What Are Gentoo Penguins? It Turns Out The Population Is Composed of Several Species

Lizzy Rosenberg - Author

Nov. 5 2020, Updated 12:42 p.m. ET

gentoo penguins

Although the state of the world is somewhat of a mess right now, scientists are celebrating the fact that the penguin kingdom just expanded. Researchers found that one "species" that's native to Antarctica, called the gentoo penguin, is actually composed of four different types of birds, as opposed to just one. That means the tally of penguin species as a whole has risen from 18 to 21.

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Keep reading for everything you need to know about this highly unusual finding, regarding the unique and lovable gentoo penguin. It's seriously fascinating to bird lovers and wildlife enthusiasts alike.

penguin species
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Differentiating the different species within gentoo penguins will aid in conservation efforts.

Scientists have found that the gentoo penguin is actually comprised of four different birds, which are slightly different in shape and size, and can be differentiated by their DNA, according to BBC News. Although each of them looks somewhat similar to the naked eye, counting them isn't just splitting hairs — apparently, doing so will aid in conservation and monitoring population changes. This new finding raises the number of existing penguin species from 18 to 21.

"Superficially, these species look very similar to each other; it's very hard to tell them apart just with your eyes," said Dr. Jane Younger, from the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath. "But if we sequence their genomes we can see very clearly that they are different. We also can tell based on different measurements," she added.

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"Currently Gentoo penguins are fairly stable in numbers, however there is some evidence of the northern populations moving further south as the climate gets warmer, so we need to watch them closely,” D continued, giving a nod to the detrimental affects of the climate crisis. 

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Although gentoo penguins are doing fine right now, scientists worry some populations aren't being tracked.

Scientists' findings looked at gentoo populations across the Atlantic's Falkland Islands and South Georgia, the Antarctic's South Shetland Islands, and the Indian Ocean's Kerguelen Islands, according to Eurekalert. Penguins in general face a variety of natural threats, as well as threats brought on by human activity and climate change, and although their populations fare comparably to other types, scientists worry certain populations have been overlooked.

Although the gentoo's population is rising across the Antarctic Peninsula, numbers have gone down in surrounding areas, which has led scientists to worry about their wellbeing.

"Currently gentoo penguins are fairly stable in numbers, however there is some evidence of the northern populations moving further south as the climate gets warmer, so we need to watch them closely," said Dr Younger. 

Hopefully, each of the four species within the overall gentoo penguin population continues to breed and prosper. That being said, there are a number of gentoo conservation efforts, such as the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which looks to protect Antarctic marine life, though increased attention to combat the ongoing climate crisis would also do wonders for life in the South Pole.

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