The largest species of crested penguin, these birds can be distinguished from other species of the genus by having a white face (though some individuals exhibit pale grey or dark grey coloration on their face). Males and females look similar, though females are smaller than males. Their close relatives are Macaroni penguins, these two having the same large, orange colored beak with the prominent pink skin on its base. In addition, these two species share the same sloppy, orange-yellow head crests. The crests on their head join on the forehead instead of running separately, as common in other crested penguins. The rest of the upper parts is colored blue-black while the under parts are silky white. Immature penguins are identified by darker beak, smaller head crest and by chrome yellow feathers on their forehead. In addition, immature individuals are usually less sturdy. On the other hand, juveniles are distinguished from adults by shorter crests as well as greyer chin and throat. First down feathers of chicks are dark greyish-brown, being darker on head and white on the under parts; the second down feathers are blacker on the upper parts.
Royal penguins inhabit the waters surrounding Antarctica. During the breeding season, they come ashore on Macquarie Island, which is located in south-western part of Pacific Ocean, approximately on a half way from Antarctica to New Zealand. Here they occur among small shrubs, rocks and tussock grass, breeding on beaches and grassy slopes, found about 1 - 6 km from the sea coast.
These penguins are highly social animals, gathering into large colonies. Royal penguins are able to distinguish the call of their mate and chicks, which allow them to find each other, living in these large colonies. When on land, the birds spend a lot of time together. When foraging, Royal penguins are able to dive deep, though usually it's not necessary, since the suitable prey items can be easily found at shallow depths. These penguins typically feed in mornings and evenings. In the middle of March, at the end of each breeding season, the royal penguins undergo molting. They are migratory birds, travelling to South-Eastern Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand and, sometimes, to Antarctica. During confrontations, these penguins can attack the opponent from behind. Aggressive behavior also includes hissing noises, lunging towards the opponent as well as biting and gripping it at neck. However, these confrontations usually don't lead to injuries.
Royal penguins have monogamous mating system, where one male mates with only one female throughout its life. They gather into large and dense nesting colonies. Breeding season lasts from September to March. Usually, by the end of September, males arrive to prepare their nesting territories. Then, in October, females arrive, laying 2 eggs in a shallow hole. Normally, only one egg is incubated by both parents for about 30 - 35 days. During the first 3 - 4 weeks after hatching, the male remains with the chick, whereas the female forages, providing its offspring and mate with food. Growing up, the hatchling joins a crèche of other chicks, while both parents forage to feed the young. Royal penguins attain their adult plumage within 65 days after hatching, after which they go out to sea. They first breed at 5 years old.
Royal penguins are exposed to disease outbreaks throughout the area of their range. However, climate change remains the main threat to these animals’ population: changes of sea-surface temperature are able to sharply reduce numbers of prey items, leading to food shortages.
Presently, there are about 850,000 breeding pairs, found on Macquarie Island. The population of these birds is stable though the species is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List.