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The smallest of the crested penguins, at 61 cm in length and about 2.5 kg, Rockhopper penguins are also distinguished from other crested penguins by having only a thin yellow stripe above the eyes that ends in a wild collection of drooping plumes. The feather plumes are yellow, not orange as in Macaroni penguin, and thinner than in the remaining Eudyptes speciesThey also have distinctive red eyes. They are currently regarded as three subspecies, but it seems likely that at least one of them, the Northern Rockhopper or Moseley’s penguin (Eudyptes chrysocome moseleyi), is a separate species. The other two subspecies comprise the Southern Rockhopper and consist of the eastern subspecies (Eudyptes chrysocome filholi), which is found in the New Zealand sub-Antarctic islands, and the nominate subspecies (Eudyptes chrysocome chrysocome), which is found in South America and the Falkland Islands. The eastern form mainly differs from the nominate subspecies in having a pink line of fleshy skin along the lower mandible which is black in the nominate subspecies. The crests of Southern Rockhopper penguins differ from their northern counterparts in having shorter plumes. Their vocalisations are also different. Immature birds have a narrow yellow stripe and a pale mottled grey chin. Juvenile Southern and Northern Rockhopper penguins are almost impossible to tell apart.
The northern form of the Rockhopper penguin breeds in cool temperate climates, generally north of the subtropical convergence, with breeding occurring on Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island in the Atlantic Ocean and St. Paul and Amsterdam Islands in the Indian Ocean. The breeding season starts three months earlier (July) than in the southern form. The latter is restricted to the northern sub-Antarctic and has a circumpolar distribution. Breeding colonies are around the Cape Horn area, Falklands, Prince Edward, Marion, Crozet, Kerguelen, Heard, Macquarie, Campbell, Auckland and Antipodes Islands. Campbell Island used to be the eastern stronghold of the species, but the population there has plummeted recently.
Breeding colonies are located on rocky slopes and amongst tussocks, sometimes in small caves and amongst crevices. A small nest is build from tussock, peat and pebbles.