven pair so that each chick will get one-on-one parental care.

A magellanic penguin floats easily in the water of its habitat, peering through the window at a photographer.
Magellanic penguins have short, squat legs and waddle awkwardly around on land, but their torpedo-shaped bodies and thin, crescent-shaped wings propel them easily through water!

Magellanic Penguins

In the wild, Magellanic penguins hunt for fishes in the rich waters of the Strait of Magellan, which separates mainland South America and Tierra del Fuego. The birds and the water passage were named for the Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, who was the first European to discover both of them. (Magellan’s crew described the 2-foot tall penguins as black geese.)

Magellanics are among the temperate-weather penguin species — those that don’t live in the southern polar region — but their range overlaps with that of the colder-climate rockhoppers. Within Shedd’s penguin habitat, the two species intermingle.

On land, Magellanic penguin pairs will build burrows for protection and to lay their eggs. In water, their bullet-shaped bodies and rudder-like flippers allow them to zoom through the ocean at about 15 mph.

Magellanic penguin chick Nia behind the scenes with her parents.
A magellenic penguin stands on a rock overlooking the water.

Protecting Penguins Globally

The penguins at Shedd are ambassadors for their species, even playing a direct role in conservation research to protect penguins and their food sources in Patagonia. 

Shedd’s own Magellanic penguin colony has contributed, as a control group, to research to determine what penguins in Argentina are eating, which will eventually lead to recommendations on how we can best protect those food resources and penguins at large.