Blog articles on fun facts and interesting information written by our penguin experts.

Penguins of the past, what do we know about them?

relative large size of the Anthropornis penguin

Penguins of the Past – Prehistoric Penguins

by Nataly H. Aranzamendi

Millions of years ago, the world was a very different place from what we see now. Colossal giants wandered through planet Earth and many of them were quite different from the animals that remain today. However a group of flightless birds was already represented: the prehistoric penguins.

When did prehistoric penguins first appear?

George G. Simpson¹, an important paleontologist and geologist, classified ancient penguins in three groups: Palaeeudyptinae, Paraptenodytinae, and Palaeospheniscinae‎. He originally recognized about a dozen species, but since then there are new additions to the family tree of penguins nearly every year.

Based on previous DNA and fossil evidence, the possible dates for the earliest ancestor of penguins were originally calculated to date back 40 million years ago. However, recent evidence² has expanded those dates backwards and changed what we know about the presence of penguins. The oldest penguins might just date back to 60 million years ago during the early Cenozoic or late Cretaceous periods. This is 20 million years older than previously thought — and when dinosaurs were wandering the Earth!

relative large size of the Anthropornis penguin
Photo Credit: By Discott – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Did prehistoric penguins look like penguins of today?

The ancestors of penguins were slightly different from extant species. The oldest penguins probably had already lost their typical bird plumage, but their semi-rigid flipper — which helps them to swim in the ocean and gives them their hydrodynamic shape — was not totally transformed in all species.

An agreement among scientists seems to be the fact that there were some prehistoric penguins that reached big sizes. This was inferred from fossil records and particularly recorded for the oldest groups. For example, the largest fossil penguin was Anthropornis nordenskjoeldi, a penguin that could have reached almost two meters tall. This species lived around 33-45 million years ago. Another fossil found recently in New Zealand² was likely of a similar size as Anthropornis. Thus, big penguins were not uncommon. Nonetheless, a decline in body size occurred for the later groups³.

Two species of the genera Kairuku4 that lived in New Zealand in the late Oligocene (23-34 million years ago) depict some morphological differences between them and extant (currently living) species. Those penguins already showed the typical upright penguin posture, as well as long flippers and short, thick legs and feet. However, their bodies were much more slender than penguins of today and their bills much longer.

Prehistoric penguins lived in the same places as penguins of today

Prehistoric penguins shared the same distribution as their current relatives. They were found in the Southern Hemisphere including Antarctica. Fossil records of extinct penguins have been found in Antarctica, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, Chile, Peru and South Africa.

Places where fossils were found show a relatively high penguin diversity, which possibly peaked at the late Eocene and early Oligocene. A high penguin diversity was probably related to the expansion of cold waters and the change in favorable conditions for diversification5 that followed the separation of continents from Antarctica.

In the late Paleocene, Antarctica and the surrounding continents were in very different geographic positions from where they are located today. Australia and South America were closer to Antarctica but increasingly shifted northwards and separated more and more from the frozen continent. Such events probably had a big influence in the biogeography of penguins. Isolation from the old continent and new climatic conditions most likely provided optimal conditions that made diversification of species possible.

Photo credit: JJ Harrison

However, continental species did not remain completely isolated, since DNA evidence has shown us that multiple independent dispersal events could have occurred. In Australia, for example, new species of penguins arrived to the continent at different historical times³. Besides the fact that Australia hosted several species of penguins, currently there is only one species left there, the Little penguin.

Based on the later example and extensive fossil record, it seems that penguin diversity was high everywhere but declined during more recent periods. Why penguin diversity plummeted is still a mystery although several factors could have contributed. Perhaps the appearance of potential competitors like cetaceans (dolphins, porpoises and whales) and pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) displaced them and/or deprived them of food. Another hypothesis is that environmental conditions continued changing and food became scarcer.

In any case, the constant exploration and finding of new fossils will probably keep increasing our knowledge of the penguin family tree. Similarly, the advancement of technology and improvement of data based on DNA analyses will keep providing information of the exact time when prehistoric gigantic penguins were wandering our planet.

Did you know all this about the history of penguins? Did you learn something new by reading this? Let us know what you think!


Also, read more about penguins in our other blogs:


1 Simpson, G.G. 1946. Fossil penguins. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, 87 (1): 1-100, figs. 1-33. New York.

2 Mayr, G., De Pietri, V. L., & Scofield, R. P. (2017). A new fossil from the mid-Paleocene of New Zealand reveals an unexpected diversity of world’s oldest penguins. The Science of Nature, 104(3-4), 9.

