Penguins have fascinated zoologists, explorers, and the general public for centuries. Their Latin name—Sphenisciformes—is a mixture of Latin and Greek derivatives, meaning ‘small wedge shaped’, after the distinctive form of their flightless wings. The genus of penguins comprises more than just the famous Emperors of the Antarctic, and while public awareness is growing, many of the seventeen extant members of this bird family, their habitats, and threats to their survival, remain relatively unknown.
This April, to celebrate our Animal of the Month, we explore four of the lesser known members of the penguin family tree.
The Adélie Penguin is one of the most southerly venturing species’ outside of the tundra-dwelling Emperor Penguins. Their colonies are found all across the Antarctic coast, with one ‘super-colony’ of an estimated 1.5 million birds in the remote Danger Islands near South America, visible even from space.
The species was named after the wife of French explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville, the first European explorer to discover the penguins in the 19th Century. Since the 1970’s, the Adélie penguin has experienced a more than a 50% population decline in the vicinity of Anvers Islands, and are listed as a near threatened.
The behavioural ecology of Adélie Penguins is one of the most widely studied of all penguins, and many face the human interference of researchers handling adults, hatchlings, and eggs. Unfortunately, recent studies show that these birds do not become desensitised to the stress of human interaction over time, and that this can negatively impact on the numbers of chicks they reproduce each year.
Native to the sun-soaked islands between South Africa and Namibia, the African Penguin is sometimes known by its comical pseudonym, “The Jackass Penguin”, on account of its distinctive, throaty call resembling a braying donkey.
While penguins have colonized every continent of the Southern Hemisphere, today the Jackass Penguin is the only species to grace the shores of the African continent. However, a recent study suggests that before the evolution of archaic humans, African penguin diversity was substantially higher, with fossil records indicating the existence of at least four different species in South Africa.
Today, the modern African Penguin is threatened by near extinction, with around only 70,000 breeding pairs on the planet—less than 10% of the population that existed in 1900. This is caused mostly by human disruption of their coastal habitats, and intensive fishing for schoaling fish like anchovies and sardines, which form the majority of their diet.
As its name suggests, the Galápagos Penguin is the only species found in the rich biodiversity of the Galápagos Islands off the Ecuadorian coast, and the only to even venture north of the equator.
At around 20 inches long, the Galápagos Penguin is one of the smallest members of the bird family. They survive the warmer climate near to the equator by sheltering from sunlight on rocky beaches, and swimming in surrounding waters which are cooled by currents flowing from the southerly reaches of Latin America.
Like many penguin species’, the survival of the Galápagos Penguin is threatened by various human factors: overfishing reducing the availability of their diet; by-catching of penguins in fishing nets; oil spills and other pollutants; and the introduction of dogs, cats and rats to the delicate biodiversity of the Galápagos. As a result, the penguin is an endangered species, and the rarest variety of penguin in the world.
Little Blue Penguin
The aptly named Little Blue Penguin is the smallest living penguin species, standing at just 13 inches tall. Sometimes known as the “Fairy Penguin”, the blueish tinge to their feathers is unique amongst all penguin species’.
The non-migratory, nocturnal bird lives in colonies all along Australasian coastlines, remaining close to these homes throughout their lives. Despite their miniature stature, the resilient Little Penguin displays a powerful “site-fidelity”; research shows that they will continue to return to their breeding sites even after human urbanisation. As a result, they sometimes face being hit by jet skis and cars, disorientated by lights, or carried off by dogs in the attempt.
However, their desire to return to these sites shows remarkable ingenuity: in the 1980’s, when a coastal homeowner in Manly Point, Australia built a seawall along the edge of his property, the penguins were found burrowing through a drainage pipe, and even ascending steep stairs—no mean feat for a Little Blue Penguin—to reach their breeding grounds.
Like all animals, the survival of penguins is threatened by human activity. For some, like the Galápagos and African Penguins, this is a particularly imminent threat. But with greater understanding of the immense variations of the penguin family, conservation work stands a greater chance of preserving these remarkable, monochrome birds.
Featured image credit: A pair of African penguins, Boulders Beach, South Africa by Paul Mannix. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.