by Mike King
Bird and nature enthusiasts often enjoy citing facts that highlight species whose abilities go above and beyond those of other animals. Some avian examples are the largest bird in the world (Common Ostrich), the smallest bird in the world (Bee Hummingbird), the world’s fastest flyer (Peregrine Falcon), and what scientists consider the world’s smartest bird (New Caledonian Crow). Gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua) lay claim to a more abstract, but equally impressive title: the fastest swimming bird in the world. Observers have estimated that Gentoos can swim up to 36 kilometers per hour, however there is no true scientific evidence for this number. There is more than just speed to these birds, continue reading to learn more about how Gentoo penguins use their superior swimming among other adaptations to survive in the wild.
Gentoo penguins live deep into the Southern Hemisphere, occupying Antarctica, Argentina, the Falkland Islands, and other small islands in and around the Antarctic Circle. Like many penguins, they are mostly black from head-to-tail except for a stark-white front. They have a somewhat unique appearance in relation to other penguin species because of the white “headband” that stretches over the top of their head from eye-to-eye. Their bill also has an interesting appearance due to the black coloration that extends above and underneath the crimson area where the beak parts. They are the third-largest species of penguin behind Emperor penguins and King penguins respectively.
Due to the large range of Gentoo penguins, their habitat and feeding preferences vary widely. They prefer areas with little to no ice including rocky cliffs, coastal plains, and valleys. They live in colonies that range in population from less than 50 to thousands of breeding pairs. Breeding pairs typically lay 1-2 eggs at a time in nests built from stones, moss, grass, and feathers. Gentoo chicks typically stay in their parents’ nest for about a month. Like most penguins, Gentoos spend all day out foraging. They forage mainly in the shallows, and their food preferences vary greatly by geographic distribution. Antarctic penguins chase the many abundant schools of krill on which so many marine animals rely within the Antarctic Circle. South American Gentoos spend more time chasing after small fish, squid, and crustaceans. They prefer shallow waters that are near shore, but will occasionally venture up to 16 miles (25 km) offshore and dive to 655 feet (200 m) deep in search of enough food to sustain a brood of chicks. A Gentoo penguin can dive for food up to 450 times per day!
As previously mentioned, Gentoo penguins are the fastest diving bird in the world. This allows them to adapt to many ecological challenges including limited food and threats of predation from Leopard Seals, Sea Lions, and Orcas. This is why they successfully occupy such a great geographical range. Due to previous habitat degradation caused by human interference in the ecosystem, the IUCN Red List had Gentoo penguins previously listed as Near-Threatened as recently as 2016. Fortunately, they have now been moved to the Least Concern category thanks to steady population increases.
Although this is good news for the penguins, they still face a number of threats from humans such as fishing bycatch, pollution, climate change, tourism, and marine traffic. Oil spills occasionally poison local populations, and unfortunately the Falkland Islands are currently being evaluated by oil companies as a potential area to drill in the future. Algal blooms like the one that has been damaging marine ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico and Mid-Atlantic Ocean are intensified by a warming climate. These algal blooms are one of the biggest threats to Gentoo penguin populations because they poison the shellfish penguins rely on for food. This caused a major mortality event in 2002, and it has taken years for the species to recover. A recent study has also identified tourism as a factor that harms reproductive success in breeding Gentoo penguins.
As with many bird species, the main conservation action that is currently in place is a long-term population monitoring program based at several breeding colonies. Although scientists can use this information to better understand population trends and fluctuations, it falls short of a solution for the many issues Gentoo penguins are dealing with currently. Conservation legislation is considered to be the most important step toward stabilization for the species. This includes the establishment of protected breeding habitat, the minimization of oil pollution and breeding colony disturbance, and close inspection of the ecological impacts of fishing operations. Although the list of conservation actions that are currently being implemented seems short in comparison to the list of threats, organizations like Penguins International are working hard to ensure that Gentoo penguins have ample space to thrive in the ever-changing ecosystems of today.