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Penguins are normally associated with the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic regions of the world but the Galapagos penguin surprises everyone by living and breeding at the equator. It is one of the most endangered of species with only about 1000 breeding pairs though there are an estimated total of 15,000 birds. In 1970/71 the population was 6000-15000 birds but in 1997 the population was only about 1300 birds.
This species of penguin breeds only on the Galapagos Islands and is seen mostly on the colder western side of islands such as Fernandino, Isabela, Pinnacle rock Bartolome, Rabida and Floreana.
Galapagos Penguins - Physical Characteristics
It is one of the Spheniscus penguins and like the other three, the Humboldt, the Magellanic and the African penguin has black stripes along its sides and under its chin, though its closest relative is the Humboldt. It looks like the Magellanic penguin but its black chest bands are narrower. It is about 36-50cm (14-19 inches) tall and weighs 1.6-2.5 kg (3.5-6 lb). The feet and beak are black and there are pink patches around the eyes. The eyes are pink. The Galapagos penguin is claimed to be the smallest of all penguins, but this is disputed by the Little Blue or fairy penguin which breeds around the coasts of Australia and New Zealand
Galapagos Penguins - Breeding
Galapagos penguins are prompted to breed when sea temperatures fall below 24 degrees centigrade and cold nutrient rich currents appear from the South. The Humboldt Current brings the cold waters and rich nutrients from the Antarctic and the Cromwell Current brings up cool water close to the shore from the depths of the sea. These rich nutrient bearing currents help the penguins survive so close to the equator. They breed close to the shore under rocks, in caves, in holes in lava deposits and in burrows they have excavated in the lava.
Two eggs are laid 4 days apart and incubation takes 38-40 days. Chicks are brooded for 30 days, parents changing duties each day while one goes to feed. By this stage the chicks have brown plumage on their back which helps protect them from the Sun, and white stomachs.
The Galapagos penguins can breed throughout the year if conditions are right but most breed between May to January. The chicks fledge after about 60 days by which time their backs are greyish black. Often only one chick survives and if food is short the nest may be abandoned altogether. The chicks do not go into crèches as do most penguins and penguins can be seen around their nesting sites most of the year.
They seem to have adapted to the variable and uncertain food resources in this El Nino region by some times breeding 3 times a year when food is plentiful and postponing breeding if food is short.
Galapagos Penguins - Moulting
|Another strategy they have evolved is to moult for a two week period before breeding, unlike other penguins who moult after, and may moult twice a year. This means that they can go back to sea to fatten up straight away instead of having to hang around waiting for the moult. This is especially important if the food supply crashes. Also with the warmer waters nearer the equator they are able to go to sea to fish rather than fast with the possibility of starving.|
Galapagos penguins - Diet
They eat small fish such as sardines and mullet, small squid and some crustaceans like krill. They usually seek prey only a mile or two from their breeding sites in the cool Cromwell current. They fish singly but when schools of fish appear will cooperate in fishing. They return to their colonies at night when it is cooler. In the sea they are superb swimmers but on land they waddle or hop.
Galapagos Penguins - Threats
One of the main causes of death is starvation due to the uncertainties of El Nino, which seems to be increasing in its ferocity and frequency. During El Nino years instead of the cool rich waters flowing up from the Antarctic regions, warm waters poor in nutrients flow up from the central Pacific. This loss of nutrients causes shortage of food all the way up the food chain. In 1982/3, El Nino was so bad that 77% of penguins starved to death
Besides the devastating effects of El Nino, there are human induced factors such as disease, oil spills, increased commercial fishing. Introduced species such as cats, dogs, pigs and rats prey on penguins, eggs and chicks. There are also smaller threats from owls, hawks, snakes and crabs. At sea predators are orcas, sharks and seals.
Illegal sea cucumber fishermen cause problems by chopping down and burning mangrove trees to cook the sea cucumbers, thus destroying nesting habitat. Fisherman and tourists leave rubbish and plastic that tangles and kills the penguins. Discarded fishing nets and lines cause problems and some times the penguins are caught in regular fishing nets.
When I visited the Galapagos many years ago I was not lucky enough to see any penguins but I can vouch for the fact that not all tourists are as careful as they are asked to be. In spite of being asked to keep to the marked paths one woman was standing on the sparse and limited foliage that was the only food for the iguanas there. I gently said she was standing on the iguana’s dinner to which she replied that they could go and get some from somewhere else! Too many tourists like that and there will be no wildlife to see. Talk about killing the goose that lays the golden eggs!
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