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September 2019

Galapagos Penguin Conservation

Galapagos Penguins

Galapagos Penguin Conservation

By Sian Liversage

One of the most endangered species of penguin in the world is the Galapagos Penguin. They are endemic to the Galapagos Islands, and are the only penguins that nest entirely in the tropics. They can survive here due to the cool, nutrient-rich waters. Although they are related to the African, Humboldt, and Magellanic species who are all burrow-dwelling penguins, they have adapted their ways to living in caves and crevices in the coastal lava.

These penguins form strong pair bonds and remain with the same partner for their entire lives. Females will lay between one to two eggs a year, the eggs are incubated for approximately 35-40 days, and the fluffy dark brown chicks will fledge around nine weeks old.

How many Galapagos Penguins are left in the wild?

The estimated population size is only 1,351 individuals. This is because some are accidentally caught by fishers or invasive predators will kill them, but one of the biggest issues is climate variability. The population has fluctuated over the last 33 years, especially during the 1982-83 and 1997-98 periods where El Niño events occurred, causing the population to decline by approximately 60%.  During these events, water temperatures increase, making their food less abundant, which in turn affects the breeding success of pairs. Increasing occurrence and severity of El Niño weather events — due to climate change — is an enormous threat to the future of the Galapagos Penguin population.

Despite these threats, the population has been slowly recovering, thanks to the Galapagos Conservancy. Their aim is to reverse the decline of the population, and to strengthen it to a point where they can withstand threats like the El Niño events.

Conservation efforts are slowly helping the Galapagos Penguin populations

To do this, they have provided breeding opportunities by building 120 shaded nest sites constructed of stacked lava rocks. This is because there are limited nest options, old sites may no longer exist, marine iguanas may have overtaken them, or they may regularly flood. Because their ability to breed also relates to the unpredictability of food, Galapagos Conservancy want to ensure that when breeding conditions are good and food is abundant, all penguins have the option of a high-quality nest site to keep their eggs safe and cool from the sun.

Researchers will then monitor the population two or three times per year to determine the status of the population, and whether the human-built nest sites do, in fact, contribute towards the reproductive success of pairs when conditions are good and food is abundant. 

Galapagos Penguin in its burrow with eggs
Adult penguin using an artificially constructed nest. (Photo © Dee Boersma)

The most recent monitoring trip in 2017-2018, observed several juvenile penguins in good condition, indicating a successful breeding season. These successful pairs were seen using both natural nest sites as well as constructed ones. Since the project began, almost a quarter of all penguin breeding activity has been observed using constructed nest sites – making it an incredibly beneficial method to use to in order to help increase the number of individuals.

Going one step further, the researchers are now pushing towards making a marine protected zone in Elizabeth Bay, a key area around the Mariela Islands that represents the highest density of breeding Galapagos Penguins. This will not only benefit them, but also other species such as seabirds, marine mammals, and fish.

Visitors can help Galapagos Penguin conservation efforts as well

Galapagos Penguins artificial nest boxes
Artificially constructed penguin nest. (Photo © C. Capello)

Furthermore, they have established the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels, focusing on Galapagos and Magellanic Penguins. This encourages visitors to upload any photos of penguins they have taken on the island, in order to help provide useful data such as date and location of the penguins. As the database expands, it helps to determine when the penguins are moulting and help to keep track of when juveniles appear in the population.

Due to the endangered status of the Galapagos Penguin, any conservation initiative regarding preserving this species is vital to their survival, and without continuing the conservation measures that are already in place, the species could be at risk of being lost.

Don’t you want to go see these penguins even more now to help their conservation? Please help us continue learn more about this type of information, and protect penguins by donating to Penguins International.

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  1. BirdLife International. 2011. Species factsheet: Galapagos Penguin Spheniscus mendiculus. Downloaded from BirdLife International.
  2. Carlson, A. L. and J. S. Townsdin (2012). Galapagos Penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus), version 1.0. In Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.
  3. Galapagos Conservation. Webpage:
  4. Galapagos Conservancy Webpage:

Gentoo Penguins and the Impacts of Tourism

Gentoo Penguins

Gentoo Penguins and the Impacts of Tourism

by Nataly H. Aranzamendi

Tourists want to visit Antarctica because it’s one of the most pristine places in the world

Until relatively recently been an unreachable location for humans. Lately, with ecotourism increasing in this isolated corner of the world, a threat for our beloved penguins might be surging.

