Penguins on the Equator? On Purpose?

There are 19 species of seabirds that spend a portion of their lives in the Galapagos Islands and one seems a very unlikely resident. The Galapagos penguin, Speniscus mendiculus, is the only penguin to live as far north as the equator.

Speniscus mendiculus is most likely a descendant of the Humboldt penguin, brought north to the islands on the Humboldt current that travels from Antarctic waters up South America's west coast. The Humboldt Current converges with two other warmer currents making Galapagos the epicenter of the underwater confluence.

The third smallest of the penguin family, the Galapagos penguin is a streamlined, performance bird reaching speeds up to 35km/hr underwater. And its size has not gotten in the way of vanity. Speniscus mendiculus spends as much as three hours each day preening to ensure that its warm-weather adapted reduced plumage is in top condition.

Courtship follows the primping and during this time period the penguins have been heard making raucous, donkey-like calls. The vociferousness lends itself to the selection of a mate--a serious choice since the Galapagos penguin, like many seabirds, chooses a mate for life.

Galapagos penguins breed only on west coast of Isabela and on most of Fernandina's coast. With no soft peat to make burrows for themselves, they have taken to living in natural caves and crevices in the coastal lava. They can lay up to 3 eggs in 15 months but one parent must stay with the egg while other leaves for several days to feed.

I just saw these delightful little birds while diving at Cousins rock yesterday. But it seems their future is in peril. A viability workshop conducted a few years ago by the Darwin Initiative and the World Conservation Union (IUCN) found that the Galapagos penguin was under serious threat, with the probability of extinction in the next century estimated at about 30 percent, mostly due to climate change.


Galapagos penguins, like many marine speices, could fall victim to global climate change.


More like this

tags: Icadyptes salasi, giant penguin, ornithology, birds, avian Two fossils recently discovered in Peru reveal that early penguins responded differently to natural climate change than scientists would have predicted. The larger skull, Icadyptes salasi (top), would have been fearsome to encounter…
tags: Adélie penguin, Pygoscelis adeliae , ornithology, birds, avian, leucism A unique leucistic Adélie penguin, Pygoscelis adeliae, photographed by the Mawson Hut Foundation team in Antarctica. Image: Brett Jarrett (Mawsons Hut Foundation) [larger] An individual Adélie penguin, Pygoscelis…
(from here) One of the models for the evolution of new species is allopatric speciation, where a small isolated population diverges from a larger ancestral population. Many of these peripheral populations become extinct, but some persist and give rise to new species if they can remain…
A chain of undersea volcanoes Rumbled and then rose Erupted on the equator And thousands of years later We call the islands Galapagos. Birds flew in and built their nests On shores sea lions came to rest Reptiles by way of floating plants Sharks and rays swam through by chance And us. But we are…

One more reason to stay an environmental activist.

Also posting to say how much I enjoy your blog.

What byproduct of climate change is threatening them? Loss of habitat? Reductions in food supply? What's the mechanism driving this?

Hi Bee. Many thanks. Nafe, there is a nice article published in Biological Conservation in 2006 with many details here. According to a 2006 census, there are only 2100 Galapaogs penguins remaining. Food shortages brought on during warming events that led to high mortality (particularly of female penguins) seem to be the leading problem. From the abstract:

The two strong El Nino events of 19821983 and 19971998 were followed by crashes of 77% and 65% of the penguin population, respectively. The evidence suggests that the increased frequency of weak El Nino events limits population recovery.

As for the link between El Nino events and climate change, the article has more details but here is an excerpt:

We have demonstrated that the decline of the Galapagos penguin is associated with a change in climate that is, at least, partly attributable to global human activity (Houghton et al., 2001; Timmermann et al., 1999). Therefore, the Galapagos penguin is predicted to be at higher risk in the 21st century as temperatures and precipitation will very likely continue to rise as the ENSO shifts towards more warming events (Easterling et al., 2000; Houghton et al., 2001).

Global climate change of course is a very prominent issue, but I am curious about a bioaccumulation of heavy metals as (a result of coal burning particularly in China where it apprears it will be sanctioned for some time to come) in the oceanic food web, which seems to me to be a more immediate threat to ocean living animals at the upper reaches of this web, more perhaps than the shifting of thermal regimes which at least many populations will be able to follow since the ocean itself is the medium and not a barrier it will on land where human developement and terrain create barriers.
Also, as production of plankton and the base of the food web is predicted to be reduced as a result of warming in areas where it has historically been seen. I'm curious as to whether the reduction of permanent sea ice might create new areas where food can be then be produced since the marine environment in some of those areas will no longer be reflecting the solar energy that is needed by plankton? Is it true as a rule that cold water holds more oxygen and nutrients which can create some of these collossal blooms of certain planktonic species, or is it the fact that they're upwelled from the deeper regions?
Great article and thanks for keeping us informed on these fascinating systems.