Penguin Awareness Day 2020
January 17, 2020

by Anna Kilmova

Spotlight: The African Penguin

Photo: Ben Wilson

When you think of penguins, you probably imagine them being surrounded by ice and frigid water with a dash of howling winds thrown in. But there’s a species of penguin that is just at home on a tropical sandy beach as others are on the Antarctic’s snowy landscape – the African Penguin. It’s one of the few penguins that live in warm, tropical climates, and these little guys can be found in large numbers on Boulders Beach, Simon’s Town and Stony Point, Betty’s Bay in South Africa.

Like all penguins, they depend on their dense, waterproof feathers to keep them dry and insulated in cold water. They also have a nice thick layer of fat which keeps them warm and so delightfully pudgy! Their sleek form, webbed feet, and powerful flipper-like wings make them great swimmers and allow them to reach speeds of 8 km/h when diving and up to 19 km/h when porpoising (a manner of swimming that dolphins use, hence the name). To put that speed into perspective, the fastest human swimmer could reach 8.5 km/h at most – and that was only across 50 meters! These agile birds can also hold their breath underwater for 2.5 minutes which is bad news for the sardines, anchovies and squid that end up as their lunch.

Photo: Ben Wilson

African Penguins, unlike their Antarctic-dwelling counterparts, do not migrate considerable distances in order to give birth and instead breed within their colonies (and near their food source). This means that luckily they don’t have to spend months starving, apart from the annual moult which lasts around 3 weeks. Leading up to this time they double their weight by gorging on fish and then proceed to lose it while they drop their old faded feathers and wait for the fancy new plumage to grow in. Without their new feathers, they cannot enter the water to hunt as they will not be waterproof or insulated.

By living in a warmer climate, African Penguins needed to evolve some adaptations to deal with the heat. Namely, the pink patch above their eyes is actually a sweat gland and the darker it gets, the hotter the penguin feels. The dark colour is a result of more blood being sent to these sweat glands which allows the penguin to cool off by dissipating the heat. In addition to sweat glands, these waddling birds also have salt-water glands in their heads that purify the sea water they drink after which they sneeze out the salt crystals.

Photo: Ben Wilson

Fighting for Survival

Unfortunately, the number of African Penguins has been steadily declining over the years. The main culprits have been food decreases due to overfishing and pollution from oil spills; historically, guano removal from their nesting sites by people who used it as fertilizer; habitat destruction and coastal development. Put together, these factors account for a huge loss in their numbers – a population that used to boast over 1 million pairs now hovers at only about 26,000 breeding pairs. Such a drastic decline has put the African Penguins on the IUCN Red List as Endangered and at high risk of extinction.

However, thanks to recent conservation efforts, a number of populations are now thriving and you can even visit a couple of colonies yourself! Stony Point in Betty’s Bay has a boardwalk that winds through the colony and gives visitors the opportunity to watch the penguins and their antics from a safe distance and the Boulders Beach penguins let you get rather close as they are unusually tame and tolerant of company.

To learn more about African Penguins or to see how you can help conservation efforts, visit the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB).

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