In the past, many people have tried to reach Antarctica, the frozen continent, because it was one of the last unconquered places on Earth and was the conquest dream of early explorers. However, this situation is changing now with the growth of ecotourism. In just the past year more than 58,000 tourists visited Antarctica during the austral summer1. Such massive human activity represents a potential threat for penguin colonies, which are the most visited attractions. 

Unfortunately for the penguins, most of the visits occur during their time out of the ocean, while they are nesting, which is a critical period for penguin populations. 

Protecting Penguins – How do we minimize impacts of tourists on penguins ?

To protect the inhabitants of the frozen continent, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) has set up strict guidelines for tourists and tour operators to follow to minimize impacts on this delicate ecosystem. For example, only 100 tourists can approach penguin colonies at a time, and they have to maintain a minimum distance of 5 meters from nesting penguins. 

Although such guidelines seem to be working in Antarctica, there is mixed evidence about how penguins respond to humans at other locations. For example, some penguins get stressed in the presence of humans (see Stressed Penguins).

Some species of penguins have even shown evidence of habituation to humans when visits are constant. This means that the repeated exposure to humans decreases the physiological responses of animals to such stimulus, ending in lower levels of stress hormones and no responses from the penguins. 

In a recent study1, researchers have measured a combination of corticosterone and metabolites, as a proxy of physiological stress in 19 Gentoo Penguin colonies. The aim of this study was to quantify if those metabolites varied in relation to the number of tourists visiting the colonies and if the current guidelines implemented in Antarctica were enough to protect nesting Gentoo Penguins. The researchers were also expecting to observe habituated individuals in colonies that receive a greater influx of people. 

Scientists can actually measure penguin stress

In order to study the amount of stress hormones in penguin colonies, the researchers used a non-invasive technique measuring metabolites in guano (i.e. in penguin poo). This approach could minimize the stress provoked by direct handling and the presence of researchers. 

The study showed that the amount of glucocorticoids found in Gentoo guano had a large degree of variation within-colonies, which was larger than the differences between colonies, independently of the number of tourists that visited the areas. 

Gentoo Penguins

According to the researchers, the lack of differences in stress levels highlight that Gentoo Penguins do not seem to be affected by tourism, as the number of landings in colonies varied significantly from no visits to more than 21,000 landings in one season! The researchers argued that such variation in stress hormones might be a result from other external sources at the colony (e.g. predators, other penguins, food availability, etc.). 

The study also indicated that unlike other species of penguins, Gentoo Penguins do not display signs of habituation, as lower and more consistent corticosterone concentrations would have been expected in more visited areas. 

It seems like Gentoo Penguins are not affected by tourism and guidelines might be effective for them. However, caution is needed when interpreting those results. Other authors have argued that measuring glucocorticoids from “poo” might have limitations as it mixes results from many individuals. To confirm these findings, repeated individual measures are still needed. 

In other species of penguins, individuals might react differently to stressing factors according to personality. Perhaps individual personality studies could explain why intra-colony levels of corticosterone showed such levels of variation.

Although this study focused only on one penguin species, it gives a positive look on how our activities can be managed to a minimal impact. Perhaps Gentoo Penguin are unaffected by the presence of intruders, which could potentially provide us a great opportunity to continue observing the most intimate details of their lives. 

We want to see these penguins and we never know what we might or might not be doing when we visit their habitat. This research is incredible! We enjoy bringing this to you and hope you enjoy it as well! We more than appreciate any help you provide us with your kind donations to Penguins International.

We have other blogs about these birds, as well, if you’ve missed a few:

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  1. Lynch, M. A., Youngflesh, C., Agha, N. H., Ottinger, M. A., & Lynch, H. J. (2019). Tourism and stress hormone measures in Gentoo Penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula. Polar Biology, 1-8.

Fiordland Penguins: How far would you go for your food?

Fiordland Penguin Tawaki

Fiordland Penguins: How far would you go for your food?

by Sian Liversage

We usually think of penguins surrounded by icebergs and snow, but in the depths of the rainforests of New Zealand is one of the world’s rarest penguin species – the Fiordland Penguin, a member of the crested group of penguins. New Zealand Maori call it Tawaki.

