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July 2019

African Penguins Seriously Affected by Oil Spills

African Penguin

African Penguins Seriously Affected by Oil Spills

by Lydia Alemu

African Penguins are well-adapted for their way of life. With solid bones, flipper-like wings, and webbed feet, they are excellent divers and underwater hunters. Of course, they’d prefer to avoid being eaten in the endeavor to eat, hence their counter shading and well-developed vision above and below the water. They adapt to whatever natural challenges come their way.

Unnatural threats, however, are negatively affecting wild African Penguins. Most of these challenges progress too quickly for penguins to adapt to. As a result, their numbers are decreasing drastically: by 95% over the last century. According to the IUCN Red List, there were 50,000 mature individuals in 2015. In 1910, there were approximately 1.5 million African Penguins. Their numbers continue to dwindle. One major threat is oil spills. African Penguin populations are so fragile that they are only a few disastrous oil spills away from extinction in the wild.

African Penguin

The worst oil spill affecting African Penguins was the MV Treasure

Penguin oil spill

One of the worst South African oil spills to date that affected penguins occurred on June 23, 2000. MV Treasure, a 17-year-old cargo ship, was already damaged by poor weather, old age, and stress when it was towed farther out to sea. Authorities hoped that the move would reduce the impact of an oil spill. Unfortunately, the vessel sank en route with 140,000 tonnes of iron ore and 1,300 tonnes of fuel oil on board between Dassen Island and Robben Island. At the time, these islands respectively housed the largest African Penguin colony of approximately 55,000 individuals and Robben Island has the 3rd largest colony of 18,000 adults.

Volunteers and employees of the South African National Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCOBB) wasted no time to find, care for, and rehome affected birds. Experienced personnel on oiled bird treatment were flown to South Africa, including staff from the International Bird Rescue in California. Altogether, they relocated around 19,500 unoiled African Penguins to Cape Recife, 800 km away from the oil pollution, with a 98% success rate. (Unfortunately, 241 penguins did not survive the journey.) The cost of this endeavor alone was 300 € ($337.99 USD) per penguin. SANCOBB workers cleaned about 19,000 oiled birds, including adults, and juveniles. They also housed and cared for 3,350 abandoned chicks. 

In total, about 39,000 adult and juvenile African Penguins were handled. This total was over 20% of the total African Penguin population at that time! Within the first six weeks of rescuing African Penguins, volunteers and staff maintained the health of 97% of their charges. Even four years after the Treasure oil spill, 70% of rehabilitated adult penguins, 40% of relocated penguins and 34% of captive-reared African Penguin chicks had returned back to Robben Island! That might even downplay the reality considering that some of the relocated African Penguins might have ended up choosing new islands or beaches to live on since the Treasure sank.

More recent oil spills affecting penguins

Even with the exhaustive effort to help as many African Penguins as possible, staff couldn’t save or even find every penguin affected by the oil spill. An estimated 4,000 chicks as well as 2,000 adult and immature African Penguins died within the first six weeks of the Treasure oil spill. Also, the year’s breeding season was heavily affected with deceased partners, increased time under human care for some penguins, as well as off-kilter molt cycles. Such outcomes would undoubtedly linger for future breeding seasons. 


Imagine another major pollution event on this scale. With their wild population count at approximately 25,000 breeding pairs, their species likely would not survive.


Despite the threat that oil pollution has on African Penguins and other endangered species, two relatively minor oil spills occurred near the South African coastline within the last decade. In 2013, a ship ran aground outside of a nature reserve. About 227 African Penguins were affected. SANCOBB successfully rehabilitated 95% of them.


Most recently, a spokesperson from the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries of South Africa announced that 200 to 400 litres of fuel was spilled on Saturday July 6, 2019. This time, a ship’s fuel tank was over-filled during offshore bunkering. Once again, SANCOBB rushed to help, accepting 21 oiled African Penguins as well as 2 oiled African Penguin eggs within the first three days of the oil spill.

