In a long-term investigation on the penguins' main breeding grounds, investigators found that a tiny warming of the Southern Ocean by the El Nino effect caused a massive fall in the birds' ability to survive.
If predictions by UN scientists of ever-higher temperatures in coming decades prove true, the species faces a major risk of being wiped out, they say.
Second in size only to the emperor penguin, king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) live on islands on the fringes of Antarctica in the southern Indian Ocean, with an estimated population of two million breeding pairs.
The species is unusual in that it takes a whole year for all the birds to complete their breeding cycle -- the ritual of courtship, egg laying, incubating and chick rearing.
This extreme length, spanning the Antarctic winter and summer, means the birds are vulnerable to downturns in seasonal food resources for incubating their eggs and nurturing their chicks.
Their main diet, small fish and squid, depends on krill. These minute crustaceans are in turn extremely sensitive to temperature rise.
The team, led by Yvon Le Maho of France's National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), marked 456 penguins with subcutaneous electronic tags at a big breeding ground on Possession Island on the Crozet archipelago in the southern.
The king penguin is unusual in that it takes a whole year for all the birds to complete their breeding cycle. This extreme length, spanning the Antarctic winter and summer, means the birds are vulnerable to downturns in seasonal food resources for incubating their eggs and nurturing their chicks.
Size: King penguins stand about 30 inches tall
Location: Islands surrounding Antarctica
What Do They Eat? King penguins like fish and squid
Main enemies: Leopard seals, killer whales and predatory birds
King penguins look much like their cousins, the Emperor, but their markings provide a colorful differentiation between the two. Bright orange-yellow patches circle their years, and their chest has a bright splash of orange. The King penguin is almost as tall as its cousin, the Emperor, and many people often mistake the two breeds, because they look so much alike.
Another interesting thing about King penguins is that they don’t build nests like many of their cousins. Believe it or not, after they lay an egg, they place the egg on their feet, tucked beneath their bellies. They carry the egg on their feet like this until the baby hatches. Even after that, the babies remain on their feet, which can be quite comical to watch as they walk and move about. Did you ever tried to sit on your mother or father’s feet while they were trying to walk? This is exactly what the baby penguin does. The mother or father penguin walks very slowly in order to make sure that the egg or the baby penguin does not fall off!
King penguins like to live on the beach or on land that is not covered in snow or ice. They like to be close to one another, but when they do want to be alone, they may slap their flipper or give someone a sharp peck with a beak. Don’t try that at home!