First, some facts and information about Fiordland Penguins

These birds have chosen to ignore the penguin stereotype in favour of the southwestern coast lines of the South Island, as well as Stewart, Codfish and Solander islands. They seem to have chosen a secluded life, and are known to be very secretive, mainly because they nest in dense bush, caves, rock crevasses, tree logs and roots. This, combined with the areas in which they live, being notoriously hard to reach, therefore hinder efforts to determine their exact population size, the threats they face, and their behaviours.

How many Fiordland Penguins are there?

The current population estimate is between 5,000-7,000 individual Fiordland Penguins, making them Nationally Vulnerable, and it is presumed that this figure is on the decline. The warming of the oceans, tourism and fisheries are highly likely to have an effect on the penguins, but effects on their lives still need to be studied scientifically.

So far, there has been very little research on Fiordland Penguins

Only a handful of studies have been conducted on these birds in the last 40 years, with the most comprehensive one being carried out in the 1970s. Despite the difficulties of doing so, 5 years ago a team of scientists launched the first long-term study to be conducted in order to try to understand these allusive penguins.

Their most recent 2018 study discovered and impressed researchers with the lengths at which individuals will go to in order to find food. The aim of the study was to learn more about their migration habits after breeding. Once penguin chicks have fledged, the adults need to pack on the weight in preparation for their annual moult. This annual moult is called a “catastrophic moult”, where they lose and regrow their feathers all at once over a period of 3 weeks. This takes up a lot of energy and stops them from being able to hunt for prey. 

So, during this critical weight gaining period, they need to ensure they have enough body fat to make it through the feather moulting stage. The researchers originally assumed that because the birds live and breed on the New Zealand mainland, they wouldn’t travel far to hunt.

Fiordland Penguins travel extremely far for their food!

Nevertheless, this assumption was thrown out of the water when researchers fitted GPS satellite trackers to 20 birds, with the aim of tracking their movements in real time. They discovered that they swam to the Auckland Islands, carried onto Macquarie Island, and then ended up halfway to Antarctica within a couple of weeks. A record was set by the champion of the group who swam almost 7000 kilometres in two months! This was a surprising outcome, given the limited time they have between the end of the breeding season in December and the onset of the annual feather moult in February. Researchers concluded that they think this behaviour could be down to instinct rather than actual necessity. Oceanic productivity reaches its peak during this period, so it appears unlikely that food limitation was the driving force of this behaviour.

Fiordland Penguin Tawaki

Further on from this study, the researchers are now keen to discover more about where they go, this time during the non-breeding season, where they spend months foraging out at sea. Small tracking devices will be attached to their legs and will stay on the bird for a whole year. This is the first time this sort of research is being done, so it will paint a significant picture of where they travel throughout the year. With years of data recorded, the researchers are gradually unravelling the secret life of the Fiordland Penguin. These birds spend 80% of their lives at sea, so it is hoped that this newfound knowledge will contribute towards the protection of these mysterious penguins.

This is some great information about Fiordland Penguins! Did you learn something new? As usual, we love providing you with the info, and couldn’t do it without your help. Please consider donating to Penguins International so we can provide more educational penguin knowledge.

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Enrichment for Captive Penguins: Can it be successful?

Humboldt Penguin

Enrichment for Penguins: Is it needed, can it be successful?

by Georgia Podmore

One of an animal keeper’s main tasks during their day is to design and offer enrichment for a variety of species. In my work place we have tried simple enrichment with the Humboldt Penguins, but they all seemed nervous of the objects. So, it has now become normal for enrichment to be overlooked at the facility, as the penguins do not use it anyway. This is not affecting the penguins lives however, as there are no signs of stress in the colony. Rickey Kinley, a Senior Aviculture Keeper at Cincinnati Zoo, also has problems with the penguins not being interested in “playing” with enrichment devices (Yin and Kinley, 2015).

Hunting for fish is a penguin’s enrichment in the natural environment

Focusing on why enrichment may be needed would mean looking at the Humboldt Penguin’s natural behaviours out in the wild. The biggest form of enrichment for a wild penguin would be hunting for fish. This cannot be easily replicated in a captive environment as live fish are not fed to penguins. A lot of zoos also feed penguins by hand to make sure that individuals are getting enough to eat (Ings, Waran and Young, 1997). It can be a difficult task to ensure top physical health for penguins if food is then being put in enrichment, as certain penguins may not be interested and therefore lose condition.

Wild penguins normally spend most of their time swimming in the ocean, but Cincinnati Zoo stated that their penguins spend most of their day on land. The different types of enrichment below look at how these may affect penguin activity and behaviour and hopefully will lead to further development of penguin enrichment ideas.

zookeeper feeding captive penguins
Photo by Georgia Podmore

What types of enrichment work for penguins in captivity?