There are things you can do to truly help penguins affected by oil spills

It might seem like there is nothing to be done about oil pollution because the transportation is already in place and regular folks supposedly have little say in or about the industry. However, you always have a say if you actually use your voice. Share your concerns with the governmental leaders in your area to improve protections to regulated nature reserves, for example. When possible, support the creation of marine protected areas rather than new pipelines or other modes of oil transportation. Also, organizations such as SANCOBB are ready to help minimize the detrimental impacts that flaws in current oil transport can have. Donating your time, money, and/or required supplies to them will enable them to do more.

Did you know about these oil spills, the threat to penguins, and the help from volunteers? Let us know.

If you’d like to support penguins, please consider donating to Penguins International so we can help in circumstances like these.

Also read more about penguins in other blogs:


Crawford, R.J.M., Davis, S.A., Harding, R.T., Jackson, L.F., Leshoro, T.M., Meÿer, M.A., Randall, R.M., Underhill, L.G., Upfold, L., Van Dalsen, A.P., Van Der Merwe, E., Whittington, P.A., Williams, A.J., Wolfaardt, A.C. (2000). Initial impact of the Treasure oil spill on seabirds off western South Africa. South African Journal of Marine Science, 22, 157-176.


Barham, P.J., Crawford, R.J.M., Underhill, L.G., Wolfaardt, A.C., Barham, B.J., Dyer, B.M., Leshoro, T.M., Meÿer, M.A., Navarro, R.A., Oschadleus, D., Upfold, L., Whittington, P.A., and Williams, A.J. (2006). Return to Robben Island of African Penguins that were rehabilitated, relocated or reared in captivity following the Treasure oil spill of 2000. Ostrich 77(3&4), 202-209.


BirdLife International 2018. Spheniscus demersus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T22697810A132604504. Downloaded on 14 July 2019.

Zookeepers Help Penguin Conservation

Penguin zookeeper

Zookeepers Help Penguin Conservation

By Megan Spofford

National Zoo Keeper Week 2019 is July 21-27.

Zoos have evolved over the years from being individual organizations that collected animals, to now using their space to house animals for educational purposes or if a species needs human intervention to keep from going extinct. Additionally, zoo workers have developed more of a community and collaborate with each other between facilities, amongst scientists, and with scholars to create conservation programs to save species. This article will delve into some of the work that zoos are doing for penguin conservation.

Penguin zookeeper
Penguin enclosure, London Zoo, Camden, taken 1967
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Christine

*Warning: Background that is a little dense

Organizations like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) put together teams of experts, many of whom are zoo professionals, to reform policy around the world to benefit wild populations. In the United States, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) has developed Taxon Advisory Groups (TAGs) to determine which species deserve the conservation spotlight within their taxa, based on their plight. They then create Species Survival Plans (SSPs) for the chosen ones, and studbooks are used to manage breeding populations who are on SSPs. Studbook keepers are typically working animal caretakers that manage the records in addition to their typical day job. Success stories from these programs have led to captive-bred wild releases to restore populations for black-footed ferrets and Panamanian golden frogs. These are just two examples of how species individuals can be successfully released into the wild through reintroduction programs as long as they are not habituated to humans.

Now the Penguin Conservation stuff!


There is a Penguin TAG that has developed SSPs for ten of the penguin species, which include African, Chinstrap, Gentoo, Humboldt, King, Little, Macaroni, Magellanic, Northern Rockhopper, and Southern Rockhopper Penguins. However, there are currently no reintroduction programs through AZA for penguins. This is because the issues within the environments in which the penguins live need to be addressed before releasing animals into them. Releasing more individuals into the current conditions (oil spills, rising ocean temperatures, food scarcity, etc.) that are causing population declines would not solve the problem. The IUCN has a Species Survival Commission- Penguin Specialist Group that identifies goals to effect change for penguins and their environments through the year 2020 in a report on the IUCN website. The SAFE program developed by AZA has similar goals as the IUCN, but specifically for African Penguins.