3 Park T, Fitzgerald EMG, Gallagher SJ, Tomkins E, Allan T (2016) New Miocene Fossils and the History of Penguins in Australia. PLOS ONE 11(4): e0153915

4 Ksepka, D.T., Fordyce, R.E., Ando, T. and Jones, C.M. (2012). «New fossil penguins (Aves, Sphenisciformes) from the Oligocene of New Zealand reveal the skeletal plan of stem penguins». Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 32 (2): 235-254

5 Acosta Hospitaleche, C. I. A., Griffin, M., Asensio, M., Cione, A. L., & Tambussi, C. P. (2013). Middle Cenozoic penguin remains from the Patagonian Cordillera. Andean Geology vol.40 no.3 set. 2013

Internal GPS – The Science Behind Penguin Navigation

Penguins Have Internal GPS Systems

By Mike King

Nature constantly presents organisms with new challenges along their way to surviving to reproductive age and leaving behind offspring. Animals meet these challenges by adapting incredible traits that allow them to thrive in their environment. When reminded of these adaptations, one might think of Bat-eared Foxes that use their massive ears to hear prey underground for great distances, New Caledonian Crows that sharpen sticks into hunting hooks, or Orchid Mantises that perfectly imitate flowers to ambush pollinating insects. Less commonly do we consider adaptations under the surface layer of animals. Are there mechanisms within an organism’s body as astonishing as those we can observe with the naked eye? As it turns out, penguins have a few tricks up their sleeves that may surprise you.

Penguins swimming in the ocean
Penguins swimming in the ocean

Penguins swim for hundreds and even thousands of kilometers in the ocean, and can find their way home

Penguins are extremely active animals. From lengthy Emperor Penguin migrations to complex diving patterns exhibited by krill-hunting Gentoos, movement is of critical importance to every penguin species in the world. Many species spend all day out on the water swimming and hunting for food. With all of this waddling around, how do they find their way back to the colony? As it turns out, all birds possess some extraordinary adaptations for navigation; although penguins have the added disadvantage of being flightless. This makes it impossible for them to soar above the horizon in search of familiar landmarks leading them home. Scientists are beginning to understand some of the ways penguins can locate their colonies after long days spent far away.

Penguin researcher Anna P. Nesterova and her team recently spent time studying King Penguin navigation in Antarctica. They observed that King Penguins live in massive colonies that seem to be quite difficult to navigate. How then, do penguin parents find their way back to their chicks after a day out searching for food? It is known that penguins can recognize individuals through vocalizations, but this is only an effective strategy for King Penguins within eight meters of their chicks.

Image Source:

Penguins can also find their chicks in a colony of thousands of other penguins

Some penguins in the study were documented taking very lengthy, indirect paths to their chicks when returning to the colony after feeding to avoid aggressive encounters with resting neighbors. So, do King Penguins simply wander, or is there something more to their navigation? The answer may have something to do with nighttime movement. As it turns out, many penguins were observed to leave and return to the colony in the middle of the darkness of night. Although King Penguins can see 1.5 times better than humans, they are still incapable of seeing landmarks well at low-light levels. The researchers involved in this study believe that over time, penguins can learn the acoustic landscape of their colony, thus navigating by the unique sounds of their neighbor’s voices. It is also possible that King Penguins use a method that science had only speculated about until this year—magnetism.

Image Source:
Overexpression in Yeast, Photocycle, and in Vitro Structural Change of an Avian Putative Magnetoreceptor Cryptochrome4,

For years, researchers have known that birds navigate by sensing the magnetic field of the earth; but until just recently we did not know how this was accomplished. It was observed that birds have high levels of iron within their bills, which could possibly be used as a sort of compass. This was the prevailing viewpoint in the scientific community for years, but it lacked credible evidence. It seemed for a long time that the mystery of bird navigation would remain unknown to man—until now. Just this year researchers analyzed a special protein found within the eyes of birds, and it turns out it is critically important for navigation. This protein, called Cry4, is a type of photoreceptor that detects blue light. Birds are able to use these photoreceptors to actually see the magnetic field of the Earth. This amazing discovery helps us to understand how migratory birds can fly with perfect orientation through the complete cover of darkness. This protein has not yet been analyzed within the eyes of penguins, but Cry4 may be an essential tool for these seabirds to find their way to their chicks.

There are so many possibilities — how do penguins really find their way?

Unfortunately, we do not yet know whether King Penguins use acoustic landscapes, magnetic fields, or their memory to navigate through crowded colonies. However, each of these adaptations can and should be appreciated for the ingenious ways they help an organism rise above the challenges presented by its environment. People often use the term “life will find a way” to describe situations in nature that seem too extreme to support living organisms, yet still do. Through the observation of evolutionary adaptations such as navigation, we are better able to understand the extraordinary nature of life to overcome seemingly impossible odds. This characteristic defines the very concept of life—to continue changing, adapting, and evolving alongside the surrounding world; constantly pursuing a level of ecological balance that allows an organism to flourish despite overwhelming challenges presented to them.

What do you think about how penguins get around? Did you learn something new? Would love to hear what you think, what you learned, and more!


Visit our other recent blogs to read more about penguins:

Fieldwork with penguins: A fishy business

Fieldwork with penguins: A fishy business

by Nataly H. Aranzamendi

An island that smelled like fish

In 2007, I visited Ushuaia in south Argentina to spend some time learning about whales and seabirds. The view at the “end of the world” or Fin del Mundo as it is locally known, was breathtaking. This corner of the world where mountains meet the ocean, is a fantastic place to find occasional whales and seabirds circumventing marine waters.