Physical Habitat

The enclosure for penguins should guarantee that is has the correct space for the number of penguins, alongside ensuring that it has land and water within it. When looking at enclosure design, keepers need to be thinking about utilising space for enrichment. This may include having areas that the fish can be hidden for the penguins. For most captive penguins their enclosures will meet the requirements set by governing bodies. This ensures that the penguins have a positive environment. A great idea used at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo incorporates floating platforms in the middle of the water as this encourages the penguins to be more active around the enclosure. 

Enclosure design is very important for captive penguins


Penguins are extremely social animals, so it is important that they are housed in social groups to ensure that they are stimulated. Most collections holding penguins will generally always have a small group but something that may also develop social enrichment are mixed species exhibits. These exhibits consist of having animals that would naturally encounter each other in the wild, which then creates enrichment through species interaction. There is not a lot of examples of this being done with penguins, however it may be something that could be researched further to look at whether it may benefit activity. Mirrors are often used as social enrichment for horses that are stabled alone and have been proven to reduce stress. Mirrors could be added under the surface of the water as this may encourage more swimming activity. 


Food based enrichment is the most used method of enrichment and is generally used to prolong feeding times of animals. As previously mentioned most captive penguins will be hand fed to ensure that they are all getting enough fish per day. Cincinnati zoo used hamster balls in the water that had fish inside them, as this would encourage the penguins to spend longer swimming while also enabling them to use their hunting skills. This was not a simple task though as keepers stated that the penguins were initially nervous of the hamster balls, so they had to be slowly trained to positively associate the balls with food (Yin and Kinley, 2015). This took over 15 weeks but shows that if animal keepers take the time to slowly introduce enrichment devices, the penguins will become adapted and start to use enrichment.


Novel objects such as boomer balls and tyres are classed as cognitive enrichment, with the main aim of enhancing the animal’s mental stimulation (Puppe et al., 2007). The hamster balls used by Cincinnati Zoo can be used as an example of cognitive enrichment. As mentioned, penguins can be quite nervous around novel objects so this is something that may need to be slowly introduced. This is also a reason why you may not see many novel objects in a penguin enclosure.


Sensory enrichment can focus on any of the five senses. This is a type of enrichment that can be used successfully for penguins and should be promoted more within the captive environments. RZSS Edinburgh Zoo discussed the success of a bubble machine for their 130 penguins stating that “All three of our penguin species loved playing with the bubbles” (Edinburgh Zoo, 2018)

There is a lack of sources online that discuss penguin enrichment. Although it is obvious that enriching penguins can be difficult, and some may not feel that it is necessary. The bubble machine popularity at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo gives an example of enrichment that is increasing mental stimulation in captive penguins. With further practise and study more enrichment ideas may then also be found, and this will enable captive penguins to thrive (Lindley, 2004). Enrichment should be given to any animal whether it is showing signs of stress or not, as the main aim should always be to keep trying to improve captive animal welfare. Zoos across the world need to be publishing images of their trials with enrichment to communicate and be able to develop enrichment for penguins.

Natural environment vs zoos; a difference and something to try to match. What did you find out in this blog? We love bringing you this type of information, but also can’t do it without your help. Please consider donating to Penguins International so we can continue to keep you informed.

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Reference List:

Edinburgh Zoo. (2018). Unbelieva-bubble penguin enrichment at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo | Edinburgh Zoo. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Aug. 2019].

Ings, R., Waran, N. and Young, R. (1997). Attitude of zoo visitors to the idea of feeding live prey to zoo animals. Zoo Biology, 16(4), pp.343-347.

Lindley, A. (2004). Environmental Enrichment for Captive Animals. The Veterinary Journal, 168(2), p.173.

Puppe, B., Ernst, K., Schön, P. and Manteuffel, G. (2007). Cognitive enrichment affects behavioural reactivity in domestic pigs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 105(1-3), pp.75-86.

Yin, D. and Kinley, R. (2015). Cincinnati Zoo Penguin Training. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Aug. 2019].

Etymology of Penguin Names

Etymology, Penguins, Names, penguin species, scientific names, taxonomy, birds, latin

Etymology of Penguin Names

By Megan Spofford

Let’s take a look at all of the penguin species, and interpret their scientific names!

First, let’s review penguin taxonomy – where do penguin scientific names come from?