“This may even inspire you to take action to help save wild penguins”

penguin zookeeper

Until the time comes for reintroduction programs to be put into action for penguins, TAGs maintain a healthy and genetically diverse population of various penguin species in zoos as “stock.” The penguin “stock” also serve another purpose under human care as ambassadors for their wild counterparts. More simply put: A penguin animal ambassador is a living, breathing example of an extraordinary animal that you would never typically see without traveling to their natural habitat. Getting to see them up close at the zoo brings you into their world, and fosters a connection between you and the animal. Hopefully this causes you to care more about penguins in general. This may even inspire you to take action to help save wild penguins, whether it be by reducing your use of plastics, donating financially to organizations like Penguins International, or environmental tourism to help save a particular species.

If you decide to volunteer with an organization that cares for wild penguin populations, you would likely be working amongst a few zookeepers. At zoos, keepers learn species specific behavior and husbandry, so they are able to transfer those skills while working in situ (Latin word for on site!). An example of this is Maryland Zoo’s work with SANCCOB in South Africa. SANCCOB is an organization that rehabilitates then releases wild seabirds; one of which is the African penguin. During hatching season, which is in the fall, the facility is inundated with abandoned chicks that are reliant on human intervention in order to survive. Zookeepers from Maryland Zoo travel to the facility and contribute their working knowledge to assist in chick-rearing. Smaller facilities that do not have the means to send a keeper to help on site or facilities that are accredited by organizations other than AZA often find conservation groups to fundraise for so that the work can be carried out by field scientists.

More information about penguin conservation projects


You can find out information about conservation projects at specific zoos by looking at their websites or talking with a zookeeper. In honor of National Zookeeper Week (July 21-27, 2019) and the work keepers contribute to animal conservation, we say, “Thanks!”

Did you know all of this about penguins and zoos? Let us know! Also we more that appreciate any support you can provide so we can continue to provide this type of information to you.

Check out some of our other blogs, too, about penguins:


Why Are There No Penguins In The North Pole?

where do penguins live

Why Are There No Penguins In The North Pole?

by James Platt

If you asked a group of people where penguins live, you’d inevitably have a few say that pengiuns live in the North Pole. As we know this isn’t true, but it does beg the question: Why are there no penguins in the North Pole? And for that matter, the entire Northern Hemisphere?

What is the scientific research on why penguins live where they live?

There doesn’t seem to be much scientific research on the matter, so it must be explained using what is known about penguins around the world and then given the best answer possible. There are 18 species of penguins, of which 7 of them live in the Antarctic such as the Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) and King Penguins (Aptenodytes Pategonicus). The Yellow-eyed Penguin (Megadyptes antipodes) and Royal Penguin (Eudyptes schlegeli) are 2 of 6 species in Australia and New Zealand. There is one African Penguin (Spheniscus demursus) and 3 species that inhabit the Americas with the Galapagos Penguins (Sphendiscus mendiculus) living just slightly in the Northern Hemisphere, living so close to the equator.

Penguins live (almost) entirely in the Southern Hemisphere

With so much variety among penguin species it seems strange that they never moved farther north and filled more ecological niches as they did in the Southern Hemisphere. They found a home on the Australian and African continents where temperatures can be as hot as anywhere on earth, so temperature isn’t as much of an issue as most people may think. King or Emperor Penguins may not find the heat as easy to deal with as they are still adapted for the harsh environment of the Antarctic. However, the Galapagos Penguins, Little Penguins (Eudyptula minor) and African Penguins can withstand much hotter temperatures and could theoretically make the shift farther north.

Galapagos penguins
Figure 2: Volt Collection/Shutterstock

Looking at the Galapagos Islands, they are surrounded by hundreds of miles of open ocean. The larger varieties could swim that far if they were searching the Southern Ocean for food, but the smaller Galapagos Penguin doesn’t have a chance of swimming to Costa Rica or El Salvador which is why they have remained isolated to the islands (Heath and Randall, 1981). The same goes for the Snares Penguin (Eudyptes robustus) and Fiorland Penguin (Eudyptes pachyrhyncus) along with all the other species in Oceania if they were to move up through Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.