Moreover, the surrounding islands in the Beagle Channel are excellent breeding places for Magellanic penguins. As soon as I heard that researchers were studying penguins nearby, I signed up for the adventure.

The day to visit the island finally arrived. We were three people including the main researcher. The first thing I noticed when disembarking was the strong smell of fish and guano that came from the island. It was the middle of the breeding season and fish was the main food item.

We settled our camp and started the hard work. Turns out that when daylight lasts for over 20 hours and there are hundreds of nesting penguins, work days can get pretty full. Our routine started around 9am and finished around 8pm. Every day we visited more than 60 nests.

Gentoo and Magellanic Penguins on the beach
Penguins on the beach near a penguin breeding colony.

First, some facts about Magellanic Penguins

Magellanic Penguins are birds that live in coastal Argentina, Chile and the Falkland islands. They are medium-sized penguins reaching 61–76 cm (24-30 in) tall, weighing between 2.7 and 6.5 kg (6 – 14 lbs), in which males are larger than females. They breed in underground cavities, where they generally lay two eggs. Incubation lasts 39–42 days, a task that the parents both share in 10- to 15-day shifts. The chicks are cared for by both parents for 29 days and are fed every two to three days1.

The purpose of our visit was to put GPS trackers on some parents to find out how far and how deep they go to find food. We also needed to record how many of the chicks will survive at the end of the breeding season. Generally, parents have two chicks but often only one survives2.

Magellanic Penguin with its chicks

What’s it like working with penguins in the wild?

Each person had his or her own task. We would slowly approach the nest and one of us (the most experienced one) would take the male, the second person restraining the female (if both present) while the third person dug in the nest to extract the chicks, measure them and mark them. All of us worked as fast as we could.

My first unexpected surprise was that parents were extremely strong. Their serrated bills, which are adapted to hold slippery fish, were a real danger for our hands. Since our major concern was always the penguins’ safety, we had to do everything as calmly but as fast as we could, so protecting our hands was not a priority. The second unexpected surprise was the penguins’ defense mechanism, which is called “defensive vomiting.”3

Defensive vomiting is a mechanism used by several animals to scare-off attackers or predators. We discovered that not only parents knew how to make us flinch, but the chicks also joined in on their vomiting act. After visiting the first two nests, I realized that this work was not for people with sensitive stomachs.

Magellanic Penguins in their burrow

Our three-day experience continued just like that. Since we were in a protected penguin sanctuary, there was no real accommodation for humans. The island belonged to the penguins and we had no facilities besides our tent to clean ourselves properly. Those were the “fishiest” days I had to endure in my entire life. Although it was summer, temperatures were close to zero degrees Celsius (32 F), so that was just one more factor restraining us from dipping in the ocean which looked more and more inviting the dirtier we got.

And those penguins never stop making noise!

In the summer, penguins have limited time to breed, so they do not stop their activities. Even when it’s dark, they continue calling their partners as they return from foraging. This means that there is a constant loud concert of hundreds of penguins when you are trying to sleep.

I think those days were the hardest, smelliest days of fieldwork that I have had in my whole career. Despite all the challenges, however, it was amazing to experience such an adventure. We were fortunate to access such a plentiful colony. Magellanic Penguins are protected species and not everyone is lucky to look inside their lives. At times we were so smelly and covered with dirt, that in a certain sense, we felt part of the colony.

What do you think about Magellanic Penguins, their lives, and more? Are they your favorite penguin? If not, what is? Would love to hear what you think, what you learned, and more!


Visit our other recent blogs to read more about penguins:



2. Scioscia, G., Rey, A. R., & Schiavini, A. (2016). Breeding biology of Magellanic Penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus) at the Beagle Channel: interannual variation and its relationship with foraging behaviour. Journal of Ornithology, 157(3), 773-785.


Fish Beware! – Penguins Adapt Effective Means of Capturing Prey

Photo of King Penguin. Photo credit: saname777 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Fish Beware! – Penguins Adapt Effective Means of Capturing Prey

By Mike King

Scientists currently split the penguin family into 18 different species that occur all over the Southern Hemisphere. As these penguin species evolved from a common ancestor, they each gained unique traits. One of the most important traits that penguins have adapted is how they eat. Most people know that penguins swim underwater and catch marine prey instead of flying like other birds, but there is actually a lot of variation in the specific feeding behaviors exhibited between separate penguin species. From krill to fish, sea to shore, and even day to night; there is a lot to learn about how different penguins keep themselves, and their chicks, happy and healthy.

