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African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

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

Taxonomic History & Nomenclature

Origin of the term "penguin"

  • Many possible origins; unclear which, if any, are correct (Brown 1957)
  • Possibly confused for the similarly colored, flightless Great Auk (Alca impennis) by Dutch, Spanish or Welsh sailors (Martinez 1992; Morris and Morris 1988; Sparks and Soper 1987)
    • Latin attribute: pinguis, meaning "fat"
    • Spanish attribute: penguigo, meaning "fat"
      • Based on the Spanish name for the Great Auk
    • Welsh attribute: pen, meaning "head" and gwyn, meaning "white"

Common names (as reported by Brown et al. 1982; Cooper 1971; Crawford et al. 1990; Rutgers and Norris 1970; Sibley and Monroe 1990; among others)

  • African Penguin
  • Black-footed Penguin
  • Cape Penguin
  • Manchot du cap
  • Bril Pinguin
  • Jackass Penguin
    • Name attributed to the penguin's nasal, donkey-like bray (Frost et al. 1976a)

Scientific name

  • Etymology (from Brown 1956)
    • Genus Spheniscus from the diminutive Greek sphen, meaning "wedge"
    • Species name demersus from the Latin mergo, meaning "sink, plunge in, or dip"
  • Synonymous with Diomedea demersa

Evolutionary History

Penguin ancestors

  • Likely a flighted bird
  • Closely related to tube-nosed seabirds (Procellariformes) which include albatrosses, shearwaters and petrels (Fordyce and Jones 1990; Hacket et al. 2008)
  • No penguin fossils discovered older than 45-50 million years (Fordyce and Jones 1990; Simpson 1975)

Penguin fossil record

  • Penguin fossils are characterized by distinct patterns of fusion of the tarsus and metatarsus (Martinez 1992)
  • First penguin fossil unearthed in New Zealand around 1859 (Martinez 1992)
  • Subsequent fossils from New Zealand, Australia, South America, Antarctic and subantarctic islands, and Africa
  • Birds with flippers ("proto-penguins") appear as early as the Paleocene (Clarke et al. 2003; Ksepka et al. 2006; Fordyce and Jones 1990)
    • 57.8-66.4 MYA

Size estimates for extinct penguins

  • Body mass estimates vary (Livezey 1989; Simpson 1975)
    • Largest extinct penguins (Pachydyptes ponderosus and Anthropornis nordenskjoeldii) up to 3.6 times the size of the largest modern penguin (the Emperor penguin) (Simpson 1975)
      • Emperor penguin adults average c. 30 kg or roughly 66 lbs (Dunning 2008)
    • Size range of extinct species: 3-81 kg (another estimate by Livezey 1989)
      • c. 2.5 times the size of the average Emperor penguin
    • Either estimate places the largest extinct penguin at roughly the same mass as a small to average sized, adult ostrich (based on extrapolation of the above estimates of extinct species size and size of the Emperor penguin and the ostrich reported by Dunning 2008)
  • Height of living and extinct penguins: 40-169 cm (Simpson 1975)

Family Spheniscidae

  • All penguins (extant and extinct) are within the family Spheniscidae (Martinez 1992)
    • All inhabit the southern hemisphere
  • Family contains 6 genera
  • Relationships among modern species
    • Unclear; morphological and molecular analyses yield conflicting results (Ksepka et al. 2006; Livezey 1989; Bertelli and Giannini 2005)

Genus Spheniscus

  • Known as banded penguins
  • Spheniscus consistently grouped in phylogenies with the little or fairy penguin, Eudyptula minor (Bertelli and Giannini 2005)

Origins of the African Penguin

  • Likely originated in the Late Pliocene or early Pleistocene, c. 1.6 MYA (Simpson 1975)


Cultural History


  • Penguins heavily exploited during most of recorded human history


  • First written descriptions of penguins found in chronicles of early European seafaring explorations (Martinez 1992; Sparks and Soper 1987)
    • From the voyages of Vasco da Gama (1497-1498) and Magellan (1519-1522, during circumnavigation of the globe)
    • An anonymous writer on board the Agrade Sao Bras described them as birds "...with a cry resembling the braying of asses, which could not fly."

Popular cultural references

  • Documentary appearances
    • Africa - 2013, BBC Natural History Unit
      • Episode 4, "Cape."
    • African Penguin: Cool Bird in a Hot Spot- 2002, BBC Wildlife on One
      • Episode 225, Boulder Beach penguins establish a colony on this popular beach and nearby gardens.
    • The World of Penguins - 1995, PBS
      • In season 14 of Nature, this episode explores the many locations where penguins live.


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Aves

Order: Sphenisciformes

Family:  Spheniscidae

Genus:  Spheniscus

Species: Spheniscus demersus (Linnaeus, 1758) - African Penguin

Described by Early European Explorers

Spheniscus demersus painting (1881)

Illustration of Spheniscus demersus, by J. Smit. From C. Wyville Thomson et al. 1881. Report on the scientific results of the voyage of H.M.S. Challenger during the years 1873-76 : under the command of Captain George S. Nares, R.N., F.R.S. and Captain Frank Turle Thomson, R.N. Edinburgh: Neill. p. 544.

Courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images.
No known copyright restrictions.

Page Citations

Bertelli and Giannini (2005)
Brown (1956)
Brown et al.. (1982)
Clarke et al. (2003)
Cooper (1971)
Crawford et al. (1990)
Fordyce and Jones (1990)
Frost et al. (1976a)
Hacket et al. (2008)
ITIS (2013)
Ksepka et al. (2006)
Livezey (1989)
Martinez (1992)
Morris and Morris (1988)
Rutgers and Norris (1970)
Sibley and Monroe (1990)
Simpson (1975)
Sparks and Soper (1987)

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