WEDGE, Wedge, wedge.

In taxonomy, penguins are differentiated from other birds (Aves) at the order level: Sphenisciformes (the beige color in Figure 1). This order is comprised of all penguins that have ever existed. The word breaks down into sphenisci– which is Latin for wedge, and –formes which means shape. Penguins are kind of wedge-shaped! The next branch, the family, is Spheniscidae and describes only penguins that exist today. We’ve seen the first part of the word before, but the ending -dae means “resemblance.” Penguins branch out from here into 6 genera and then into the 18 recognized species we all know and love.

Etymology, Penguins, Names, penguin species, scientific names, taxonomy, birds, latin

Now, what exactly do these different penguin names mean?

Scientific names

Banded Penguins

  1. Spheniscus is one of the genera that further identifies penguins. It seems a little bit like deja vu, right? This descriptor in Latin means… you guessed it!…wedge-like. So this type of penguin is wedge-shaped, wedge-resembling, and wedge-like. As descriptive as that is, scientists often refer to this group as “banded penguins” because of the thin, black band that runs along the top of their chest. The common names of the penguins belonging to this group are African, Magellanic, Galapagos, and Humboldt Penguins.
  • The name that a scientist would use to identify the African Penguin is Spheniscus demersus. Demersus means “plunging” in Latin and is an homage to this banded bird’s diving capabilities.
  • The Magellanic Penguin shares part of its common name with its scientific name: Spheniscus magellanicus. Ferdinand Magellan was the first European to explore the area of Chile where these Magellanic Penguins are found. Many places in that region bear his name, including this well-known banded penguin.
  • Galapagos Penguins are known as Spheniscus mendiculus. Mendiculus means “little beggar.” Perhaps the scientist who named this species was not impressed with a behavior the Galapagos Penguins seemed to exhibit!
  • Spheniscus humboldti is more commonly known as the Humboldt Penguin. Alexander von Humboldt was a German explorer interested in nature throughout central South America. He spent time working in Peru, where this penguin named after him can be found.

Brush-tailed penguins

2. Pygoscelis is another genus of penguins, and it means “rump-legged” in Greek. This descriptor is kind of a mind bender. Scientists commonly call these penguins brush-tailed since their tail sweeps from side to side as they walk. This genus is comprised of Adelie, Chinstrap, and Gentoo Penguins.

  • The Adelie Penguin is scientifically called Pygoscelis adeliae. This penguin’s species name also comes from an explorer, Frenchman Jules Dumont d’Urville. However, Adeliae is nowhere in his name. Instead, Adéle was the name of his wife, and when he discovered this penguin while exploring Antarctica, he committed the ultimate act of romance by naming the adorable Adelie Penguin after her.
  • Chinstrap Penguins, or Pygoscelis antarcticus, can be found on many sub-Antarctic islands. The species name reflects this fact. The Chinstrap Penguin’s common name comes from – you guessed it – the black stripe that runs beneath their chin.
  • Gentoo Penguins (Pygoscelis papua) was actually misnamed, as the explorer who named them wrongly believed they were in Papua New Guinea when he saw them, however there are no penguins that exist there. The origin of the common name “Gentoo” is unclear.

The largest penguins

3. The Aptenodytes genus can be derived from the Greek words apten- for “featherless” and -dytes for “diver”. This characterization is a bit off, obviously, as penguins have many feathers — but they are great divers! The 2 largest penguin species belong to Aptenodytes; the Emperor and King Penguins.

  • Emperor Penguins are called Aptenodytes forsteri. Forsteri comes from the explorer Johann Reinhold Forster. He was a naturalist who traveled with Captain Cook and gave us some of the first accounts of penguins, including being attributed for discovering our largest living species of penguin.
  • King Penguins can be found throughout the sub-Antarctic islands as well as in the Patagonia region of South America, creating the origin of their scientific name, Aptenodytes patagonicus.
Etymology, Penguins, Names, penguin species, scientific names, taxonomy, birds, latin
Photo Credit: Peppermint Narwhal

Crested penguins

4. Eudyptes are crested penguins whose name means “good diver.” The common names of penguins belonging to this genus are Erect-crested, Fiordland, Macaroni, Northern Rockhopper, Royal, Snares, and Southern Rockhopper Penguins.