Scientists are not sure how long ago penguins lost the ability to fly, but it’s thought that as the birds’ wings became more adapted for swimming, they lost the lengthy surface area of feathers needed to hold the birds aloft. It is more difficult for flightless birds to escape from predators like leopard seals; but the reward is well worth the risk. Since the wings of the penguins have evolved into streamlined flippers, they are able to swim with incredible grace and agility through great depths of water in search of food. Emperor Penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) can routinely dive well over 200 meters while holding their breath for up to 20 minutes! This can be very helpful for catching Antarctic Silverfish, which spends most of its time between 200 and 300 meters below the surface. This is just one example of how penguins evolved alongside their food source, enabling them to keep up with their prey as the fish began to swim deeper and faster.

Penguins porpoising in the ocean
Gentoo Penguins

How do penguins find food?

While Emperor Penguins spend their time diving to great depths in search of fish, other penguin species have their own methods for finding food. Gentoo Penguins (Pygoscelis papua) are extremely fast swimmers, although it’s important to note that reports of top speeds on various websites of 22 miles per hour are unsubstantiated and their top speed is currently unknown. Galapagos Penguins (Spheniscus mendiculus) utilize a technique where they dive beneath schools of fish, then swim upwards and drive the fish toward the surface. This traps the fish between the penguins and other species of seabirds at the surface that cannot dive so they have nowhere to escape. Many species, like Little Penguins (Eudyptula minor) stay in the water all day to find enough fish to feed themselves and their offspring.

Penguins almost always live in close proximity to other vertebrate species. Whether it’s seals, fish, or even other penguins, there is bound to be some competition for food. This is why penguins have evolved many ways to fill their own ecological niche.A niche is an organisms place in the ecosystem, where most of the resources they need to survive are readily available to them. Ecological niches help animals ensure the survival of their own species by avoiding harmful interactions with other species. A good example of this is Gentoo and Emperor penguins. While both species live and hunt in Antarctica, they do not compete for resources. Emperor Penguins make deep dives in search of fish, while Gentoo Penguins speedily cruise near the surface of the water in search of krill. This division of foraging techniques is the line between the ecological niches of the two species.

Sometimes, when resources are scarce, animals must adapt new techniques to continue providing enough food for themselves and their offspring. Until just this year, scientists believed that male Emperor Penguins fasted for 115 days while they incubate their eggs. This would be a monumental task for these birds who, like all organisms, need energy to metabolize and survive. If an adult Emperor Penguin dies of starvation while incubating, his offspring also would not survive. A recent research article written by Gerald L. Kooyman et. al. in January 2018 may shed some light on how Emperor Penguins survive this long period of incubation. There is a colony of penguins near the Ross Sea in Antarctica that is one of the strongest of all Antarctic populations. A team of researchers set out to examine why, at a latitude much farther south than most other Emperor Penguins, this group was faring so well. It turns out, the males in this colony do not participate in the 115-day annual fast. In the dead of winter, when days are very short, these penguin males relinquish their parental duties to the females for one night; to dive for fish–in the dark. Prey becomes harder to see at night, as do predators. These Emperor Penguins, however, have taken advantage of the underutilized populations of fish found in the Ross Sea after dark. This adaptive trait has allowed their population to become one of the most stable of any penguin species in the world.

Photo credit:

Penguins have to constantly adapt to survive, however.

Much like penguins developing different foraging behaviors, animals are constantly adapting to the challenges presented to them by nature. As problems arise, organisms must find ways to overcome them. This incredible race for survival drives all living things to further evolutionary advancement, and results in the splendid array of biodiversity we know in our world today. However, for the first time ever, one species has advanced itself so greatly that it threatens to irreversibly tip the balance of nature toward destruction. Because of climate change, illegal hunting and fishing, and over-exploitation of natural resources, humans are at risk of causing the largest mass extinction in the history of the world. Although animals, like the Emperor penguins of the Ross Sea, are capable of rising above challenges presented by nature, it can be difficult or impossible for them to evolve quickly enough to face challenges brought on by human industry. In order to halt this catastrophic extinction event that has already begun, immediate action is needed. Legislation must be passed to protect natural habitats, awareness must be raised for issues affecting wildlife around the world, and small changes must be made in each of our lives to benefit the Earth instead of exploiting it. It is up to humans to help the ecosystem return to its natural state, for the benefit of ourselves and all other organisms that call the Earth home.

What do you think about penguins and how they capture prey? Would love to hear what you think, what you learned, and more!


Visit our other recent blogs to read about more penguins:

Galapagos Penguins One of The Rarest Penguins in the World

Galapagos Penguin
Galapagos Penguin
Photo credit: Charles J. Sharp, Sharp Photography

Galapagos Penguins, One of the Rarest Penguins in the World

by Mike King

Far from the frigid weather of Antarctica, the Galapagos Penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus) is the only penguin species to venture into the Northern Hemisphere. As the name implies, they are native to the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador off the coast of South America. This bird is mostly black and white, with a pink tint under the bill. The white front is broken by a black bar just beneath the neck, and a white stripe curls to the eye through the otherwise all-black face. Like all penguins, Galapagos Penguins are flightless, and their wings have adapted into flippers that they use while swimming in the Pacific. 

