World Penguin Day: Penguin Conservation Status
By Abigail Pietrow, Penguin Keeper
April 25th is World Penguin Day! As we celebrate these wonderful and fascinating flightless birds on this day, let’s check in with how the 18 different species are doing.
Conservation status for each species is noted in terms of its International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List designation.
International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List designation. Photo credit: https://www.iucnredlist.org
Photo Credit: Jessica Caton Diefenbach
The Adelie Penguin is listed as “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List. Their populations were feared to be decreasing until a previously unknown “supercolony” consisting of an estimated 1.5 million individuals was discovered on remote Antarctic islands in 2018. Surprisingly, these birds were located in part due to the discovery of huge guano stains on NASA satellite imagery.
The IUCN Red List considers the African Penguin to be in the “Endangered” category. Populations have declined by almost 65% since 1989 due to a number of different threats like oil spills and overfishing of food sources by humans. Small victories have been noted in recent years, such as the designation of Robben Island, historically an important breeding island for the species, as a protected marine site in 2019. Organizations like the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) work tirelessly to help the survival of this species.
Chinstrap Penguins are currently listed as “Least Concern.” New research published in 2020 reported the results of one of the first censuses of Chinstrap colonies since the 1970s. They reported decreases of up to 50% at some of the colony sites studied. As with other penguin species, increased monitoring of populations could be very useful in helping scientists paint a more accurate picture of how these species are coping with various challenges in their environment.
Photo Credit: Jessica Caton Diefenbach
Source: Penguins International
Perhaps the most well known of all penguin species, the Emperor Penguin is designated as “Near Threatened.” Currently, the population trend of this species is fairly stable, but their reproductive strategy and natural history is linked to the seasonal sea ice of Antarctica. Predictive modeling suggests that over the course of the next century, climate change will effect the formation of Antarctic sea ice enough to significantly imperil this species.
This little-known species breeds on only two groups of islands off of the coast of New Zealand, is possibly one of the least-studied penguins species in the world, and is listed as “Endangered.” Studies conducted indicate rapid decline over the last 50 years but surveys have been limited to only portions of the island groups and may not be wholly reliable estimates.
Also known as “Tawaki” (in Māori) in their native range of New Zealand, the Fiordland penguin is considered “Near Threatened.” When these penguins are not nesting in tangled rainforest, they complete massive migrations of up to 7,000km to search for food prior to the molting season.
The smallest of the Banded Penguins and the northernmost of all penguin species, the Galapagos Penguin is designated as “Endangered.” El Niño events have severely affected populations of this penguin over the last 50 years. Predictive modeling of El Niño patterns has described a 30% chance of extinction for this species within the next century.
The Gentoo Penguin is noted as “Least Concern.” These plucky birds may actually be the penguin “winners” of climate change – as their Sub-Antarctic populations have stabilized in recent years, their Antarctic populations are seeing massive increases. Recent genetic and physical evidence has been uncovered suggesting that the Gentoo Penguin, while currently split into two subspecies, would be more accurately described as four separate species! It’s up to the scientific community now to analyze the merits of this assessment.
Photo Credit: Jessica Caton Diefenbach
Classified as “Vulnerable,” surveys of Humboldt Penguin populations over the last several decades have revealed considerable uncertainty in past population estimates. However, we do know that this species is heavily affected by El Niño events, which massively decrease available food and cause widespread mortality and breeding failure.
Source: Penguins International Photo Library
The King Penguin is the second-largest species behind its cousin, the Emperor Penguin. King Penguins are listed as “Least Concern,” but fairly recent studies have showed wildly different population trends in different parts of their range. According to a 2018 study on South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic, King Penguins have seen a remarkable recovery over the last century after severe historical exploitation for their oil. In the same year, another study was published detailing an 88% decline in the population of this species at a colony in the Crozet Islands.
The smallest species of penguin is designated as “Least Concern” as populations are stable in most locations. However, these tiny birds remain highly vulnerable to human threats such as coastal development, death by domestic pets, invasive and introduced species, and human disturbance at nesting colonies. Sites without active protection have declined severely over time.
Macaroni Penguins are classified as “Vulnerable.” Though some local populations are stable, overall global populations are steadily decreasing. Macaroni Penguins are an incredible example of these flightless seabirds inhabiting some pretty extreme environments as one breeding island is actually the summit of an underwater volcano and has erupted multiple times since the 1990s!
Source: Penguins International
The Magellanic Penguin is listed as “Least Concern,” populations trends are varied across their range. Penguin populations continue to keep scientists on their toes; in 2020 a previously unknown colony of Magellanic Penguins was discovered, hidden among a nesting colony of Rockhopper Penguins that was being surveyed.
The Northern Rockhopper, found on Sub-Antarctic Islands off the southern coastline of Africa is considered “Endangered.” The splitting of the Rockhoppers into two distinct species is a fairly recent occurrence, with evidence presented by Jouventin et al. in 2006. The Northern Rockhopper remains the less studied of the two species, though human exploitation likely played a part in historical declines and current declines continue in present day populations.
The Royal Penguin is “Near Threatened,” and is only found in one population around Macquarie Island south of New Zealand. The population seems to have recovered from historical exploitation though the last substantial survey of the species occurred in 1985.
The Snares Penguin is listed as “Vulnerable” due to its inhabitation of only a single group of islands south of New Zealand, the Snares Islands. While the population of the Snares Penguin is currently stable, with the entire population condensed in such a small area the species vulnerable to be widely effected by a single catastrophic event.
Photo from Macaulay Library
Southern Rockhopper Penguins encompass two subspecies, and together are considered “Vulnerable.” While there is evidence that populations are reproducing at high enough rates to stabilize themselves, several mass mortality events in recent decades, most lately in 2016, have continued to damage populations and delay recovery of the species. These mortality events, while still not fully understood, are thought to be linked to food shortages that accompany fluctuations in sea surface temperature.
Source: Penguins International
The Yellow-Eyed Penguin is the only extant species in its genus, and it designated as “Endangered.” Known in the Māori language as the “Hoiho,” the Yellow-eyed Penguin is native to the coasts and coastal island of southern New Zealand. Today is it one of the rarest penguins in the world with an estimated population of less than 3,000 mature individuals. Total declines in this species over the past 30 years estimated are to be between 50-75%. Organizations dedicated to their recovery, like the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust, work closely to conserve and study this unique species, and restore suitable habitat for them throughout their range.
If you are curious to learn more about each of these penguin species, visit our penguin species page or click on the name of the penguin species listed above.
Check out our blog to learn about what actions you can take to preserve these iconic species! Consider donating to Penguins International to support our education and conservation efforts.
Read more about penguins in some of our other blogs:
- Yellow-Eyed Penguins – one of the rarest penguins in the world
- Spheniscidae Superlatives – Penguin Best of the Best
- Chinstrap Penguins – Risking Their Lives on Zavadovski Island
© Abigail Pietrow 2021
Abigail Pietrow is a penguin keeper at the Aquarium of Niagara, and works extensively with Humboldt Penguins. Any views or opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent those of the Aquarium of Niagara.
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