  • The Erect-Crested Penguin is Eudyptes sclateri. Sclateri is given to this species name as an homage for the British zoologist Philip Sclater, who is most well-known for mapping out regions of the world based on zoogeography.
  • Fiordland Penguins were given the name Eudyptes pachyrhynchus, with the latter meaning “thick beak” in Greek.
  • Eudyptes chrysolophus (which means “golden crested”) is a great name for the Macaroni Penguin!
  • The Northern Rockhopper Penguin is sometimes also called the Moseley’s Penguin, hence the species name Eudyptes moseleyi. Moseley was yet another exploring naturalist who described this species while encountering them aboard the H.M.S. Challenger. Because Moseley was not an ornithologist and had only heard about penguins, he first thought they were some sort of pygmy dolphin until he saw them leap from the water to land.
  • Hermann Schlegel was a German zoologist who, ironically, opposed Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. Schlegel has 7 species of reptiles, 1 species of fish and 1 species of penguin (the Royal Penguin- Eudyptes schlegeli) named after him.
  • Snares Penguin, Eudyptes robustus, is so named because of its robust bill.
  • Southern Rockhopper Penguins (Eudyptes chrysocome) are as aptly named as Macaroni penguins, because similarly chrysocome means “golden hair.”

The smallest penguin

5. Eudyptula covers only one species: the Little Penguin. As with Eudyptes, the name means “good diver,” but the -ula at the end of the word is a diminutive suffix that implies this one is smaller. Hence, the Eudyptula member is a good little diver.

  • The Little Penguin is known by the species name Eudyptula minor. Minor, of course, reinforces the smallness of this penguin.

A penguin all on its own

6. Megadyptes also has only one species of penguin under its genus, but it means “large diver.” The Yellow-eyed Penguin fits into the phylogenetic tree of life here.

  • The Yellow-eyed Penguin is identified as Megadyptes antipodes. The species is named after the region where it breeds (Australia and New Zealand as a unit are sometimes referred to as the Antipodes.)
Etymology of penguin names
The evolutionary history of penguins. From: Cole et al. (2019) Molecular Biology and Evolution

Great info about how penguins got their names. Did you know about this? We love bringing you all this information. And, we can’t do it without your help. Please consider donating to Penguins International.


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  1. Chrono-Biographical Sketch: Philip Lutley Sclater,
  2. Cole, T. L., Ksepka, D. T., Mitchell, K. J., Tennyson, A. J. D., Thomas, D. B., Pan, H., … Waters, J. M. (2019).Mitogenomes uncover extinct penguin taxa and reveal island formation as a key driver of speciation. Molecular Biology and Evolution.
  3. “Dictionary by Merriam-Webster: America’s Most-Trusted Online Dictionary.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster,
  4. Kellner, Charlotte L. “Alexander Von Humboldt.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.,
  5. Macdougall, Doug. Endless Novelties of Extraordinary Interest. The Voyage of H.M.S. Challenger and the Birth of Modern Oceanography. Yale University Press, 2019.
  6. Reunes-Vanhaevre, Hedwig. Pinguins Info – Penguin – Information about Spheniscus Penguins,
  7. Roy, Tui De, et al. Penguins: the Ultimate Guide. Princeton University Press, 2014.
  8. “Schlegel’s Curse, a Natural History Story.” JCM Natural History Photography, 7 Nov. 2017,
  9. Troelstra, Anne S. A Bibliography of Natural History Travel Narratives. ebook, KNNV Uitgeverij, 2016.

Avian Diphtheria and penguins “More questions than answers”

Yellow-eyed penguin chick receiving a vaccine

Avian Diphtheria and penguins “More questions than answers”

by Georgia Podmore

Avian diphtheria is a term applied to a variety of infections such as avian pox. One type of this illness can be transmitted through mosquitos and causes wart growths on un-feathered skin from a virus. A second form of this illness affects the throat of the bird and is caused by a bacterial infection. This post will be discussing this second type of avian diphtheria that caused by bacteria known as Corynebacterium diphtheriae. This bacterium causes a membrane to form in the throat and produces toxin that can cause organs to fail (Massaro et al., 2004).

How does avian diphtheria affect penguins?

Avian diphtheria is common in young chicks and can cause aspiration pneumonia, subsequently causing blockages to the airways (Pfaff et al., 2017). As the airway becomes blocked, the penguin not only has difficulty breathing, but also is unable to feed, which then causes starvation and dehydration (Ratz and Murphy, 1999). Some penguins have been known to overcome the disease and survive, however these survivors typically reduced growth rates and generally have a poor condition (MacLean, 2016).