What do Galapagos Penguins eat?

Galapagos Penguins feed on sardines, mullets, anchovies, and other small fish. They hunt by diving down under the fish, and catching their prey while swimming up through the fleeing schools. They can often be seen in day-long feeding flocks (multi-species gatherings of birds foraging together) with Brown Noddies, Brown Pelicans, and Flightless Cormorants. As the penguins drive schools of fish toward the surface, the other birds that cannot dive as well are able to feed. 

Galapagos Penguin
Galapagos penguin swimming.
Photo credit: Andrew Skujins

Galapagos Penguins have a different breeding strategy than most other penguins

Unlike most birds, Galapagos Penguins breed opportunistically year-round. This is a great adaptation for a very unpredictable environment. Wherever food is plentiful, they can mate. For the most part, Galapagos Penguins mate for life and take turns tending to eggs and young chicks. Once the chicks are three weeks old, the parents can begin to leave them on their own for short periods of time. 

Threats to Galapagos Penguins

Galapagos Penguins have faced severe population fluctuations since the 1970’s. Rising ocean temperatures have hindered the cold currents that bring fish towards their feeding grounds, leaving penguins to starve. High ocean surface temperatures have also led to a halt in breeding. There are only 1,200 Galapagos Penguins in the wild today. With numbers that small, population fluctuations can be catastrophic. Researchers suggest there is a 30% chance that Galapagos Penguins will go completely extinct within the next hundred years. Conservation of these penguins can be a major challenge. The entirety of the Galapagos Islands is a protected nature preserve, so what more can be done? 

As nutrient-rich cold currents become increasingly rare, less fish are available to the penguins. Many of the fish that do end up in the waters of the Galapagos are fished out by humans. This results in a large-scale absence of food for Galapagos Penguins. Oil spills can also kill penguins and their prey. The biggest issue, however, is human-induced climate change. The massive amount of carbon emissions produced within the last hundred years by human industries has contributed to the warming of our oceans, and increased the severity of El Niño. El Niño is a drastic change in climate that occurs irregularly around the equator in the Pacific Ocean. When El Niño is active, unusually warm currents arise around the Galapagos Islands. These currents are far too warm for the fish Galapagos Penguins feed on, and the result is catastrophic to their well-being. According to penguin researcher F. Hernan Vargas, two of the strongest El Niño events in recent history were in the years 1982-1983 and 1997-1998, which resulted in a 77% and 65% drop in Galapagos Penguin population respectively. As the climate continues to warm, these events will only happen more and more often, and the penguins may not be able to recuperate. 

Galapagos Penguin
Photo credit: Mike Weston

Many of us are growing accustomed to the constant warnings of researchers in regards to climate change. Galapagos Penguins are not the first animal to be negatively affected, and they certainly will not be the last. Although the biggest contributors to human-induced climate change are large corporations, there are still many ways that all of us can make a difference. Besides choosing political candidates that support the environment, many of us can make simple changes in our daily lives that will reduce the amount of carbon we are releasing into the atmosphere.

These changes include:

Galapagos Penguin
Galapagos Penguin
Photo credit: Richard Jenkinson
  • Taking public transportation or carpooling to work
  • Using high-efficiency appliances–or solar panels
  • Eating locally-produced foods
  • Eating less beef and dairy
  • Planting native trees and flowers in your yard
  • Reducing water usage
  • Reusing and recycling products and packaging. Check out the useful suggestions in this blog: Go Green: Eco-Friendly Products We Should All Be Using

Making even a few of these changes in your life can be the first step toward a healthier atmosphere. Many of these changes actually save the individual money in the long run as well! Much damage has already been dealt by human activity to the Earth and the organisms that call it home; but if people prioritize environmental sustainability in their own lives, we can start to move toward a world where animals like Galapagos penguins can thrive for generations to come.

The Little Penguins of Middle Island

little penguin
Photo credit: Francesco Veronesi from Italy

The Little Penguins of Middle Island

by Mike King

Many of us think of penguins as adorable birds that live in the frigid temperatures of Antarctica. In the case of the Little Penguin, that is only half true. These birds live along the southern edge of Australia, along with its surrounding islands and New Zealand. As the name implies, the Little Penguin is the smallest of the penguin species. Another interesting characteristic of these birds is that their feathers appear blue when seen under the sun; but this is simply a mechanism of light used to trick your brain. All birds that appear blue actually have black feathers, but they layer the tiny hair-like structures in their feathers to capture the light in such a way that it appears blue! If you were to find a Little Penguin feather on the ground and smash it with a hammer, it would turn black in front of your eyes!

Little Penguins feed mainly on schooling fish. They hunt individually or in small groups of six or less birds. When fish are not available, they are also known to feed on squid and even jellyfish. Females can lay 1-2 eggs per year, usually in July. Parental care is shared by both the mother and father of the chicks, until they reach eight-weeks-old and fledge. Young fledglings are much smaller than adults, and have a bright blue color on their back that darkens with age. These birds have very few natural predators, unfortunately human activity has led to a decline in Little Penguin populations across Australia and New Zealand.