Some species may be adapted to the heat, but they are not adapted to move fast on land, so they will only stick to the coast and won’t often move north unless they are forced to. A behavioural study investigated how the African Penguin deals with heat and they spend most of their day in the ocean and only return to land in the late afternoon (Frost et al, 1976). At night, they are much less likely to move farther north in search of territory as it is more dangerous at that time. In South Africa and Namibia, the African Penguin also has a lot more predators to be wary of, making any move farther north a risky one. In the Antarctic, when the penguins are on the ice they have no real threats from predators, so they have not evolved much protection against land predators. But on these other continents they can be real threats, especially to the chicks.

In Antarctica, penguins and their nest sites are left relatively untouched by humans and they are left to breed and live in peace. African Penguins have been pushed to the brink by humans taking their guano for fertiliser and trampling their burrows (Trathan et al, 2014). Many of the southern island species were hunted for oil until the last century. So, life outside of the Southern Ocean isn’t great for many of the species. It might be that penguins couldn’t survive any more outside pressure from humans and any populations that have successfully moved farther north were pushed to extinction before they could gain a proper foothold in the area.

All these reasons combine to make a compelling case for why there are no penguins in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s likely since penguins won’t move over large distances on land, they struggle to find new territory farther north. Any that do make it are likely either scared off by curious humans or killed by predators as they will make an easy meal for many land predators. The Galapagos Penguins probably won’t make it any farther due to their geographic location being so far from anything else. If they were on the other side of South America then they very well could have used their adaptation to hot climates and island hopped all the way to North America through the Caribbean and Cuba.  The closest thing to a penguin that did live in the North Pole was the Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis) and was subsequently hunted to extinction in the 1800s. Just as the Dodo (Raphus cucullatus) had no fear of humans because they hadn’t ever faced predators, the Great Auk suffered the same fate. So maybe its better if penguins stay South and remote for now.

Royal Penguins
Figure 3: Sonja Ross

What do you think? Is there another reason they haven’t moved farther north? Leave us a comment. Also, please help us continue to learn more about penguins by donating to Penguins International.

Check out some of our other blogs, too:

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King Penguins

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Frost, P., Siegfried, W. and Burger, A. (2009). Behavioural adaptations of the Jackass penguin, Spheniscus demersus to a hot, arid environment. Journal of Zoology, 179(2), pp.165-187.

HEATH, R. and RANDALL, R. (1989). Foraging ranges and movements of jackass penguins (Spheniscus demersus) established through radio telemetry. Journal of Zoology, 217(3), pp.367-379.

Trathan, P., García-Borboroglu, P., Boersma, D., Bost, C., Crawford, R., Crossin, G., Cuthbert, R., Dann, P., Davis, L., De La Puente, S., Ellenberg, U., Lynch, H., Mattern, T., Pütz, K., Seddon, P., Trivelpiece, W. and Wienecke, B. (2014). Pollution, habitat loss, fishing, and climate change as critical threats to penguins. Conservation Biology, 29(1), pp.31-41.

Do Penguins Have Knees?…and other frequently asked questions

Penguin knees

Do Penguins Have Knees?…and other frequently asked questions

by Autumn L. Syracuse, Educator I

“Do penguins have knees?” and “So what is a penguin?” are two of the most common questions I hear regarding our penguin colony on display at the Aquarium of Niagara ( Before we talk about penguin anatomy, let’s discuss what a penguin is exactly, first. It’s hard to imagine that these chunky bipeds that don’t fly — but swim — are indeed birds. Ostriches, emus, and rheas are pretty easy to identify as birds with their fluffy plumage of feathers. So why does it seem odd to include penguins in this group of flightless birds? Are all birds descended from one common ancestor?

Birds are: warm-blooded, air breathing, egg-laying, covered in feathers, and possess a bill. Now let’s take a look at penguins: They check all the boxes! “But why are they birds? They are so funny looking!” Although outwardly different from most other birds, penguins still possess many characteristics of other avian species. Let’s get down to the bones of it.

Penguin knees

Okay, so do penguins have knees?

A penguin’s skeletal structure is laid out in the same general pattern as other birds. One obvious characteristic of a bird skeleton is the keel, or sternum. This is designed to be very wide and flat, but lays perpendicular to the ribs. This large bone helps to attach the flight muscles and tendons, which is very important in both form and function to flight. And since penguins “fly” through the water, which is denser, they too need to rely on the keel and flight muscles for propulsion. 

