Penguins on the Equator
There's only one place in the world where you can enjoy watching the adorable habits of a penguin in its natural habitat without having to deal with the bone-chilling temperatures where most penguins live – and that place is Ecuador. The Galapagos Islands, less than 700 miles away from mainland Ecuador, are home to the rarest tropical species of penguins in the world, the Galapagos Penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus).
These equator-loving penguins are a descendent of the Humboldt penguin, found on the coasts of Chile and Peru. It is believed that the first group of them drifted safely onto the shores of the Galapagos Archipelago some four million years ago and began their first colonies then.
Meet the Galapagos Penguin
- Species Name: Spheniscus mendiculus
- Region: The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, South America
- Height: 19" (50cm)
- Weight: 5.5 lbs (2.5kg)
- Threats: Snakes, Crabs, Hawks, Owls, Domesticated Dogs and Cats, Fishing nets, Boats
- Nests: Crevices and fissures of old lava flows & dark caves
Currents and Nutrient-Rich Waters
The success of this tropical species of penguins in the Galapagos chain is largely due to the Humboldt Current, which jets cold from Antarctica up the western coast of South America. As it moves along the shoreline, it pushes the surface water offshore, causing upwelling from the deeper, nutrient rich waters that sustain life for the penguins' diet of sardines, mullet, and other small fish and crustaceans.
Tropical Penguin Adaptations
Tropical penguins? Doesn't sound possible, but it's "kind of" true. The terrestrial weather and the latitude in the Galapagos are tropical, but the water, and where the water comes from isn't. Galapagos Penguins feed on cool waters of nutrient rich upswells and have adapted and evolved to deal with a warmer climate.
Like most species of penguins, they are all black with the distinctive white torsos; however, unlike their 85-pound Antarctic cousins (the Emperor Penguins), the Galapagos species grows to only 20" in height, with an adult male weight of about five pounds.
In order to live in such warm climates, these birds have made some very unique adaptations. To keep cool, the penguins try to stay in the dark crevices or hold their wings out to allow heat to escape quickly from their bodies as wind passes over them.
The coldwater Cromwell Current, flowing east across the Pacific Ocean, keeps the sea temperature of the Islands between 60 º and 80ºF (16º-27ºC), making it the perfect home for the penguins.
When and Where to See Galapagos Penguins
They are easy to find year-round on the western islands of Isabela and Fernandina, where the majority of their population lives. They nest along the rocky shores of these volcanic islands in the crevices and fissures (long, narrow cracks) of dried lava flows or in caves and are most active during the month of September.
Endangered Penguins and Conservation Efforts
Unfortunately, due to their small size and the significant number of threats that exist in the Galapagos Islands, their population has fallen to roughly 2,000 individuals (less than 1,000 breeding pairs), making them an endangered species. In addition to natural predators like hawks, snakes, and crabs, man-made hazards such as fishing nets and boats are reducing the population of this species.
Conservation efforts have helped to keep these penguins off the extinction list, so you can also play your part by admiring them from a distance. Make sure to bring a camera with a good lens to capture all the playfulness of these lovable animals while still allowing them plenty of space.
Pressure on the Galapagos Penguin from El Nino
Previous el Nino events have devastated penguin populations in the Galapagos, and unfortunately it looks like the 2015-16 El Nino will see very high ocean water temperatures which drive the penguins' food source far away from the islands and will likely result in a dramatic reduction in penguin populations. Read more about El Nino's threat to the Galapagos Penguin here. Let's hope our penguin friends thrive!