In the mid-1800’s, European red foxes were introduced into Australia for recreational hunting. Today, they are still prevalent as an invasive species and contribute to the decline of many Australian species, including Little Penguins. The threat posed by these foxes, as well as cats and dogs, has been a primary issue for ecologists. Numerous techniques have been implemented by researchers to try to save Little Penguins. One program in particular has gained global attention with a little help from Hollywood. 

Hundreds of Little Penguins live on Middle Island

Middle Island is a tiny island just off the coast of southern Australia and was home to a population of hundreds of Little Penguins; but when invasive red foxes crossed over from the mainland, they killed all but four. As the penguin population slowly recuperated, community members brainstormed ways that they could protect their beloved penguins from any future attacks. One man, a chicken farmer, came up with the idea to send one of his dogs to help protect the penguins from future fox invasions. The dog’s name was Oddball. He was a Maremma dog—a fluffy, lovable breed used by Australians to protect livestock from predators. For over 10 years, Oddball and other Maremma dogs donated by community members successfully protected the Little penguins from foxes. The penguin population increased tremendously. This incredible conservation success was adapted to a movie in 2015, appropriately named “Oddball.” 

Tourists boost conservation of Little Penguins

“Oddball” was well-received around the world, and has brought a large amount of tourism to the Middle Island area. This has helped to boost the economy of the area, which increases community support for the conservation of their Little Penguins. This is an incredible example of the impact conservation can have on the attitudes of people. There are now several community volunteer programs across the range of the penguins. Hopefully, with continued economic support from tourism, local legislatures will be prompted to pass laws that protect Little Penguins from other threats, such as entanglement in fishing nets. 

Photo of a family of Little penguins exiting their burrow on Middle Island.
Photo credit: JJ Harrison ([email protected])
Tula and Eudy, two of the Maremma sheepdogs that protect Little penguins on Middle Island.
Photo credit: Warrnambool City Council

Little Penguins on Middle Island are a conservation success

The story of the Little Penguins is a model for conservation successes around the world. When ecologists are able to get community members interested and involved in the process of saving a species, everybody benefits. The increased publicity of programs like the Maremma dogs of Middle Island will lead to the improvement of local economies, which in turn promotes community engagement with the protection of a species. Human activity often puts animals at risk of extinction, and human activity is often the only thing that can save them. 

Visit our other recent blogs to read about more penguin species:

Little penguin, also called a Fairy penguin or Blue penguin.
Photo credit: JJ Harrison ([email protected])

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Do all penguins love the cold?

Galapagos penguin
by Nataly H. Aranzamendi

All species of penguins are restricted to southern latitudes and most of us think of them in cold climates and Antarctic snow. But there are two species that venture farther north, reaching the equator. They are sun-loving penguins: The Humboldt and Galapagos Penguins.

Some penguins love cold, some penguins love the heat

Penguins split their lives between two landscapes: in ocean waters when searching for their favorite fishes and squid, and on land when it’s time to breed or to change new feathers. The Galapagos and the Humboldt Penguins, like other penguin species, are top predators of marine food webs and key elements for the balance of southern marine food chains. Both species live in habitats that look quite harshly similar. The Humboldt Penguin likes to nest in guano mounds on rocky shores and cliffs, and similarly the Galapagos penguin likes rocky crevices and protected shelters. 

Although these penguins are sun-loving birds, they are still associated to relatively cold temperatures, as their distribution is mainly determined by the presence of the Humboldt Current, a current with cold waters that flow north from Antarctica all the way to the Galapagos. The Humboldt Current is one of the world’s most productive, filled with nutrients which are ideal for plankton and wildlife to thrive. 

Many threats to Humboldt and Galapagos Penguins

Both species of penguins have gone through dramatic population fluctuations. In the 18th century, Humboldt Penguins occurred by the “hundreds of thousands” before the guano exploitation started. Together with human exploitation and decrease of available habitat, these species have also been negatively impacted by water temperature fluctuations provoked by El Niño, an increase of invasive species, and new wildlife diseases to name a few threats. Here’s a summary of the most relevant facts for each species:

Facts about Humboldt Penguins

Humboldt Penguin

Humboldt penguin
Photo: Adam Kumiszcza

Humboldt Penguins (Spheniscus humboldti) used to be abundant in the 18th century. Historical records mention “millions of birds” along rocky beaches in the coasts of Peru and Chile. When the exploitation of guano began, penguins saw their nesting grounds being constantly disturbed and they quickly abandoned those areas. Moreover, their numbers decreased as a result of direct hunting of adults and egg harvesting. 