Yellow-eyed Penguins in particular are susceptible to avian diphtheria

Yellow-eyed Penguins are affected highly by avian diphtheria with reports in 2004 of 90% of New Zealand mainland penguins having contracted the infection, and over 50% resulting in fatality (, 2014). These figures demonstrate why research is so important to be undertaken on this disease, investigating its causes and understanding potential treatments. Throughout New Zealand, researchers are continuously observing Yellow-eyed Penguins and are desperate to pinpoint the causes of this devastating infection, while also attempting to develop a vaccine and increase survivability in these highly endangered penguins. In 2014, the Department of Conservation and Ministry for Primary Industries began a study on the disease, but despite intensive research, still unfortunately stated that they “came away empty handed” (, 2014).

Previous anecdotes pointed to seasonal cycles in avian diphtheria, causing outbreaks colonies every other year. Veterinarian Kate McInnes, however, believes this is no longer the case, and that availability of food plays a much larger role in contraction of the disease (Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust, 2018). According to Dr. McInnes, “If we have a really good year with little break out there seems to be lots of food, whereas if we have less food, we do not seem to see [avian diphtheria]. But this has not yet been proven as a factor” (Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust, 2018).

How are penguins with avian diphtheria being treated?

To ensure the highest possible success rate of any penguins there are now vets and rehabilitation centres on hand to help nurse sick penguins back to health. In 2015, 46% of the chicks that contracted the disease were given antibiotics daily for five days. These treatments were shown to reduce pain and swelling in the afflicted penguins, and appear to be increasing survival rates (Pfaff et al., 2017). The number of Yellow-eyed Penguins is declining, sadly, and this disease is a big factor in why the numbers are continuously dropping. It has been reported that in 2014, 77 chicks hatched, but after the outbreak of avian diphtheria only 55 chicks fledged successfully (Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust, 2018).

Yellow-eyed penguin chick receiving a vaccine
Penguin chick with avian diphtheria receiving antibiotics (Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust, 2018).

The good news, however, in that some chicks are surviving the infection, which offers a glimmer hope for these endangered Yellow-eyed Penguins. After many years of studies by dedicated researchers and countless samples from infected penguins, researchers are starting to be able to understand the disease. Mel Young for instance, a DOC Ranger in New Zealand, found that chicks appear to catch an unknown virus first, then caught avian diphtheria as a secondary disease while their immune systems were compromised (Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust, 2018). Small steps such as this finding will eventually lead to a cure for such a debilitating disease in penguins.

There are a variety of diseases that can affect many species across the world. Avian diphtheria is an infection that is causing fatalities to the Yellow-eyed Penguins of New Zealand, and the cause is still unknown. As the Yellow-eyed Penguin is an endangered animal, it needs to be understood that there is a large amount of help and funding being put towards conserving them, whether this be through research or rehabilitation. Research is continuously being undertaken on avian diphtheria and even though there have not been many answers about the disease, there are signs of survival in penguins. This is a good indicator that the disease can eventually be treated, and vaccines created. 

What did you learn after reading about avian diphtheria? Let us know! And, we more than appreciate any support you can give us to continue learning about penguins by donating to Penguins International.

You can also learn more about penguins by some of our other blogs. Just a couple include:

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Reference List

Disease. (2018). [image] Available at: [Accessed 31 Aug. 2019]. (2014). Cause of yellow-eyed penguin disease investigated. [online] Available at: [Accessed 31 Aug. 2019].

MacLean, H. (2016). Diphtheria threat to penguin colonies. [online] Otago Daily Times Online News. Available at: [Accessed 31 Aug. 2019].

Massaro, M., Davis, L., Darby, J., Robertson, G. and Setiawan, A. (2004). Intraspecific variation of incubation periods in Yellow-eyed Penguins Megadyptes antipodes: testing the influence of age, laying date and egg size. Ibis, 146(3), pp.526-530.

How Do Penguins Breathe — aka “Do Penguins Have Gills?”

Penguin anatomy and physiology

How Do Penguins Breathe — aka “Do Penguins Have Gills?”

Autumn L. Syracuse, Educator I

As our penguins swim through the pool in their exhibit at the Aquarium of Niagara, another common question we are asked is “How do penguins breathe? I don’t see their gills.” As we have previously discussed, penguins are in fact a bird. They rely on breathing oxygen from the air like other birds, and like us too. Though perfectly adapted to life as an aquatic predator, penguins cannot stay underwater indefinitely. Their respiratory system contains lungs, like other air-breathing animals, as well as air sacs, a common trait among birds themselves.