Another important adaptation that varies from other flighted (volant) birds is the density of their bones. Most birds we see flying in our yards and neighborhoods have skeletons with bones that are hollow. This creates a skeleton that is extremely lightweight, allowing the birds to be able to lift off into flight. Penguins would not benefit from bones of this same density. Penguins need to be able to dive underwater to hunt for their fish, and hollow bones would make them too buoyant. To help with this, penguin bones are solid and heavy, helping to give them more weight in order to dive deep.

Penguin knees are tucked up inside their body

Penguins are designed to be streamlined and hydrodynamic, so having long legs would add extra drag. Having short legs with webbed feet to act like rudders, helps to give them that torpedo-like figure. If we compare bird anatomy with humans, we would see something a bit peculiar. By taking a look at the side-by-side image in Figure 1, you can see how their leg bones compare to ours. What most people mistake for knees are actually the ankles of the birds. This gives the illusion that bird knees bend opposite of ours. The knees are actually tucked up inside the body cavity of the bird! So how does this look inside of a penguin? In the images below, you can see boxes surrounding the penguins’ knees. 

Penguin knees
Penguin knees
Colored boxes highlighting the location of penguin knees.

Imagine yourself wearing an oversized shirt, and pulling it over your knees so that only your ankles and feet are showing. Now imagine you’re trying to walk forward in this position. I bet you’d waddle too! This design gives the penguin an advantage in the water to help them swim quickly to catch food or avoid predators. On land, they tend to be slower and clumsy, which makes them more prone to predators. For Antarctic penguins, they rarely encounter predators on land, so having larger bodies isn’t detrimental. For other species in temperate or tropical climates, the water tends to be a bit safer place.

Originally, penguins were classified in the same group as other flightless birds (Ratites). After multiple studies, it was discovered that penguins evolved from flying birds, which were separate from the ancestors of other flightless birds. Mitochondrial DNA has further suggested their relationship to other seafaring flighted birds such as albatross, frigatebirds, and loons. In 2006, more genomic testing suggested that birds of the Ciconiiformes order (storks, gannets, plovers, and boobies) were their closest living relatives (Watanabe et al. 2006). 

Paleontologist Ewan Fordyce with a model replica of a Waimanu penguin.

It is still uncertain as to what other bird species may be related to penguins. But from finding and examining their fossilized bones, we have an idea of what they were like nearly 60 million years ago. Known by the genus name Waimanu, these ancient penguins may hold the record for the oldest evidence of bird lineage. Scientists believe that the extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs during the Cretaceous period, also eliminated almost all bird species. After this catastrophe, it is believed that modern day penguins evolved from the few species that had survived, evolving quickly over a short amount of time—in relation to Earth’s history (Fordyce and Ksepka, 2012).

“So what kind of animal are they?” All of the evidence points to birds, but it still leaves questions unanswered. After learning of this fossil evidence, it leaves me with this question: “Are penguins birds? Or are birds penguins?” When we take a look at other body systems and explore their behavior, things become more “black and white.”

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King Penguins

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Have you ever wondered before reading this if penguins have knees? Let us know what you think, and what you learned. Also, please help us continue to learn more about penguins by donating to Penguins International. We more than appreciate your support!

You can also read more about penguins in the following blogs:

Flipper Bands – Are they worth the risk to save a species?

penguin flipper bands

Flipper Bands – Are they worth the risk to save a species?

by Georgia Podmore

You can walk around a variety of zoos and see that many penguins will have flipper bands with the purpose of enabling keepers to identify the individuals easily. At a glance, this might not appear to be a problem. The penguins are swimming in their enclosure and seem to be behaving normally. However, the small metal band that has an identity scribed onto it could be causing more harm than it is worth.

Since the 1970s, research has investigated the use of flipper bands and the harm that they could cause, generally focusing on wounds that are caused when a penguin goes through its annual molt (Hampton, Ryan and Underhill, 2009). It is not only penguins in captive environment that may be having trouble with flipper bands. Researchers are continuously trying to uncover new information on different species, population counts and climate change. To gain significant data, flipper bands are often used when studying large colonies of penguins.