Their current numbers are calculated at around 30,000 individuals (accurate estimates unknown due to deficiencies in survey methodologies). Although population numbers seem stable and/or growing in some years, Humboldt Penguins are classified as Vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Sometimes when strong El Niño events hit, they can face years with up to ~60% mortality of individuals. The main reason for such dramatic declines is linked with their favorite prey: Anchovies and other small fishes swim deeper in cold waters or farther away from penguin’s foraging areas when El Niño’s warm waters invade the Humboldt Current. Unfortunately, it is very likely that El Niño events will become more frequent and less predictable in a warming world, endangering the probabilities of immediate recovery for Humboldt Penguins.

Industrial fisheries and the risk of entanglement on gill nets pose another threat for this species. Although Humboldt Penguins prefer to stay close to their nesting colonies during breeding, non-breeding individuals venture farther away during winter, as has been shown by recent tracking of individuals, increasing the likelihood of encounters with fisheries.  

Penguins and their eggs are also easy prey for invasive species. Rats, feral cats and dogs and even human activity have had an effect on nesting populations. Current management programs in the largest colonies of Humboldt penguins include the eradication of such species with preliminary positive results. However, this implies a gigantic amount of work and management programs now run mostly in protected areas and with limited budgets. 

Facts about Galapagos Penguins

Galapagos penguins

Galapagos penguins
Photo: Hjalmar Gislason

The Galapagos Penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus) can be found only around two islands in the Galapagos archipelago: Isabela and Fernandina islands. Like its closest neighbor the Humboldt Penguin, the populations of Galapagos Penguins have experienced dramatic numeric fluctuations (up to 80%) provoked by El Niño events, introduced species, and new diseases. 

The threat for this species, however, is potentially more dramatic than the one for the Humboldt Penguin, since their numbers do not exceed 5,000 individuals. Due to their restricted geographical location and limited numbers, the Galapagos Penguin’s current status by the IUCN is Endangered. 

Galapagos Penguins are also threatened by local fishing operations and the possible arrival of diseases such as bird malaria. Moreover, climate change may likely decrease the availability of its various fish prey which could possibly limit the chances of successful nests for this bird. 

How do we protect Humboldt Penguins and Galapagos Penguins for the future?

Species can persist if coordinated efforts by scientists, authorities, local fisherman and the general public start alleviating pressures coming from human sources. For example, the installation of artificial nests can potentially increase available habitat for both species and increase their chances of yearly nest success. 

Similarly, restricting access to breeding grounds for tourists, local fishermen and public in general has been a strategy that has proved successful for many other marine birds for which their nesting colonies have been re-populated. This strategy could also potentially work for these penguins.  

An urgent and forceful control of invasive species might have the strongest immediate impact on nesting birds and could boost population numbers and recruitment. 

Most importantly, public awareness constitutes a powerful tool for the preservation of any species. It’s crucial to understand the impact of our activities on the world (e.g. fishing, climate change) and the ways to mitigate our negative individual impacts. Hopefully, all these measures implemented could offer a more positive prospect for these sun-loving penguins and one day we might even see thousands of them again enjoying the sun on their rocky beaches. 

Have you ever seen Galapagos or Humboldt penguins in the wild? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Read more about Adelie Penguins and Northern Rockhopper Penguins!


Adelie Penguins – Nature’s Cutest Thieves May Play a Role as an Indicator Species

Adelie Penguin
by Mike King

Of the 18 penguin species currently recognized by science, none are quite as mischievous as the Adelie Penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae). These birds live in large colonies along the rocky banks of Antarctica. Adelies, like most penguins, are very dedicated parents. They build small nests out of stones to protect their chicks. Many of these parents even steal stones from other nests in order to protect their own! 

Adelie Penguins walk a lot!

Although Adelie Penguins fit the typical morphological description of most penguins (awkward, round, andAdelie Penguins stubby-legged), they are capable of accomplishing incredible physical feats. They migrate up to 31 miles every spring on foot! Like all penguins, they are also capable swimmers. Adelie penguin chicks are able to swim on their own at the young age of 9 weeks. 

The diet of the Adelie is quite unusual for that of a penguin. Most penguins feed almost exclusively on fish, but the vast majority of the Adelie’s diet is made up of tiny marine organisms called krill. Krill are small, shrimp-like crustaceans that provide a basic food source for countless marine creatures. Because of the constant threat of predation, krill are highly adapted swimmers. Adelie Penguins must swim with incredible athleticism and stealth in order to catch their food and survive. In a video released by penguin researcher Yuuki Watanabe in 2013, viewers are able to see from a penguin’s point-of-view just how chaotic these underwater chases can be. It is not difficult to appreciate the amazing balance of nature put on display by the competing survival abilities of both species. This ecological balance, however, can only withstand a certain amount of strain before it tips over. 

Adelie PenguinOften times, animal populations are threatened by humans due to overharvesting of their prey. In the case of Adelie penguins, however, an overabundance of their prey may be indicative of a greater ecological issue. According to the IUCN Redlist, Adelie Penguin populations have increased at a rate of about 2% per year since the mid 1990’s. This may sound like great news, but some researchers disagree. According to papers released by Fraser et. al. and Taylor et. al., the increase in Adelie Penguin populations may actually be linked to climate change. Fraser et. al. found that the loss of sea ice on the Antarctic continent has led to greater numbers of krill, thus increasing the survivability of Adelie penguins. Therefore, this massive increase in penguin population indicates just how much climate change can affect an ecosystem. More penguins may sound like a good thing, but in this case they may begin to outcompete other species and begin slowly hunting the krill to drastically low levels. Of course, this is only one issue melting sea ice can cause.

