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The black-and-white head pattern, a black stripe running down the flanks and naked skin exposed on the head are distinctive features of this genus. The hooked beak is deep and strong. Spheniscus penguins must have evolved from a common ancestor fairly recently as indicated by the close morphological similarity amongst these species. All Spheniscus penguins are allopatric (ie having separate distributions), however, so that most birds can be safely identified by their location.

Young and immature birds lack the distinct black and white plumage of the adults. Chicks, especially, closely resemble Little Penguins. Definitive means of identification of immature birds have yet to be determined.

The most tropical of the penguin genera, found in the Galapagos Islands, South America and Africa, they constitute the northern end of penguin distribution. While Spheniscus penguins breed in much warmer climates than other penguins, their breeding areas are associated with cold, nutrient-rich currents.

Timing of the breeding season is far more flexible in Spheniscus than in other penguins, with some populations breeding throughout the year. The moult is much more variable within Spheniscus than within other penguin genera. Magellanic and African Penguins moult after the breeding season, whereas Humboldt and Galapagos Penguins moult one to four weeks before breeding.

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