41-year-old penguin from Danish zoo breaks record with her extraordinary age

By Adam Millward

A penguin named Olde (“Great-grandmother” in Danish) has been crowned the world’s oldest living penguin in captivity, having well surpassed 41 years of age. 

The long-lived gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis papua), a resident at Odense Zoo in Denmark, was confirmed to be 41 years 141 days as of 4 October 2020, making her the world's most senior OAP (old-age penguin)!

In the wild, gentoo penguins – which are native to the Antarctic Peninsula and subantarctic islands – typically only live for 15–20 years, though in captivity their lifespan stretches to 30. 

In either case, Olde has smashed expectations. 

Although it's not unheard of for penguins to occasionally reach into their mid to late 30s, it is extremely rare for one of these aquatic birds to see in the big 4-0. 

In recent times, one of the oldest examples was a female African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) called Tess from Pueblo Zoo in Colorado, USA, who died in 2015 at the age of 40. 

Historically, another African penguin – this time a male – is said to have made it to 42.

Olde lives with a mix of gentoos (her own species), rockhoppers and king penguins at Odense Zoo in Denmark

Asked how it felt for one of the zoo’s residents to be a record-breaker, Odense Zoo’s press and social-media officer Danni Larsen said "It’s really fantastic! Our zookeepers are professionals and as such they don’t have favourites – but I think it’s safe to say that Olde holds a special place in their animal-loving hearts."

"The process of getting her recognized by Guinness World Records has been a talking point both among zookeepers and in the office, and we’re really proud of Olde and the care the zookeepers give to her, as with all our penguins."

Apparently, Olde is not one for the limelight. Sandie Munck and Mette Heikel, two zookeepers who care for the penguins at Odense, told us: "She’s very quiet and calm. She’s never one to act out, either on other penguins or zookeepers, and never has been.” 

Given her OAP status, Olde does receive a little special treatment over the other penguins. 

For instance, the keepers ensure she gets her portion of fish separately so she doesn’t have to fight it out with her much younger neighbours. 

Zookeeper Sandie Munck presents Olde with her official Guinness World Records certificate as the world's oldest living penguin in captivity

According to the keepers, she’s partial to a particular kind of fish.

"She likes herring, which is a bit unusual for gentoos. It’s positive, though, as herrings are rich in fat, which means she gets what she needs, even if she isn’t as hungry as she once was." 

Staff at the zoo aren’t the only ones with a soft spot for this geriatric gentoo. 

"Olde’s popularity has been on the rise ever since we started actually telling the story of her being the oldest of her species," Larsen told us. 

"We stepped it up a bit last year, when she turned 40, and she’s since become one of the penguins that guests look for and ask about. She also receives a lot of love when we do social-media content about her."

Olde was hatched at Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland, UK, on 16 May 1979. She was then moved to Montreal, Canada, where she lived in the Sub-Polar Region exhibit at the Biodôme for 23 years, before making her final move to Odense Zoo in 2003. She has resided there ever since.  

Over her lifetime, Olde has been a prolific contributor to gentoo breeding programmes. In 2020, she became a great-great-great grandmother. As the zoo pointed out, perhaps her Danish name ought to be updated to “Tip-Tip-Oldemor” in order to reflect this! 

Olde was hatched at Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland, UK, in 1979 and was transferred to Odense Zoo in 2003

She has raised a total of 16 chicks (the first of which was hatched in 1997 and at 23 is now getting on a bit herself). 

Olde’s lineage now spreads to zoological parks all over the world, including Canada, Scotland, Ireland, Spain, the Netherlands and the USA. Given her clearly superlative genes, who knows if one of her offspring may be a future contender for this title? 

At Odense Zoo, she lives in an enclosure with 10 other gentoos, as well as 12 rockhoppers and 20 kings (the second-largest species of penguin after emperors). 

Zookeeper Sandie said that, although Olde is showing her age, she’s in good health.

"She is looking a bit worn out, and her plumage is not as nice as [in her youth], as she does not have the energy to care for it the same as the others. She moves around and eats well, though, so all in all she is fine," Sandie said.  

"Because her plumage is not as well kept as it should be, it is not watertight, and therefore she cannot get in the water. Instead we give her regular showers, and she’ll get one of those today – as well as all the fish she can eat!"

A curious rockhopper checks out Olde's Guinness World Records certificate while Olde, who never likes to be the centre of attention, looks on in the background

Guinness World Records Managing Editor, Adam Millward, who particularly oversees outreach for the company’s Natural World records, was straight on to Odense Zoo as soon as he heard about Olde. 

"During my time at Guinness World Records, I’ve been lucky to get to know the oldest sloth, the oldest red panda, the oldest tapir and even the oldest terrestrial animal (a giant tortoise named Jonathan) – but this is my first superlative senior from the avian community.

"With more than 41 years under her belt, it’s a pleasure to be able to give the aptly named Olde her moment in the spotlight as the oldest living penguin in captivity.

"I hope the fellow penguins at Odense Zoo give this geriatric gentoo a well-earned clap – or perhaps that should be flap – in recognition of her (literal) lifetime achievement award."

Discover more superlative seniors  from both the animal kingdom and the human race  in the new Guinness World Records 2021 book, available now.