First, a little penguin anatomy – birds breathe differently than humans

Let’s first discuss how respiration in birds compares to respiration in humans. When we breathe air, humans will inhale, drawing air through the windpipe, each of the 2 branches of bronchus, and into each lung. Once inhaled, the oxygenated air will travel into the alveoli where gas exchange will happen. When exhaling, the deoxygenated air will travel in reverse from inhalation. The lungs will compress, and push the air out of the alveoli, through the bronchus, and back out through the windpipe. This type of air flow is referred to as “bidirectional”.

In birds, both inhalation and exhalation will occur, but will flow in a “unidirectional” path. When birds inhale, the ribs expand and oxygenated air travels in the same way as humans: through the windpipe, into the bronchus, and into the lung. Gas exchange happens in the parabronchi within the lung. When exhalation happens, the deoxygenated air does not go in reverse like in humans. The air flows out of the lung via a second bronchus that will draw the air out through the windpipe (Scheid, 1979). Both inhalation and exhalation occur in each species. However, they contrast in the direction of air flow. Let’s look at it like going out for a jog. In human-respiration, air travels in an out-and back-motion. If you want to run a mile, you may start at your house, run a half mile down the street, then turn around to come back. In bird respiration, air travels in a circular motion. If you want to run a mile, you could leave your house and travel in a loop and return home to complete that mile.

penguin anatomy and physiology
Figure 1. Anatomy of bird respiratory system.

Birds have air sacs in addition to lungs

In addition to lungs, birds also have air sacs. Nine of them to be exact: 2 cervical air sacs, 1 interclavicular air sac, 2 anterior thoracic air sacs, 2 posterior thoracic air sacs, and 2 abdominal air sacs. Upon inspiration, air moves into the 4 posterior air sacs. During expiration, the air then moves through the parabronchi in the lungs to allow gas exchange to take place. The second inspiration draws air into the 5 remaining anterior air sacs. The second expiration will then allow air to exit the body through the trachea. It will take two breathing cycles (inspiration and expiration) for air to move completely through the bird respiratory system.

This process may seem a bit confusing, and it was to me at first also! Tracing the air flow through the system makes it a bit easier to understand.  Here is a video to better understand how this process works:

How does a penguin hold its breath so long?

So how does this help penguins while they’re diving and holding their breath? It’s not so much the process, but the physiology of their lungs. Many studies have been done in regards to marine mammals and how diving affects their lungs. The ability to collapse their lungs when diving helps against the extreme pressures of the deep ocean. This also prevents gas exchange from happening at deep depths, which in turn prevents nitrogen from building up in the lungs. If you’re familiar with SCUBA, one of the risks of diving is this build-up of nitrogen in the lungs, especially on rapid ascent.  Diving birds however, and birds in general, have very rigid lungs and surrounding structures which cannot collapse as marine mammals do. Though this sounds counter-productive when diving, it does help when ascending to the surface. Penguins will use their natural buoyancy to spend less energy coming back up to the surface.

Remember the unidirectional flow of air in bird lungs? This process allows only oxygenated air to come in contact with the parabronchi, and allows the lungs to store 30-45% of its body’s total oxygen compared to marine mammals storing between 5-20% of their total oxygen (Ponganis, St. Leger, and Scadeng, 2015). By storing more oxygen, this will help provide the muscles in the wings and shoulders with enough energy to propel themselves deeper into the ocean. After reaching these depths, the air within the lungs and air sacs will then allow the penguin to ascend to the surface naturally. 

Penguins are some of the best divers in the underwater world, utilizing oxygen to its fullest. Next time you’re at your local zoo or aquarium, check out these amazing animals and see if you can hold your breath up to the penguins’ expectations!

Penguin anatomy and physiology
Figure 2. Two patterns of breathing to help penguins hold their breath for diving deep.
Credit: Karl Tate, LiveScience Infographic Artist

Did you know about how penguins breathe? Let us know 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:


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King Penguins

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Scheid, 1979. Respiration and Control of Breathing in Birds

Ponganis, St. Leger, and Scadeng, 2015. Penguin lungs and air sacs: implications for baroprotection, oxygen stores and buoyancy


Credit: Karl Tate, LiveScience Infographic Artist