Spring Edition: African Penguins

African penguins are a species of warm-weather penguins found in South Africa. Also called the black-footed penguin due to their black feet, these small birds are about 2 feet tall and weigh about 8 pounds. Like all penguins, these birds are covered with black and white feathers. However, unlike most other penguins, these birds have a patch of pink skin surrounding their eyes. This patch helps with thermoregulation, allowing an area for their blood to cool if the animal becomes too hot.

African penguins have black feathers on their back, and white feathers on their bellies. This color pattern is a type of camouflage called countershading. This gives them an opportunity to hide from both predators above (the black back blends in with the dark bottom of the ocean) and prey below (their light belly blends in with the sunlight above them). They also have a distinctive horseshoe shaped black band and black spots across their chest. These spots are unique to individual animals, much like fingerprints.

African penguins congregate in large groups called colonies. These groups consist of males, females and their young. Male and female penguins of this species mate for life, and return to the same colonies each year to have their young. They build a nest out of guano, rocks and sticks. Each pair will lay 2 eggs and will take turns incubating them for about 40 days. When the baby penguins first hatch, they are covered with fuzzy grey down feathers. They quickly molt within the first month and grow out their juvenile feathers. Juvenile penguins are distinguishable from the adults due to their greyish-blue feathers, which they have for about 3 years before molting into their adult plumage.

African penguins forage for food in the open ocean, preying on items such as squid, anchovies and small crustaceans. They cannot hunt while they are molting, however, because the exposed area of skin and new feathers are not waterproof. Penguin feathers are flat, small and tightly packed together. There are about 70 feathers in a section of skin the size of a quarter! They also have an oil gland at the base of their tails, which they will rub with their beaks to spread oil over their feathers. The waterproofing and tightly packed feathers allow the penguins to stay warm in the cold waters where they hunt.

African penguins are known for their loud bray that sounds like a donkey. These penguins are very vocal and use many different calls to communicate with each other.

African penguins are listed as endangered and many are concerned that they will be extinct in the wild by the year 2026. Natural predators of African penguins include sharks, fur seals, and gulls. Today, humans are one of the penguins’ biggest predators. Penguin eggs were once collected for consumption, as they were considered a delicacy. Guano was collected for fertilizer, and this destroyed nests and disturbed breeding pairs. Today, commercial fishing, especially for anchovies, is causing decline in the African penguin population as their food source declines.

Many organizations, such as SANCCOB (Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) are working to conserve African penguins and their habitats in the hopes that we can stop their extinction. Adventure Aquarium supports SANCCOB through Penguin Awareness weekends and other penguin-specific activities throughout the year.