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The Rarest Penguin in the World

Galapagos Penguin
Photo credit: Charles J. Sharp, Sharp Photography

The Rarest Penguin in the World

by Mike King

Far from the frigid weather of Antarctica, the Galapagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus) is the only penguin species to venture into the Northern Hemisphere. As the name implies, they are native to the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador off the coast of South America. This bird is mostly black and white, with a pink tint under the bill. The white front is broken by a black bar just beneath the neck, and a white stripe curls to the eye through the otherwise all-black face. Like all penguins, Galapagos penguins are flightless, and their wings have adapted into flippers that they use while swimming in the Pacific. 

Galapagos penguins feed on sardines, mullets, anchovies, and other small fish. They hunt by diving down under the fish, and catching their prey while swimming up through the fleeing schools. They can often be seen in day-long feeding flocks (multi-species gatherings of birds foraging together) with Brown Noddies, Brown Pelicans, and Flightless Cormorants. As the penguins drive schools of fish toward the surface, the other birds that cannot dive as well are able to feed. 

Galapagos penguin swimming.                                                              Photo credit: Andrew Skujins

Unlike most birds, Galapagos penguins breed opportunistically year-round. This is a great adaptation for a very unpredictable environment. Wherever food is plentiful, they can mate. For the most part, Galapagos penguins mate for life and take turns tending to eggs and young chicks. Once the chicks are three weeks old, the parents can begin to leave them on their own for short periods of time. 

Galapagos penguins have faced severe population fluctuations since the 1970’s. Rising ocean temperatures have hindered the cold currents that bring fish towards their feeding grounds, leaving penguins to starve. High ocean surface temperatures have also led to a halt in breeding. There are only 1,200 Galapagos penguins in the wild today. With numbers that small, population fluctuations can be catastrophic. Researchers suggest there is a 30% chance that Galapagos penguins will go completely extinct within the next hundred years. Conservation of these penguins can be a major challenge. The entirety of the Galapagos Islands is a protected nature preserve, so what more can be done? 

As nutrient-rich cold currents become increasingly rare, less fish are available to the penguins. Many of the fish that do end up in the waters of the Galapagos are fished out by humans. This results in a large-scale absence of food for Galapagos penguins. Oil spills can also kill penguins and their prey. The biggest issue, however, is human-induced climate change. The massive amount of carbon emissions produced within the last hundred years by human industries has contributed to the warming of our oceans, and increased the severity of El Niño. El Niño is a drastic change in climate that occurs irregularly around the equator in the Pacific Ocean. When El Niño is active, unusually warm currents arise around the Galapagos Islands. These currents are far too warm for the fish Galapagos penguins feed on, and the result is catastrophic to their well-being. According to penguin researcher F. Hernan Vargas, two of the strongest El Niño events in recent history were in the years 1982-1983 and 1997-1998, which resulted in a 77% and 65% drop in Galapagos penguin population respectively. As the climate continues to warm, these events will only happen more and more often, and the penguins may not be able to recuperate. 

Photo credit: Mike Weston

Many of us are growing accustomed to the constant warnings of researchers in regards to climate change. Galapagos penguins are not the first animal to be negatively affected, and they certainly will not be the last. Although the biggest contributors to human-induced climate change are large corporations, there are still many ways that all of us can make a difference. Besides choosing political candidates that support the environment, many of us can make simple changes in our daily lives that will reduce the amount of carbon we are releasing into the atmosphere.

These changes include:

Photo credit: Richard Jenkinson
  • Taking public transportation or carpooling to work
  • Using high-efficiency appliances–or solar panels
  • Eating locally-produced foods
  • Eating less beef and dairy
  • Planting native trees and flowers in your yard
  • Reducing water usage
  • Reusing and recycling products and packaging

Making even a few of these changes in your life can be the first step toward a healthier atmosphere. Many of these changes actually save the individual money in the long run as well! Much damage has already been dealt by human activity to the Earth and the organisms that call it home; but if people prioritize environmental sustainability in their own lives, we can start to move toward a world where animals like Galapagos penguins can thrive for generations to come.

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