The loneliest penguins in the world?

The Arctic is famous for being home to penguins - those enigmatic birds that cannot fly but swim so elegantly in the sea. But further north, just beyond the equator lives another species of penguin. Living some 1,300 km away from its nearest neighbour the Humbolt penguin, the Galápagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus) is, as its name suggests, only found in the Galápagos Islands. It is the only species of penguin to live in the northern hemisphere and, with an estimated 1,200 mature individuals, it is also one of the rarest penguin species in the world. If there was an award for the loneliest penguin, surely these penguins would be top of the list.

Charles Darwin may not have spotted penguins when he visited the Galápagos in 1835 but that doesn't mean they weren't there. Weighing in at around 2.5 kilograms and reaching just 50 centimetres in height, Galápagos penguins are the second smallest penguin in the world. When they are not at sea they can tuck themselves into small crevices in rocks and caves where they are sheltered from the sun and heat. If Darwin had visited the Islands in the penguin's main breeding season (May to July, but they will breed throughout the year if conditions are good) he may have had a better chance on spotting them as they nest in lava flow depressions, crevices and caves just above sea level and tend to forage for food nearby.

Life in the Tropics

To survive in the warmer tropical climate of the Galápagos, these penguins had to adapt. Alongside seeking shelter, opening their flipper and panting can help them cool down. They have also been spotted hunching over their feet to keep them shaded! Of course, there is always the option of taking a dip in the sea, which is cooler than the air temperatures. They tend to hunt for food during the day and return to land at night when it is a bit cooler. Finally, there is their body size too - smaller bodies have a larger surface-area to volume ratio, which means they can lose body heat much faster than larger penguins.

Galápagos penguins are the second smallest penguin in the world. This image (which you can click on to enlarge) was created by Barbara Harmon, a biological and medical illustrator. Barbara has given her permission for this piece to appear here. 

It's not all about adaptation though. The Galápagos is somewhat blessed with the Cromwell Current and the Humboldt Current, which brings with them cold, nutrient-rich waters which support an abundance of life. Penguins will feast on zooplankton that feeds on the nutrients, but it is the small schooling fish like sardines, pilchards, and anchovies that give them the most energy. Without this cold water current, the penguins may have never been able to make the Galápagos their home.

Species at Risk

Despite their wonderful adaptive abilities, living in such a small area puts the population at much greater risk of being hit by disaster than other more wide-spread (and more numerous) penguins. Some of the challenges the penguins face are natural, like El Niño events that warm sea surface waters around the Galápagos, making conditions unfavourable for sardines and other fish that the penguins feed on. When food supplies are low, the Galápagos penguins reduce the amount of energy they spend. This means many will not moult - when birds shed their dirty, damaged coat of feathers and replace it with a new one, and many will not breed. If they already have chicks and they can't find enough food to feed themselves let alone their chicks, they will simply abandon the nest. These strategies mean penguins have a much better chance of surviving the food shortage. When food supplies are good however, some parents will keep feeding their offspring even after they have fully fledged, and capable of hunting in their own right!

A juvenile Galapagos penguin who has fledged (or left the nest) begs for food from an adult. The adult eventually feeds the juvenile. Filmed by Dee Boersma, professor of biology at the University of Washington. Credit: Dee Boersma, Galapagos National Park, www.iGalapagos.org

Unsurprisingly, many of the challenges these endearing little penguins face come from us. Back in the 1600's, whalers, seal fur traders, and pirates all found themselves attracted to the bounty of the Galápagos Islands (well in the pirate's case, maybe the bounty of the whalers and traders). With them they brought new animals - like black rats which happily ate the penguin's eggs and chicks. On Isabela Island, a single cat is estimated to increase adult deaths by a staggering 49% per year. Penguins aren't just at risk of being eaten by these introduced predators - they are also at risk of catching diseases that the predators bring with them. Even mosquitos have made it over with people to the Galápagos, bringing with them diseases. Climate change is also likely to have an impact, like with those natural El Niño events. With climate change, these are predicted to become more frequent - and more extreme. This means the penguins will have to deal with more frequent food shortages, putting them at greater risk of starvation, and of course prevent breeding. Fishing also seems to have an impact. Sometimes penguins are accidentally caught in nets, and of course there is some concern about the competition for the penguin's food fisheries can bring with them.  All of these factors have combined to produce one sad outcome - a decline in the size of the population. With its 'endangered' status, this "lonely" penguin is at risk of find itself even lonelier in the future. Thanks to the efforts of scientists and conservationists though, that is not going to happen without a fight.

Not all Doom and Gloom

Most of the Galápagos penguins are housed within the Galápagos National Park and Galápagos Marine Reserve - which means targeted management action. Removing those introduced predators is an ongoing battle, but on some islands there has been success! Back in 1998, for example, rats were successfully eradicated from the Mariela islets - one of the places that the Galápagos penguins like to breed. In 2016, Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador announced a number of new marine protected areas that prohibit extraction of any kind - including fishing. Several of these sites are in key spots for the penguins - including a major feeding ground off Isabela Island.

Not all action means restricting activity - or other species that have come to call Galápagos their home. Since 2010 Dr Dee Boersma - a biologist with the University of Washington and her team of researchers have set about building 120 artificial nests on three islands to help the penguins out. These “penguin condos" are made from natural materials like lava rocks and offer shady spots in areas that are considered to be predator-free. They have had some success too. Artificial nests in the Mariela islets have accounted for up to 43% of penguin breeding since they were built.

Providing good nests isn't enough to guarantee these penguins can and will breed. Food availability needs to be good too. The 2015 - 2016 El Niño spelt trouble for the Galápagos penguins. With low food availability, Dr Boersma and her team found only a single juvenile, adults in poor condition, and no signs of breeding. Fast forward to 2017, and a La Niña which boosted food availability, there were adult penguins in good health, juveniles walking about, and penguins breeding - including in some of the artificial nests.

 Schooling fish like these sardines are a favourite food of Galápagos penguins.  Image  credit  Hisakuni Fujimoto/Flickr  ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Schooling fish like these sardines are a favourite food of Galápagos penguins. Image credit Hisakuni Fujimoto/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A single year or even a few years of good food supplies and good breeding won't be enough to boost penguin numbers, but it does show that if we take care of the penguins, give them the best possible chance though removing predators, building artificial nests, and so forth, they might stay with us for a long time yet.

Visiting the Galápagos

If you visit the Galápagos you too can do your bit to help keep the penguins going. Some of these things you can do come down to being a responsible tourist. For example, if you see penguins, don't harass them - don't try to grab them, and don't wander in and out of their nests or between their young. If there are trails (and there will be in if you are in the Galapagos National Park) stick to them. Don’t try to feed the penguins and don't leave behind any litter. Finally, that camera you have with you can give more than just holiday snaps - it's an opportunity to become a citizen scientist!  Your photos can help scientists figure out where penguins are, what their condition is, learn more about their breeding, and more! Check out iGalápagos for more information - and upload those Galápagos penguin snaps!