Genetic evidence for three species of rockhopper penguins, Eudyptes chrysocome
The taxonomy of rockhopper penguins, Eudyptes chrysocome (Forster 1781), is contentious. Some authorities recognise three subspecies based on morphological differences and geographical separation of breeding populations while others suggest that morphological differences support classifying rockhopper penguins as two distinct species. The taxonomy of rockhopper penguins is of more than academic interest as breeding colonies worldwide have declined markedly in size since the 1930s and rockhopper penguins are currently listed as vulnerable by the IUCN. We compared the genetic distances between three mitochondrial gene regions from the three putative rockhopper penguin subspecies with the distances between various penguin sister species to clarify the taxonomy and systematics of rockhopper penguins. Genetic distances between the rockhopper penguin taxa, relative to other closely related penguin species, support reclassifying the three rockhopper penguin subspecies as species. Reclassification of rockhopper penguins as three species could result in their conservation status being upgraded from vulnerable to endangered.