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Sian Liversage

Chinstrap Penguins: Risking Their Lives on Zavodovski Island

Chinstrap Penguin

Chinstrap Penguins: Risking Their Lives on Zavodovski Island

By Sian Liversage

We often think of penguin colonies as a magical place, full of cute fluffy chicks and amazing doting parents. However, these situations are far from the truth when you add some of the most dangerous seas and an active volcano spewing ash into the mix. 

Zavodovski Island – One of the largest Chinstrap Penguin colonies in the world

Chinstrap Penguins stand 75cm tall and are well known for their narrow band of black feathers that pass from ear to ear across the face and under the chin. One of the largest Chinstrap Penguin colonies in the world is on Zavodovski Island, situated in the South Sandwich Islands in Antarctica. With 7.5 million Chinstrap Penguins worldwide, the colony represents over one-seventh of the species’ global population. As well as this vast population, approximately 180,000 Macaroni Penguins are resident here too.

The Chinstraps arrive to breed during the October and November months to lay 2 small eggs on the ground in a nest that is lined with small stones. Eggs are incubated by both the males and females, where they will often incubate in stints of up to 6 days at a time. During this time, one penguin will be feeding on Antarctic krill and various other crustaceans of which the chicks rely on for growth and development, while the other penguin will keep the eggs warm and protected.

Chinstrap Penguin
A Chinstrap Penguin in Antarctica. Source: Penguins International Photo Library

In order to get the food though, the penguins must face treacherous waters and 30-foot cliffs that surround the island, risking severe injury or even worse – death. (see link below)

These Chinstraps have to face catastrophic natural disasters to survive

Their strong feet and long claws allow them to grip to the rocks as best they can with some varying success, however, with the pounding waves it is inevitable that they won’t always succeed. To make things even more astounding, this isn’t the only hardship they go through. Not only do they have to endure the perilous seas every 6 days for weeks on end to feed their chicks, but they also face natural disasters too.

The volcanic eruption on Mount Curry severely threatened this penguin colony

Zavodovski Island is home to an active volcano, called Mount Curry. In 2016, it threatened more than 1 million Chinstrap Penguins, so much so that the population was in risk of being wiped out. The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) stated that the volcano had erupted and covered the island in toxic smoke and ash. The penguins were in grave danger of the smoke causing breathing difficulties, and the volcanic discharge could have potentially burned them or buried them in ash. The timing was terrible for the poor birds, as it was during their annual moult which meant that they couldn’t swim to find safety. During moulting, the penguins lose their insulation and waterproofing as they shed their old feathers for new ones, therefore they are forced to stay on land and out of the water. 

Mt Curry
Mount Curry on Zavodovski Island erupted on March 2016.  Photo Credit: British Antarctic Survey

The penguins survived, but scientists have little ability to observe how they react to such an eruption

This is believed to have been the first time Zavodovski Island has been witnessed erupting, and it is thought that this event occurred following a 7.2 magnitude earthquake only a month before. Although this threat occurred a few years ago, to this day the volcano remains active and could easily erupt again leaving the penguins at its peril. With the island being so remote – over a thousand miles away from the nearest continental coastline – surveys cannot be undertaken regularly as the trip requires acute planning for the safety of the scientists involved. Therefore, the population could easily be wiped out without anyone even realising.

The impact that mother nature throws at this penguin colony is astonishing and often scientists are unsure what impact they will have on the health and survival of the population in the long run. Only by sending scientific expeditions to the region can they have a better understanding of how Chinstrap Penguins manage to survive these ongoing threats.

Did you ever imagine that penguins not only have to survive the harsh temperatures of Antarctica, but some penguins even have to live and survive around massive volcanic eruptions. Have you ever seen a volcanic eruption in person? Let us know what you think? And please help us to continue to provide you with penguin news articles by donating to Penguins International.

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Ellenbroek, B. 2013 [updated 2017]. Chinstrap penguin. In Miskelly, C.M. (ed.) New Zealand Birds

Knapton, S. 2016. Penguins on world’s smelliest island in danger as volcano erupts, covering them in ash. Webpage:

Sidder, A. 2016. Erupting volcano may have destroyed huge penguin colony. Webpage:


How Do Penguins Feed Their Chicks?