Adelie Penguins are indicator species of climate change

There has been growing concerns in the scientific community about climate change since the 1960s. Governments around the globe started to take action in the 1980s through legislative procedures. Many scientific studies have predicted massive extinction rates, flooding cities, the loss of pollinators (and also therefore fruit) will all be likely events if climate change is to continue on its current course. With the knowledge of how the Adelie Penguin population corresponds to climate change, scientists can begin to monitor the progress being made by rising ocean temperatures in a much simpler way than in the past. Adelie Penguins may now be used as an “indicator species”—a living organism whose presence and abundance can be used to tell us things about an ecosystem. The concept is not a new one; scientists have used indicator species such as marine invertebrates in order to determine the overall health of an ecosystem. Basically, we can monitor the population of Adelie Penguins in Antarctica, and use that information to determine how much sea ice was lost since the last population assessment. 

Listed as “Least Concern” by the IUCN Redlist, Adelie Penguins have not taken center stage in any major conservation movements. However, with the information we now possess, we will be able to conduct more studies on Adelie penguin populations and their effects on krill populations to gain a better understanding of how rapidly climate change is melting sea ice in Antarctica. This small, stone-stealing bird is much more than a cute video to be laughed at. It is a looking glass into the health of our Southern Ocean, and may shed light on how quickly we must act to protect it. 

Next stop — Northern Rockhoppers Penguins!


Meet the Northern Rockhopper Penguin

Northern Rockhopper Penguin

Northern Rockhopper Penguins

by Mike King

Off the coast of South Africa lives one of the world’s most iconic and charismatic birds – the Northern Rockhopper Penguin (Eudyptes moseleyi). These birds, native to the southern islands Gough, Amsterdam, and the Tristan archipelago, are one of 18 different penguin species alive today. Unfortunately, they are also one of the most endangered.

Northern Rockhopper Penguins have the longest crest feathers of any penguin species

Northern Rockhoppers are striking in physical appearance. These penguins have a slate-colored back and head, and a white front and underside. The most unique morphological feature on these birds is certainly the long, frayed yellow feathers extending like long eyebrows across their forehead. The most noticable difference between Northern Rockhoppers and Southern Rockhoppers (Eudyptes chrysocome) is that the “eyebrow” of the Northern variety is significantly longer than that of their Southern relatives.

Northern Rockhoppers are stout, athletic birds. Like all penguins, they have modified wings that act as flippers to help them glide gracefully through the water. Aptly named, these birds often hop around awkwardly on land; but they occasionally slide on their bellies on smooth downhill landscapes. Their diet consists mostly of krill, but as opportunistic foragers they will also readily eat fish and squid when they are available. 

Once a common sight on islands in the Southern Ocean, the Northern Rockhopper Penguin population has declined at a rate of 3-4% per year since the early 1970s, totaling at a 57% decline. So what has contributed to this drastic population decrease, and what can be done to reverse the current trend? 

Northern Rockhopper Penguin
Photo: Lorna Moffat, Edinburgh Zoo

Threats to Northern Rockhopper Penguins


Several introduced species pose threats to Northern Rockhopper Penguins. Chief among these species were feral pigs, until their eventual eradication in the 20th century. Dogs and introduced mice also pose certain threats, though there is a lack of data quantifying the magnitude of their impact on the birds.

Climate change-

Although scientific data quantifying the effect of climate change on penguins is still in the process of being conducted, researchers have reason to believe that abnormalities in the Earth’s natural climate can negatively affect birds like penguins. The main reason being studied is that rising ocean temperatures in the areas in which Northern Rockhoppers live are leading to the decline of fish for the penguins to eat.

Human activity-

Human activity is by far the harshest threat to the Northern Rockhopper Penguin. For years, the birds were killed for feathers, hunting bait, and bushmeat. Their eggs were also harvested to feed the people of the island until as recently as 2011. The rapidly increasing development of human housing, roads and cities have led to a severe decrease in habitat availability for the penguins as well.

Conservation of Northern Rockhopper Penguins

A series of laws recently passed in the Tristan island community has sectioned off an entire island to the penguins for habitat without the threat of human intervention. This provides a large area for the penguins to hunt, breed and raise their young. Citizens have also taken action by putting up a fence to keep penguin predators away from the island. Ultimately, the future of the Northern Rockhopper Penguin relies on the continued research, outreach and community education for the benefit of this species.

Northern Rockhopper chick
Photo: Lorna Moffat, Edinburgh Zoo
Northern Rockhopper adult and chicks
Photo: Lorna Moffat, Edinburgh Zoo
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