People seem to love penguins, probably because they resemble comical people with their upright stance and waddling gait. There is also a certain fascination that these flightless birds can survive in some of the coldest and most inhospitable places on Earth.
Ranging in size from the nearly 4 foot (1.2 m) tall emporer to the tiny 3 pound (1 kg) little blue, all of the world's 18 species of penguins live in the Southern Hemisphere. Penguins are found as far north as the equatorial islands of the Galapagos and as far south as Antarctica.
It is a popular misconception that penguins live in the arctic. Other seabirds, such as the now-extinct Giant Auk, occupy habitat niches in the far north similar to those of penguins.
Species Description and Natural History
Standing about 27 inches (69 cm) tall, the Humboldt penguin lives along the Pacific coastlines of Chile and Peru. Total population of the Humboldt penguin was estimated at 20,000 in the early 1980s, and in the 1990s may number around 10,000 individuals.
Like all penguins, the Humboldt is a flightless marine bird, superbly adapted to its environment. Fossil records suggest that penguins once could fly but gave it up for life in the sea about 60 to 70 million years ago. Their wings have evolved into narrow bony flippers, which make them extremely maneuverable and fast swimmers.
Early explorers thought penguins were fish, not fowl, because they are so superbly adapted to life in water.
Penguins are covered by a dense layer of small, scalelike feathers for protection against water and wind. An undercoat of downy feathers beneath traps an insulating layer of air which keeps them dry and warm. Beneath the skin, a layer of blubber also acts to retain the birds' body heat even in frigid waters and freezing air. In fact, for some penguins, keeping cool is more of problem than keeping warm.
The Humboldt penguin nests on islands or rocky stretches of mainland coast and feeds on fish and squid in near-shore waters. The Humboldt breeds year round in small colonies. Humboldts dig underground burrows to protect themselves, their eggs, and chicks from the hot sun and predators.
Causes of Endangerment
Overexploitation, Commercial Fishing, and Pollution
Human exploitation is the primary reason penguins are endangered.
The decline of the Humboldt penguin began in the mid-19th century when the intensive activity of guano collectors disturbed and damaged nesting areas. Guano, the excrement of animals such as birds and bats, is much sought after for fertilizer.
Penguins were heavily hunted for their meat, oil, and skins. Adult penguins and chicks were captured for zoos and private collectors. People also collected penguin eggs. Sailors on the southern seas regarded penguins as a welcome, easy meal.
Penguin eggs were so prized in the Falkland Islands that the country declared National Penguin Day, a holiday when even school children were given the day off to collect eggs.
More recently, penguins have been drowning in fishing nets and on long line fishing gear. Commercial fishing also has reduced prey availability. In addition, penguins are threatened by oil spills from ships and tankers rounding the treacherous waters of the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa and Cape Horn at the tip of South America.
Penguins also are vulnerable to climate variations. The occurrence of El Nino from 1982 to 1983 is thought to have caused the loss of some 65 percent of the Peruvian population of Humboldt penguins. The arrival of this unusually warm ocean current may have killed or driven away the penguins' prey species.
One of the rarest of all penguins is the yellow-eyed species of southeastern New Zealand with fewer than 4,000 birds remaining. The yellow-eyed penguin is threatened by introduced predators like weasels, dogs, and cats.
Destruction of forests and human disturbance have reduced the quality of their breeding areas. A recent fire swept through a breeding colony, killing several hundred birds.
Trade Regulation and Habitat Protection
All penguins are listed on CITES Appendix I, primarily to control the live animal trade. Local protections for individual species and their habitats vary by country. Guano mining and egg collecting are now illegal in the South American countries where the Humboldt occurs. Nonetheless, birds are still killed and used for fishing bait or eaten.
Penguins are popular attractions at many zoos around the world. The success of captive breeding efforts varies among the species. The Species Survival Plan (SSP) for Humboldt penguins is coordinated by the Chicago Zoological Park in the United States.
Questions for Thought
How do you think penguins, which have very specific habitat requirements, might be impacted by the effects of global climate change such as melting of the Earth's ice caps and rising sea level?
What similarities exist between the story of the Humboldt penguin and the stories of the dodo and the short-tailed albatross?
Activities: [CS1-1,CS1-4, CS2-5, General]
Words in bold italics can be found in the glossary.
SEARCH FOR MORE INFORMATION