How Do Penguins Feed Their Chicks?

By Sian Liversage

It’s easy to say that you can learn a lot from watching a penguin colony, from their hunting behaviours to how they raise their chicks. Many of us have watched documentaries of penguins incubating and hatching their chicks, but one thing that has always baffled me and many others, is how do they store food to feed their chicks? It turns out, the answer isn’t as simple as you may think – there are multiple ways in which they care for their young as I explain below.

Penguins first must hunt for their food

All penguins hunt in the same way; they either catch their prey in the water or they can scrape krill off the underside of the ice. They do not have teeth, but instead have a very sharp bill to do this. Their mouths and tongues are lined with spines that point back towards their throat, making it easy for them to swallow prey such as squid, shrimp and fish.

Swallowing their food to store it for later 

If a penguin has chicks, it will catch and swallow its food, then “store” it for later to feed to its chicks. Of course, some will also be kept for themselves to enable the parent to continue to survive and hunt for prey. Chicks cannot digest food like their parents, therefore, the parents need to convert it into a form that the chicks can eat. There are a few ways of doing this; the first way is regurgitation; the second way is the equivalent to “refrigerating” the food; and finally, the third way is a secretion that is made from the digested food.


This is when a penguin will catch its food and partially digest it, which will take a few hours. When the parent reaches its chick, and the food has been digested enough, it will cough the mixture back up and allowing the chick to eat it directly from the parent’s bill. This feeding method is often seen on documentaries so keep a lookout!

A Gentoo Penguin feeding its chick in Antarctica. Source: Penguins International Photo Library
A Gentoo Penguin chick getting a huge meal. Source: Penguins International Video Library


This is a genius evolutionary method that enables penguins to keep food for several days. The parent will swallow the prey whole and store it inside their stomach. This food is kept at body temperature, and inside the stomach there are enzymes which prevent it from digesting.

Penguin “Milk”

When it comes to feeding their chicks, males and females will take turns. In some penguins, Emperor Penguins in particular, the male will care for the chick for several weeks while the female is out hunting and gorging on prey. During this time, the male produces a secretion to sustain the chick and ensure its survival. Penguins, being birds, don’t have “milk” like mammals do.  Instead, they produce this secretion which is sometimes called crop milk. This is a fatty, high protein food that is developed in their crop (a pouch in their throat) and given to chicks during key developmental stages. Although it is nothing like mammal milk, the benefits of this crop milk are very similar to the benefit young mammals get from milk. 

Inside of a penguin. Web:


Chicks need constant feeding throughout their development in order to stay happy and healthy, and it can easily be said that without their parents’ remarkable evolutionary techniques and physiology, the chicks would no doubt perish. 

Penguins have such a different way of feeding that so many other species. Let us know what you think.  And please help us to continue to provide you with penguin news articles by donating to Penguins International.

Read more about penguins in some of our other blogs:


E, Lee. 2019. How do penguins feed their chicks? Webpage:

Penguin Science. Diet and Feeding answers. Webpage:

Ocean Syrup. 2019. Do penguins make milk? Webpage:

How Do Penguins Swim So Well?

King Penguins swimming in the ocean

How Do Penguins Swim So Well?

By Sian Liversage

Emperor Penguin using its fast swimming speed to propel out of the water. Image © National Geographic by Paul Nicklen.

The unusual aquatic lifestyle of penguins has determined their shape, colouration, what they eat, where they go on land, how they breed and overall their geographic range and distribution.

Chinstrap Penguin swimming in the ocean (Source: Penguins International photo library)

Body Adaptations for Penguin Swimming Speed

Just by looking at a penguin, it is clear to see that their bodies have been specially adapted for swimming. They have developed a streamlined body shape that reduces drag when they are in the water; a shape which has also been adopted by fish and marine mammals. Their wings (called “flippers” on penguins) and feet also serve a purpose. Although their flippers are not much use on land, they function like propellers when underwater, allowing them to move forward and increase their speed dramatically. Whilst swimming, their webbed feet get tucked away near the tail to be used to navigate through the water. 

