Photo Source: San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance
When we think of penguins, what comes to mind? The Antarctic? Happy Feet? Big, tuxedo birds with flippers? There are 18 species of penguins found around the world. Of these species, a vast majority are found in Antarctica, however, penguins can be found in all continents in the southern hemisphere. Rather than highlighting penguins we may know of or have seen in the media more often, we are highlighting the underdog (underbird)! Today, let’s dive in and flip out to learn all about African penguins, Spheniscus demersus.
Penguins? In Africa?
Photo Source: AZ Animals
African Penguins don’t fit the mold of typical penguins, but they are so unique! They weigh between 4 and 11 pounds and are 26-28 inches in height. In the wild, they live about 20 years. They are known for a variety of vocalizations including a donkey-like bray, which gave them the nickname “jackass” penguin.
They are found in the fynbos habitat of South Africa. Fynbos accounts for less than 10% of South Africa and consists of coastal vegetation, a variety of flowers including proteas, Mediterranean climate, shrubland vegetation, and a LOT of biodiversity. African penguins range along the southern cape of Africa and call many surrounding islands home. Two places of note with large colonies are Dyer Island and Boulders Beach. Rocky coasts are essential for the life of an African penguin due to their protection and nesting sites.
Since the African penguin lives in a much different climate than Antarctic penguins, their behavior is different too! Generally, they will “beat the heat” by sheltering themselves in rocky outcroppings, shade underneath bushes and trees, and cool off in the water. Additionally, they have a pink, bald patch above their eye that aids them in temperature control when it is too warm. African penguins must have safe space and shelter outside of the water for breeding and molting activities. Molting is when a birds’ feathers fall out and new feathers grow in.
Photo Source: Kim Paffen- Fine Art America
Generally, birds will molt a couple times a year. For most birds, the molt occurs in a symmetrical or bilateral sequence to maintain flight capability. However, being a flightless bird, the African penguin partakes in a “catastrophic molt” where all of its feathers are replaced at once. This is best described as a fluffy pillow bird or an explosion of feathers! These penguins end up looking like fuzzy, scruffy mops until their new feathers come in. During this important time, the penguins' feathers and bodies will not be successful with water resistance and they will avoid swimming in the cold water.
Before a molt, it is imperative that all birds “bulk up” and get as much nourishment and nutrients that they can so that their bodies can survive the molt, a very energetically costly process. It is not uncommon for birds to have weight gain, appear larger, and conserve energy before molting season.
Photo Source: Animal Fact Guide
As a South African resident, African penguins have access to some incredible marine life and food. Although they are flightless, they are extremely agile and fast swimmers! In pursuit of prey, an African penguin can swim up to 12.43 MPH! They can also hold their breath for up to 2.5 minutes to catch their next meal. What’s on the menu? Sardines, anchovies, herring, mackerel, squid, and crustaceans. African penguins live in large colonies and can hunt in small groups, or individually.
An Endangered, Valuable Bird
Photo Source: Center for Biological Diversity
Unfortunately, African penguins are endangered. Their population has dramatically decreased due to habitat loss, overfishing, pollution, oil spills, egg collecting, guano collecting, and global climate change.
From the 1920s to the 1950s, 48% of African penguins’ produced eggs were taken for human consumption. Their guano was also taken and used for fertilizer. This guano is essential for African penguin nest building and used as a substrate for their burrows (SANBI). These conservation challenges have since been eliminated, however, others are still detrimental to the species’ success. As we have learned, there are many species of fish that overlap with humans’ seafood consumption and this has led to low food sources for African penguins.
The African penguin is the only species of penguin found in Africa and represents important biodiversity for the continent. They are also an important food source for larger predators such as sharks and seals. Their conservation is crucial, and here’s how you can help.
How Can We Help?
Photo Source: Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch
Since we’ve learned that penguins eat some of the same fish we consume, it’s important to keep marine life in mind when consuming seafood. Sustainable seafood is an attainable goal and practice, and there are multiple ways to go about it! The Monterey Bay Aquarium has created a program called “Seafood Watch.” This program highlights common seafood that humans consume, and categorizes them into the best choice, certified, good alternative, and avoid categories. Additionally, the program can help you find restaurants, markets, or sources to find the seafood you’d like, and support sustainable practices. You can download a guide for wherever you live and travel, learn more about it here.
A non-profit group called the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) helps reverse the decline of seabird populations through the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of ill, injured, abandoned, and oiled seabirds (SANCCOB). There are penguin and seabird rangers that rescue African penguins, engage in research such as molt counts and censuses, monitor seabirds, collect data, and protect their habitats. You can learn about their research and projects, and support their work in the conservation of coastal birds.
Thanks for reading our blog post and learning all about African penguins. If you are curious about other types of penguins, here’s a comprehensive list of all 18 species of penguins, it’s a party!
Photo Source: Dave Ryan, Twitter
King Penguin, Aptenodytes patagonicus
Emperor Penguin, Aptenodytes forsteri
Gentoo Penguin, Pygoscelis papua
Adelie Penguin, Pygoscelis adeliae
Chinstrap Penguin, Pygoscelis antarcticus
Southern Rockhopper, Penguin Eudyptes chrysocome
Northern Rockhopper Penguin, Eudyptes moseleyi
Fiordland Penguin, Eudyptes pachyrhynchus
Snares Penguin, Eudyptes robustus
Erect-crested Penguin, Eudyptes sclateri
Macaroni Penguin, Eudyptes chrysolophus
Royal Penguin, Eudyptes schlegeli
Yellow-eyed Penguin, Megadyptes antipodes
Little Penguin, Eudyptula minor
African Penguin, Spheniscus demersus
Humboldt Penguin, Spheniscus humboldti
Magellanic Penguin, Spheniscus magellanicus
Galapagos Penguin, Spheniscus mendiculus
Written By: Bailey Higa