The gut of animals changes quickly from a totally sterile environment before birth to a numerous and highly diverse microbial community shortly after birth. However, few studies have examined the source of the bacteria colonizing the gut. We used a genetic based approach to investigate the distribution and acquisition of faecal microbial communities by Adelie penguins, Pygoscelis adeliae, breeding in the Ross Sea region of Antarctica by cloning a portion of the 16S rRNA gene and by automated ribosomal intergenic spacer analysis (ARISA). We hypothesized that bacteria were either acquired from the penguins' neighbours or inherited from their ancestors. Samples were collected from Adelie penguin breeding colonies at the north-western edge of the Ross Sea coast through to the southernmost Adelie penguin colonies on Ross Island. Most of the bacterial sequences we obtained were only distantly homologous with previously published sequences. Bacterial taxa appear to have a restricted distribution as the majority of 16S rRNA clones were isolated from only one or two hosts. Faecal bacterial community similarity was strongly negatively correlated with the genetic distance between hosts suggesting that bacterial communities are inherited. There was little support for a correlation between distance between collection sites and community similarity.