All penguin bodies are covered in oily feathers, which create a water-tight layer and allows the water to flow smoothly over their bodies, thus reducing drag. But this is not the only thing a penguin’s body can do.

There’s a secret to how penguins can swim so fast through the water

Back in 2012, marine biologists discovered the mystery behind how Emperor Penguins rocket through the water. The conclusion of this was down to the stream of bubbles left in the penguin’s wake. Thanks to their miniscule feather filaments, penguins can trap air under their feathers. It was discovered that when Emperor Penguins fluff these tiny feathers underwater, they release bubbles that will then reduce the density of the water surrounding them. These bubbles act like a lubricant to reduce drag, just like an Olympic swimmer’s swimsuit. With this extra boost, these penguins can double or triple the speeds at which they usually travel, so this adaptation can help to propel individuals onto land or help with avoiding a predator. 

In addition to help from bubbles, a penguin’s blood will help them to stay underwater for longer. The blood is primarily made up of haemoglobin, which helps to carry extra oxygen around the body, and myoglobin is found in their muscle tissue, allowing oxygen to be stored, therefore helping them to breathe underwater for enough time to hunt.

Penguin Swimming Techniques

Not only have these birds evolved and adapted perfectly to being in the water, but they have also developed incredibly successful swimming techniques too. Most species of penguin will swim together, in a small or a large group, when looking for food. Sometimes penguins may swim below the surface and dive for a couple minutes and then resurface. For long journeys, however, many penguins use a technique known as “porpoising”; a very similar technique used in marine mammals. This is when a penguin will propel forward out of the water, allowing them to catch a breath as they do so. When penguins do this, they can increase their speed by a substantial amount (See video above).

Some colonies have a danger zone around the surrounding edges of their site, where predators are often waiting for an opportunity to catch a meal. Those penguins that have these danger zones, will often porpoise as soon as they enter the water to give themselves a good chance to escape any danger. Therefore, this technique is ideal for predator avoidance but can also be used for travelling long distance to find food.

Royal penguin. Adult porpoising. Macquarie Island, December 2015. Image © Edin Whitehead by Edin Whitehead


Despite penguins being birds that have lost the ability to fly, who come across somewhat clumsy on land, they have shown to be one of the most successful aquatic birds based on their adaptations and techniques when swimming. The more research is conducted, the more we are astonished at their capabilities. They are certainly a species that should not be underestimated!

Did you know about the amazing way penguins swim and how they adapt? Let us know what you learned.  And please help us to continue to provide you with penguin news articles by donating to Penguins International.

Read more about penguins in some of our other blogs:

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King Penguins

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  1. Davis, L. Renner, M. 2003. Penguins. T & AD Poysner, London. 
  2. New York Daily News. 2012. Scientists solve mystery of penguins’ incredibly fast underwater swimming speed: a secret layer of bubbles. Webpage:
  3. Penguins Blog. How fast can penguins swim? Webpage:

Sciencing. 2017. How do Penguins Swim? Webpage:

Cold Feet: Why Don’t Penguin’s Feet Freeze?

Adelie Penguins at McMurdo

Cold Feet: Why Don’t Penguin’s Feet Freeze?

by Sian Liversage

We all know that penguins endure and survive freezing temperatures in the Antarctic, these can range as low as -70˚C in the centre to -20 ˚C around the coast. Their bodies stay warm due to their insulating layers of blubber which lies just beneath the skin. However, their webbed feet are continually in contact with snow and ice, and yet somehow they manage to stay free from frostbite. So, it begs the question: Why don’t their feet freeze?

Penguins have special adaptations to keep their feet from freezing

Like many other species around the world, penguins have adaptations to avoid losing too much heat and to preserve a central body temperature. Penguin feet make it problematic to maintain that perfect body temperature of 40°C since they are constantly exposed to the elements; their feet cannot be covered with blubber or feathers like their bodies are, and together they create a large surface area exposed to the cold. But they need their feet so they can walk around the icy surface without slipping, and also so they can steer themselves when swimming. 

A variety of penguins have developed behaviours that enable them to keep their feet warm. For example, Emperor Penguins hunch down so their bellies and feathers cover their legs, and they also rock back and forth onto their heels to lift their feet off the ice, therefore reducing contact time on the ground.

