King penguin

Locality unknown, probably late 19th century

The Forsters, the King and the Emperor

The king penguin (Aptenodytes patagonica) was one of the new species encountered as the eighteenth-century voyages of exploration ventured to the southern hemisphere.

Captain Cook's second voyage around the world (1772-75) made the first documented crossing of the Antarctic Circle on 17 January 1773. Johann Reinhold Forster sailed as the expedition's naturalist, with his son Johann Georg as assistant and artist. The Forsters collected, sketched and described the previously undocumented marine fauna, including new species of birds.

Georg's illustrations recorded many creatures that were not easily preserved, including a large penguin with distinctive yellow markings, which they saw on South Georgia in 1775. This bird, known as the king penguin, had been seen by previous European explorers, but was still a great curiosity.

Due to difficulties with the Admiralty, the Forsters' natural history accounts were published erratically, and their initial works contained no illustrations. By the time Johann Reinhold Forster had described and named five other penguins in 1781, Georg's painting of the king penguin had been copied by two other authors, one of whom was called Miller, who is credited with naming the species.

Georg's king penguin gained a new significance in 1844, when similar penguins were brought back by the Antarctic expedition of Sir James Clark Ross. George Gray of the British Museum examined these birds and compared them with Forster's drawings and painting. As a result, Gray realized that the specimens were a different species, the emperor penguin, which he named Aptenodytes forsteri in commemoration of the Forsters.

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King penguin

© 2003 The Natural History Museum


More information


T. Rice, Voyages of discovery: three ce (London, Scriptum Editions and the Natural History Museum, 1999)

A. Gurney, Below the Convergence: Voyages (London, W. W. Norton, 1997)


Height: 65.000 cm (approx.)

Museum number

On loan from the Natural History Museum 1996.41.4


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