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Galapagos Penguin

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Galapagos Penguin

Galapagos Penguin

Aaron Logan

The only penguin that resides in tropical waters, the Galapagos penguin is also the only penguin species that naturally ventures into the Northern Hemisphere, even if it is only for an occasional fishing trip.

Common Name:

Galapagos Penguin

Scientific Name:

Spheniscus mendiculus

Scientific Family:

Spheniscidae

Appearance:

  • Bill: Thick, long, hooked upper mandible, gray-black with pink at the base of the lower mandible
  • Size: 21 inches long with 14-16-inch wingspan, upright posture, large bill
  • Colors: Black, white, pink, gray, brown
  • Markings: Genders are similar though the males are larger. Upperparts are gray-black while underparts are white in classic countershading. The chin is dark but the throat is light, and a thin white line extends from behind the eye, around the auriculars and to the throat. A blurry dark line extends from the upper breast under the throat down the flanks onto the thighs, and the abdomen may be marked with a few dark spots. A small patch of bare pink skin is visible in front of the eye, and eye color ranges from brown to red. Legs and feet are black but may show pink spots or splotches. Juvenile birds lack the clear markings of adults and are more gray-brown in color. Species is monotypic.

Foods:

Fish, crustaceans (See: Piscivorous)

Habitat and Migration:

These penguins are endemic to the Galapagos Islands, west of Ecuador. Most Galapagos penguins are found along the rocky shores and coastal waters of Isla Isabela and Isla Fernandina, though fewer numbers are also found on the islands of Santiago, Santa Cruz, Bartolome and Floreana. These birds do not migrate, but because of their proximity to the Northern Hemisphere, they are a popular attraction for local avitourism.

Vocalizations:

These penguins are relatively quiet but do have a bray call with low-to-high tones that is similar to a donkey's call. This bray is typically used to identify and communicate with mates, and milder calls can also be heard from groups of hunting penguins.

Behavior:

These penguins are gentle birds with even temperaments, and are not usually aggressive even toward other bird species in the same area. They are colonial birds with a sedentary lifestyle, and are often seen basking on rocks, preening and resting. To protect themselves from the tropical heat and the equatorial sun, they frequently swim with quick dives to keep cool, and they will also hunch to shade their delicate feet from direct sunlight. Panting and spreading their flippers are other ways Galapagos penguins keep cool.

When hunting, these birds have shallower dives closer to shore than many other penguin species. This is believed to be because of the rich fish life near the Galapagos Islands, and the prevalence of sharks in deeper water that the penguins stay close to the coast to avoid.

Reproduction:

These are monogamous birds believed to mate for life after a courtship display that includes flipper patting, mutual preening and bill fencing. A mated pair will work together to build a nest in a shallow burrow or natural niche, often lined with guano, seaweed, leaves or other natural debris. Nests are typically located close to the water, and flooding can threaten nesting penguins and young chicks.

Each brood of Galapagos penguins includes 2 eggs, though it's common for only one chick to survive unless food supplies are sufficient. Because food is so critical to hatchlings' survival, Galapagos penguins do not have a regimented mating cycle, and instead may raise a brood whenever food is abundant. A mated pair may raise 1-2 broods per year. Incubation duties are shared by both parents, and the chicks hatch after 38-40 days. Both parents care intensely for the hatchlings for 30-35 days, gradually reducing their care after that time. The young birds are ready to leave the nest and fend for themselves when they are 60-65 days old.

Attracting Galapagos Penguins:

These are not backyard birds, but when birders or other guests visit the Galapagos Islands, they often find that the birds are curious and willing to allow humans to approach quite closely, providing superior views and photography opportunities. Visits to the area are regulated as a conservation measure, however, and anyone hoping to see Galapagos penguins should secure the services of a licensed guide with authorization to approach the birds' preferred areas.

Conservation:

Galapagos penguins are one of the most heavily endangered penguins in the world, and there are only 1,000-1,500 of the birds left in the wild. The survival of both adult and juvenile Galapagos penguins is strongly influenced by the El Nino and La Nina cycles that impact water temperatures, which in turn impacts food supplies and breeding success. Pollution, climate change and introduced predators such as rats, cats and snakes are also threats to these penguins.

To safeguard Galapagos penguins, strict controls on local tourism and development are essential. Captive breeding programs may also have some success in preserving this endangered species.

Similar Birds:

  • Magellanic Penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus)
  • African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus)
  • Humboldt Penguin (Spheniscus humboldti)

Photo – Galapagos Penguin © Aaron Logan
Photo – Galapagos Penguin – Juvenile © Sara Yeomans

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