Penguins keep their feet from freezing not only behaviourally, but also through internal mechanisms

This is not the only way penguins avoid getting cold, however. They have evolved remarkable physical attributes too that make them perfectly adapted to their environment. There are two hidden mechanisms going on inside those legs and feet.

First, a penguin can control the rate of blood flow to the feet by varying the diameter of arterial vessels supplying the blood. During cold conditions, the flow of blood is reduced to hold onto heat. In winter, penguins will keep their feet a degree or two above freezing which reduces the chance of heat loss and avoids getting frostbite.

Chinstrap Penguins walking on the snow

And, of course, not all penguins live in places where their feet get cold

Not all penguin species live in freezing conditions though. Some species like Galapagos Penguins live in scorching sun and heat and thankfully their specialised heat exchange system also serves as a vital outlet for when their bodies become too warm. Blood vessels in the penguin’s feet expand, doing the opposite of what they do when they are cold. This allows an increase in blood flow, which in turn enables heat loss from the body. You may see penguins lying on the ground with their feet in the air and their flippers out to the sides to speed this process up and get rid of excess body heat.

Magellanic Penguins in the desert in Argentina

Humans can also do what penguins do with their feet (to some extent)

Penguin feet closeup
Close up of the bottom of a penguin’s feet

Amazingly, humans can also restrict blood flow to their extremities too. Our hands and feet will go white when they are freezing due to less blood circulating to them; blood is being redirected and prioritised to go to the core of the body where the vital organs will be kept warm. On the other hand, when we are warm our hands and feet will turn pink which is our body trying to cool us down. Controlling blood flow is very sophisticated and involves the hypothalamus, the nervous system and endocrine systems all working together to function properly.

Secondly, penguin legs work like a heat exchange system; blood vessels to and from the feet are narrow and woven closely together, which cools the blood from the body on the way to the feet and vice versa when the blood returns to the body. Therefore, their feet receive cool blood instead of warm blood, as this means less heat is lost while the body continues to maintain that toasty 40°C. 

These adaptations show just how truly extraordinary penguins are; generations have survived the worst conditions nature could throw at them. These cold-adapted species live a challenging life, walking 100s of kilometres to feeding grounds, surviving snowstorms, and standing for weeks on ice while incubating an egg, and at the same time maintaining a warm body core temperature. Despite all these potential setbacks, their incredible feet and overall mechanisms to survive are still yet to be hindered by Mother Nature.

Penguins are amazing birds that have adapted ways to live in extreme environments. Have you ever seen some of these penguins in the wild? Tell us about it in the comments below. And please assist with our conservation projects and help us continue to provide you this information by donating to Penguins International.

Read more about penguins in some of other blogs:

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  1. Encyclopedia Britannica Blog. 2011. Penguin Feet: Avoiding Frostbite in the Antarctic. Webpage:
  2. How Stuff Works. 2019. Why Penguin Feet Don’t Freeze. Webpage:
  3. New Scientist. 2006. Why don’t penguins’ feet freeze? And 114 other questions. P. 47-77

Penguins in Captivity: Keeping them happy

Southern Rockhopper Penguin

Penguins in Captivity: Keeping them happy

By Sian Liversage

It seems that no matter what age you are, whether a child or an adult, one of the most popular and interesting animals to see when visiting a zoo or an animal attraction are the penguins. People have certainly anthropomorphised this species because of the way they look and behave; a good example of this is how they are often compared to a small human wearing a tuxedo. Their waddling gait, clumsy nature and charismatic personalities make them an ideal species to have in captivity, simply to bring the people in. But should they be kept in captivity in the first place?

There is definitely a balance to keeping penguins happy and healthy in captivity

We can’t hide the fact that there are some negative sides to life while living in the care of humans, especially if animals are mistreated or not appropriately housed. Penguins are no different when it comes to struggling in a captive situation.

In one facility, staff had to administer medication to their Humboldt penguins after they showed signs of stress attributed to the difference in local weather that was very different to their natural climate.

