Penguin Personalities

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April 25th is World Penguin Day! To honour these delightful birds from the southern hemisphere, I thought I’d tell you about a really neat study on penguin personalities.

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to watch penguins on video, at a zoo, or in the wild (lucky you!), they are quite the charismatic little creatures. Even their waddles seem full of personality. To see a bit of their behaviour, here is a short, cool video of African penguins at the San Diego Zoo:

So, what exactly is personality? Scientists who study animals think of personality as differences in behaviour between individuals, and these behaviours tend to remain steady no matter what setting the individual is in. So, an animal that has a friendly personality tends to be friendly regardless of whether they are with others who are familiar or unfamiliar to them, and no matter what the circumstances are.

Scientists are interested in animal personality because what they learn can help us give captive animals, such as those in zoos, the best lives possible. For instance, if some animals are seen to be curious, zookeepers can provide them with new objects on a regular basis so that they have things to check out and play with. If some animals are seen to be shy, their zoo enclosures could be built so that they include some spaces where the animals can hide and be alone.

At the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland, there is an exhibit with 129 penguins. It is one of the largest outdoor penguin exhibits in Europe, with a huge freshwater pool, and it includes three different species of penguins that all live together: northern rockhopper penguins, gentoo penguins, and king penguins. A group of scientists thought it would be interesting to see if the three species of penguins have different personalities. They randomly chose 43 penguins: 21 northern rockhoppers, 14 gentoos, and 9 king penguins.

Northern rockhopper penguins. Photo courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica.
Gentoo penguin. Photo courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica.
King penguins. Photo courtesy of the Australian Government.

To measure personality, the scientists came up with a list of 31 different traits. Each trait was rated on a scale from 1 (the trait was never seen) to 12 (the trait was always seen). Who rated each of the 43 penguins on all 31 traits? Why, the two zookeepers, of course! They knew the penguins the best. But importantly, the two zookeepers did their ratings separately and did not talk about their ratings, so that they would not influence each other.

Here is the list of 31 personality traits for the penguins. Some of them are pretty interesting.

  • Active
  • Aggressive to other penguins
  • Aggressive to familiar people
  • Aggressive to Keepers
  • Aggressive to unfamiliar people
  • Aggressive to observer
  • Calm
  • Cooperative
  • Curious
  • Dominant
  • Eccentric
  • Excitable
  • Friendly to other penguins
  • Friendly to keepers
  • Friendly to familiar people
  • Friendly to unfamiliar people
  • Friendly to observer
  • Fearful of other penguins
  • Fearful of familiar people
  • Fearful of unfamiliar people
  • Fearful of keepers
  • Fearful of you
  • Insecure
  • Playful
  • Self-assured
  • Smart
  • Solitary
  • Tense
  • Timid/shy
  • Vocal: aggressive
  • Vocal: non aggressive

How did the zookeepers tell the penguins apart? Each penguin has a coloured band on its wing, and depending on which side the band is on and what colour(s) the band is, the zookeepers could tell which penguin was which. Below is a list of the 43 penguins that were included in the study. Some of the names are hilarious!

(R = band on right side; L = band on left side; K = King penguin; NR = Northern rockhopper penguin; G = Gentoo penguin)

  • Blue (Blue, K)
  • Nils (Purple, R, K)
  • Fingal (White, R, K)
  • Maclean (Red/Yellow, R, K)
  • Bow (Red/Green, R)
  • Yoepie (Gold, R, K)
  • Alfie (Lt Blue/Green, R, K)
  • Kongo (Orange, R, K)
  • Dennis (Black/Red, R, K)
  • Mrs. Wolowitz (Orange/White, L, NR)
  • Mrs. White (White, L, NR)
  • Helena (Dk Blue/White, L., NR)
  • Millie (Gold/Yellow, L, NR)
  • Al (Gold/Orange, R, NR)
  • Balboa (Gold/Pink, R, NR)
  • Dwaine (Pink/Green, R, NR)
  • Nestor (Dk Blue/Pink, R, NR)
  • Tristan (Lt Blue/Yellow, R, NR)
  • Eddie (Black/Green, R, NR)
  • Issy (Lt Blue, Yellow, L, NR)
  • Gordon (Brown/Gold, R, NR)
  • Isla (Lt Blue/Yellow, L, NR)
  • Jura (Gold/Yellow, R, NR)
  • Wesley (Gold/White, R, NR)
  • Bruce (Dk Blue/Gold, R, NR)
  • Penny (Brown/Gold, L, NR)
  • Pinhead (Gold/Orange, L., NR
  • Amy (Gold/White, L, NR)
  • Brucetta (Dk Blue/Gold, L, NR)
  • Batman (Gold, R, NR)
  • Boy (Blue/Orange/Yellow, R, G)
  • Mrs. Spain (Orange/White, L, G)
  • BB (Dk Blue/Lt Blue, L, G)
  • Snowflake (Unbanded, G)
  • Mary (Dk Blue/Red, L, G)
  • Mrs. Colin (Lt Blue/Yellow, R, G)
  • Boo (Lt Blue/White, L, G)
  • Poppet (Dk Blue/White, L, G)
  • Dolores (Grey/White, L, G)
  • Buzz (Lt Blue/Grey, R, G)
  • Mr. Spain (Red/Yellow, R, G)
  • Chip (Orange/Yellow, R, G)
  • Kevin (Gold, R, G)
A penguin with a band on its wing. Who do you think this is? Photo courtesy of the Edinburgh Zoo.

After the two zookeepers finished rating all 43 penguins on all of the 31 personality traits, the scientists gathered all of the ratings and figured out how similar or different the ratings were. They discovered that, for the most part, the zookeepers had similar ratings for the penguins for traits such as aggressive to other penguins, aggressive to the keepers, calm, curious, friendly to keepers, playful, and vocal-aggressive. On the other hand, the zookeepers had less agreement for traits like eccentric, excitable, insecure, smart, and timid/shy. These traits were probably trickier for the zookeepers to determine from the penguins’ behaviour.

So, were there differences in personalities between the three species of penguins? Yes! The scientists discovered that gentoo penguins were more active than the northern rockhopper penguins. The northern rockhopper penguins were much calmer. Compared to the northern rockhopper penguins, gentoo penguins were more curious and less friendly with other penguins. Gentoo penguins were also more playful, and were much more vocal than the other two species of penguins.

Overall, the scientists found that the three species of penguins at the zoo had distinctive personality traits. Which is really cool, considering that the three species all live together in the same enclosure, have close contact, and experience the same routines each day (like feeding time). Despite this, each species has their own individuality.

Click here to watch a live webcam of the penguins at the Edinburgh Zoo!

Check out this video of penguins who had been set loose inside Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium:


Pastorino, G. Q., Preziosi, R., Faustini, M., Curone, G., Albertini, M., Nicoll, D., Moffat, L., Pizzi, R., & Mazzola, S. (2019). Comparative personality traits assessment of three species of communally housed captive penguins. Animals, 9, 376.