Are Flipper Bands Safe?

For many years, this topic has caused a debate among researchers. The team at the University of Strasbourg used evidence to back up Rory Wilson’s statement that “Some tags seem to slow down penguins”. (Jackson and Wilson, 2002) The researchers placed metal bands on 50 King Penguins, while 50 other penguins were fitted with minor radio-frequency transponders. After 10 years, it was revealed that survival rates for the banded penguins was 16% lower than the penguins that were fitted with transponders. It was observed that banded birds were affected in a variety of ways, such as being slower to breed and taking longer periods of time to forage (Gauthier-Clerc et al., 2004).

A Yellow-eyed Penguin with a flipper band for identification.

Although there are a variety of studies examining flipper bands and the effect on wild birds, some studies have found no evidence to back this up. Jackson and Wilson (2002) found that with Royal Penguins, there was no difference in the growth of chicks, survival in harsh climates or success of breeding in flipper-banded birds compared to transponder-fitted birds. However, the main portion of research – that has concluded that flipper bands are not detrimental to penguins – has been evaluating short-term use of them (Saraux et al ,. 2011).

Dee Boersma, a leading penguin researcher, believes: “All bands and all penguins are not the same” (Culik, Wilson and Bannasch, 1993).  It is hard to settle a debate when research looking into the effect of flipper bands on penguins is focusing on a variety of different species in a diversity range of environments. With 18 species of penguins all living in various climates, it is difficult to come to a concluding factor on the effect of flipper bands on welfare, as it is dependent on the individual penguins, as well as what type of flipper band is used.

Flipper bands are currently used in research to gain knowledge on the effects of climate change and the impact it is having on marine mammals. Scientists need to gather information on climate change, as it is believed that through observing marine mammals, predictions can be made earlier. Climate change is one of the biggest threats to the world and the species living on it. If scientists can make predictions earlier, this can hopefully make a positive change. If they are unable to use the flipper bands to research the penguins, many other species may be in danger of becoming extinct. Dee Boersma states: “we do have to do some harm if we want to follow individuals” (Culik, Wilson and Bannasch, 1993). However, is it worth the risk to save a species? Significant data shows that penguin survival and breeding rates become lower when fitted with a flipper band. Could the long-term studies of climate change cause the extinction of penguins if these types of research are continuously used?

A Northern Rockhopper Penguin with a flipper band

Investigations into the use of small transponders have found that these have a less negative effect on the individual penguins, although further research is needed to understand whether this will affect welfare negatively in the long-term. The topic is debatable in many ways as studies have found different statistics. It is obvious that flipper bands do cause harm – whether minor or major to penguins – but climate change research is necessary to save the penguins. A study that may help push the use of transponders or similar tracking devices may be a project that assesses captive penguins. The penguins would all be the same species and live in the same environment. This research would enable more data to be published on the effects of flipper bands on specific species, climates and other factors such as age and gender. Through this type of research, this may then enable scientists to lower the risk of affecting wild penguins if they are able to understand what factors may increase the risk.

What are your thoughts on the use of flipper bands on penguins? Let us know! Also, please help us continue to learn more about penguins by donating to Penguins International. We more than appreciate your support!

You can also read more about penguins in the following blogs:


Culik, B., Wilson, R. and Bannasch, R. (1993) Flipper-bands on penguins: what is the cost of a life-long commitment? Marine Ecology Progress Series, 98, pp.209-214.

Gauthier-Clerc, M., Gendner, J., Ribic, C., Fraser, W., Woehler,E., Descamps, S., Gilly, C., Le Bohec, C. and Le Maho, Y. (2004). Long-term effects of flipper bands on penguins. Proceeding of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences, 271 (supple_6)

Hampton, S., Ryan, P. and Underhill (2009) The effect of flipper banding on the breeding success of African Penguins Spheniscus demersus at Boulders Beach, South Africa. Ostrich, 80(2) pp.77-80.

Jackson, S. and Wilson, R. (2002) The potential costs of flipper-bands to penguins. Functional Ecology, 16(1), pp. 141-148.

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