Stress can lower a penguin’s immune system, which could cause them to be more vulnerable to diseases, especially if they are kept in poor conditions. Enclosures that are small, with small pools, means that penguins cannot display their natural behaviours, which in turn will increase their stress levels. Another facility nearly ten years ago had several Humboldt Penguins die of infections from unknown causes. This could have been attributed to stress from living conditions or lack of staff knowledge, or any other number of reasons.

Despite the best intentions of an animal keeper, things don’t always go smoothly. For that reason, we promote AZA accreditation in the U.S. and BIAZA membership in the U.K. for facilities that meet strict guidelines for animal management and care. The standards held by facilities with this oversight will ensure the best care is given to all of their animals. 

Animal care and management goes beyond best practices, however. The penguins need to be kept engaged and in an environment that promotes enrichment.

Zoo enclosures have advanced dramatically in keep penguins happy and healthy

Zoo enclosure designs have come a long way since the bare concrete space that animals used to live in, now providing an engaging, healthy sanctuary for penguins. Zoos and aquariums also play a key role towards conserving endangered species too, of which there are a large proportion of penguins under this category. Likewise, many zoos and aquariums aim to promote conservation work, educate the general public, and support wildlife projects. All of these categories merge to create a standard of welfare, which means that penguins which are kept in captivity are given the utmost care. These standards are in place to allow the animals to develop in a healthy environment as similar to their natural habitat as possible.

New enclosure designs promote more natural behaviours in penguins

The Detroit Zoo recognised that their penguins needed something more in their enclosure, so they replaced a 6-foot deep pool with a 25-foot deep pool. The penguins ended up spending extra time in the water than previously, showing the zookeepers that this new change enhanced their lives that much more. The penguins spoke and their keepers listened.

Flagship species, like penguins, will draw crowds in, helping to raise their profile. This will in turn fund conservation efforts to help protect the species in the wild. So, keeping them in an enclosure that promotes their natural behaviour is vital not only for giving them a stress-free life, but also for educating the general public on their behaviours and the conservation work that is ongoing throughout the world.

Humboldt Penguin stands on the edge of its pool. Photo found at:

No matter what evidence is put forward though, animals in captivity whether it be focusing on penguins or not, will continue to be a controversial issue that is widely discussed. From the evidence shown in this blog, it seems that as long as penguins can behave naturally, they are able to live a long happy life in a human made environment without predators. The efforts that zoos and parks will go to nowadays to keeping their animals stress free is astounding, and I think it’s safe to say that people have learned from the past and will continue to learn the needs of their animals for the future. 

Pro/con, zoos are helping penguins feel like they are more in their natural habitats while in captivity, but they will always feel do better when free. Please help us continue to provide you this type of information by donating to Penguins International.

Read more about penguins in some of other blogs:

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DW Made for Minds. 2017. Should penguins be an animal attraction? Webpage:

Penguins World. 2017. Penguins in Captivity. Webpage:

In defence of zoos: how captivity helps conservation. 2016. Webpage:

Little (Blue) Penguins: Dive Shape Versus Coastline Health

Little Penguin

Little Penguins: Dive Shape Versus Coastline Health

by Sian Liversage

Little Penguins, otherwise known as Kororā in Moari and commonly called Blue Penguins or Fairy Penguins, are found all around the coast of New Zealand. As their name suggests, they are the world’s smallest penguin weighing in at a mere 1kg and 25cm tall. They have a varied diet composed of small fish, squid, and crustacean species.

A Little Penguin near its burrow.

Primarily nocturnal on land, they can sometimes be found close to human settlements, in and around buildings, keeping the neighbours awake with their vocal displays. A recent article was published about a sushi store in Wellington who found out first hand just how noisy Little Penguins can be! The pair had decided to cross two main roads to nest underneath the sushi store. Perhaps it was the smell of the fresh fish that had enticed them in? Unfortunately for them though, they had chosen an awkward spot, so the Department of Conservation had to step in to relocate them. They have since decided to keep away from the area, and the hope is they have chosen a nest box located along the wharf instead.

