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African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) Fact Sheet: Physical Characteristics

San Diego Zoo Global Library fact sheet for the African penguin, Spheniscus demersus

Physical Characteristics

Attribute Male Female
Weight range 2.1-3.7 kg (4.6-8.2 lb)
Average weight* 3.31 ± 0.26 kg (7.30 ± 0.57 lb) 2.96 ± 0.31 kg (6.53 ± 0.68 lb)
Body length 60-70 cm (about 2 ft long)


*Body weight variable through the year, generally heavier prior to molt.

Data sources
Weight range: Martínez et al. (2017)
Average weight: Dunning (2008)
Body length: Brown et al. (1982); Martínez et al. (2017)


General characteristics

  • Medium-sized black and white penguin
  • Walk with upright, straight-backed gait on land; flippers held away from body

Adult features

  • Black from above; white from below
  • An elliptical, black band running from lower left flank up across upper breast and back down to lower right flank
    • Rarely with a double breast band (similar to Magellanic penguin; not found in Africa)
  • Black bill
  • Whitish, bare skin over eye (becomes pinkish-red in hot conditions)
  • Legs and feet black

Immature and chick features

  • Immature
    • Grey dorsal surface fading to brown before molt
      • Head tends to molt before rest of body (P Whittington personal communication)
    • White streak over eyebrow in some individuals
    • Bill dusky to dark grey
  • Chick
    • First down brown; up to two weeks
    • Second down usually darker, grey-brown on dorsal surface; face, throat and belly white

Sexual Dimorphism

Sexes similar in size and appearance

  • Sexes generally alike, with females slightly smaller (Brown et al. 1982; Livezey 1989)
  • Males average c. 12% greater body mass than females (Davis and Speirs 1990)

Other Characteristics

Typical penguin characteristics (Livezey 1989; Martinez 1992)

  • African Penguins possess many typical penguin characteristics
    • Highly specialized for life at sea
    • Body streamlined; neck short
    • Long, flat wings used to "fly" through water (incapable of flight through air)
    • Limited sexual dimorphism in most
    • Specialized adult feather structure
      • Thick coat of small, stiff, hardened coverts; lanceolate and slightly curved in shape
      • Long, flattened rachis with projecting hyporachis (providing added thickness)
    • Overlapping feathers assist with waterproofing, wind resistance, and insulation

Adult Plumage

Adult plumage with characteristic single, black, elliptical band.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Brown et al. (1982)
Davis and Speirs (1990)
Dunning (2008)
Livezey (1989)
Martinez (1992)

SDZG Library Links