Little Penguins Commonly Nest in Coastal Areas with Heavy Automobile Traffic

This pair were lucky not to get hit by any cars when they decided to cross main roads to nest. Sadly, many penguin colonies around the world are in decline, and thanks to an abundance of media stories in recent years just like the one mentioned, we are now more aware that our coastal areas are severely affected by humans due to an increase in shipping, fishing pressures, and coastal land development. This awareness hopefully will encourage councils and governments to either protect whole areas or at least provide wildlife-friendly areas that allow penguins to go about their natural behaviours.

Because Little Penguins depend on these coastal areas for food, they offer an easy and convenient way to study the health of marine ecosystems around New Zealand. And thanks to their predictable behaviour, where every night they will return to the same location, it makes it even easier for scientists to research them.

Little Penguins Exhibit Varied Hunting and Diving Behaviour

A study conducted by the Department of Conservation marine scientists monitored hunting trips of 8 Little Penguins using tiny electronic data loggers2. These small devices are carefully attached to the penguins’ tail feathers for 2-4 days, where they record the length and depth of each dive. These scientists were able to find differences in Little Penguin diving techniques dependent on the environment in which the penguins lived. In areas with plenty of prey, “V-shaped” dives were made for short shallow hunts, “U-shaped” dives meant they had to work a bit harder searching the ocean bottom for food, and finally “W-shaped” dives meant it took them approximately a quarter of their time to hunt for their prey. This research showed that Little Penguins have a variety of diving techniques when hunting, which is dependent on the abundance of prey and their location. So, can it be assumed that studying the diving technique of Little Penguins can determine the health of the marine ecosystem in which the penguins live?

Fortunately, Little Penguins are Adaptable

To support this assumption, another recent study was conducted which also looked at diving behaviours and diets in Little Penguins off Motuara Island3. They concluded that the species appear to be highly adaptable to local environments, given the variability in diving behaviours as well as in prey. These results therefore suggest that some locations would naturally be more difficult to adapt to than others, reflected in longer and deeper dives (aka “W-shaped” dives). Therefore, these penguins may prove to be useful environmental monitors for changes in the specific sites in which the individuals live. And with the combination of long-term site monitoring and population trend monitoring, it could lead to enough evidence to show that the coastline requires more protection if the ecosystem changes for the worse.

Some studies have already proven that a variation or lack in availability of food can result in problems for the penguins4. Results showed delays to the start of breeding, a reduced likelihood that a second clutch will be produced, and a higher chance of chick mortality. In addition to this, researchers have found that adult and chick body conditions are poor, resulting in the chicks’ immunity being reduced and causing the fledging period to become longer. Therefore the parents must work harder for longer. Without the varied diet that they require, these issues could cause a population to decline in the future, so perhaps by continuing the research into penguin diving techniques around the New Zealand coastlines, we can determine whether the area requires environmental protection or not.

Did you learn something new about Little Penguins by reading this? Please let us know. We also more than appreciate any support you can provide to help us continue bringing you information about penguins by donating to Penguins International.

Want to learn more about penguins? Read some of our other blogs:

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  1. RNZ News. 2019. Web:
  2. Department of Conservation Marine Ecosystems Team, Science and Policy. 2015.
  3. Chilvers L. 2019. Variability of little blue penguin diving behaviour across New Zealnad. New Zealand Journal of Ecology, Vol. 43, No. 2, 2019
  4. Dann P, Norman FI, Cullen JM, Neira FJ, Chiaradia A 2000. Mortality and breeding failure of little penguins, Eudyptula minor, in Victoria, 1995–1996 following a widespread mortality of Pilchard Sardinops sagax. Marine & Freshwater Research 51: 355–362.

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.

And, read more about penguins in some of our other blogs:

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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:

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.

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King Penguins and Their Vocalizations

King Penguin Facts and Information

King Penguins and Their Vocalizations

by Sian Liversage

Many people have seen the animated movie “Happy Feet,” which is about a young Emperor Penguin chick with a terrible singing voice. Well, penguin voices in the real world are far more vital than people may realise. And although the movie is about Emperor Penguins, I want to talk to you about King Penguins and how their voices are key to the survival of their species.

Facts About King Penguins

First, a few facts about these great birds. King Penguins are the second-largest species of penguin (85-95cm tall), they have a white belly, a silver-grey back, a black head and an obvious striking patch of orange-gold feathers on their neck. They live on vegetated margins in regions of the sub-Antarctic and the Falklands.

During breeding season, they can form vast colonies on snow-free land near the sea, allowing them to forage for food all year around. Colonies vary in size, from 30 birds to tens of thousands, and divided between breeders and non-breeders. Despite the pressure for space and resources, there is very little antagonistic behaviour shown between individuals within the colony. Navigation can be challenging in these large densely populated colonies because of the large number of individuals obstructing the locally available cues.

King Penguins Can Navigate Their Way Through a Colony of Thousands of Birds

When it comes to breeding, both parents help with incubating eggs and brooding chicks, which takes around 9 months for the chick to fledge. Chicks learn the calls of their parents within the first month of their lives, something which proves to be essential. As the chick gets older, the chick is left alone for long periods of time in crèches while its parents forage for food, and on their return, parents can recognise their chick’s calls. Despite the chaos of navigating their way through the colony, these penguins can pinpoint the call of their partner or chick amongst thousands of calling individuals, much in the same way people hear their names in a hub of conversation. This phenomenon is known as the “cocktail party” effect.

King Penguin Facts and Information
King Penguin. Thousands of adults and chicks in a large colony. St Andrew Bay, South Georgia, January 2016. Image © Rebecca Bowater by Rebecca Bowater FPSNZ AFIAP

Despite many studies that are devoted to King Penguin research, there are still many unanswered questions regarding acoustic communication, but in more recent studies, more has been uncovered.

Understanding King Penguin Vocalizations

Researchers conducted playback experiments to truly test their abilities and understand these complex calls1. The experiment involved manipulating different parts of King Penguin’s calls to determine exactly how they recognise each other. Results showed that chicks responded only to the bass frequencies, which travel effectively through a wall of intervening bodies. The first quarter of a second of the parent’s call is enough for the chicks to recognise its parents. The parents will continue to make the call every few seconds. When they are within approximately 11m (36ft) away, the chick will recognise and localise the call. This ability to recognise calls is essential for each breeding pair to successfully raise their chick to adulthood.

Watch the video to hear what King Penguins sound like in the wild. They’re amazingly loud when there are thousands of them together in one colony!

King Penguin Vocalizations May Also Be Different Between Males and Females

Not only has vocalization been discovered as an important signal for individuals, but also for sex recognition. In many penguin colonies it has proven difficult for scientists to determine the sex of the individuals, where females and males are often monomorphic in their external morphology (meaning that they look the same), so there has been limited data on these cues. Another recent study has revealed that King Penguins can be sexed with an accuracy of 100% based on a sex-specific syllable pattern in their vocalizations2. To put this into perspective, a measurement of the bill length of a King Penguin can be sexed with an accuracy of only 79%. These findings may help towards not only understanding how King Penguins choose their mates, but also allows a cost-effective, non-invasive technique for researchers to determine the sex of King Penguins in the field. So future research on King Penguins may have just gotten a whole lot easier.

All in all, given the highly vocal nature of these birds, it is not surprising that chicks learn their parents’ calls within the first month, and adults can be differentiated according to their sex-specific syllable pattern. Based on the current research, it can therefore be concluded that they rely on their vocal signals to recognise each other amongst thousands, therefore making it vital to their survival. Finally, they also present a very interesting system for testing soundscape orientation, an idea that I am sure researchers are already underway in testing.

Did you know about the voices of penguins? Share your thoughts with us, leave us a comment. Also, please help us continue to learn more about penguins by donating to Penguins International.

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  1. Uhlenbroek, C. 2008. Animal life: the definitive visual guide to animals and their behaviours. P431-459
  2. Hannah J. Kriesell, Thierry Aubin, Víctor Planas-Bielsa, Marine Benoiste, Francesco Bonadonna, Hélène Gachot-Neveu, Yvon Le Maho, Quentin Schull, Benoit Vallas, Sandrine Zahn, Céline Le Bohec. Sex identification in King Penguins Aptenodytes patagonicus through morphological and acoustic cues. Ibis, 2018
  3. Anna P. Nesterova, Jules Chiffard, Charline Couchoux, Francesco Bonadonna Journal of Experimental Biology 2013 216: 1491-1500
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