Penguins: An Evolutionary Success Story
Historically, penguins are an evolutionary success story: few animals have adapted as extensively to thrive in extreme conditions across as vast a territory as flightless birds.
The 17 to 19 species of penguins today live in environments ranging from 48°F in the waters around Australia and New Zealand (little, yellow-eyed and Fiordland crested penguins) to negative temperatures in Antarctica (Adelie, chinstrap, emperor and gentoo penguins) and up to 79°F in the Galapagos Islands (Galapagos penguin). They inhabit the southern coasts of South America (Magellanic, Humboldt and southern rockhopper penguins), Southern Africa (African penguins), subtropical regions (northern rockhopper penguins), and sub-Antarctic (king, gentoo and macaroni penguins) and Indian Ocean islands (eastern rockhopper penguins).
The oldest known penguin fossil dates back to the Paleocene epoch, around 60 million years ago. This ancient penguin, known as Waimanu, was found in the Basal Waipara Greensand near the Waipara River, in Canterbury, New Zealand, in 1980. Waimanu was a flightless bird with wing adaptations similar to that of a loon or cormorant and approximately the size of an emperor penguin today.
Most penguin species reached their greatest numbers as the world cooled 40,000 to 70,000 years ago during the last glaciation—when cold-water fish and sea ice increased. Despite success spreading throughout the Southern Hemisphere, many penguin species are now threatened, declining or endangered. More than 75% of all penguin species are now extinct.
Nat Hab Expedition Leader Lilia Gonzalez spent several years living in subantarctic Patagonia, working on bone collections of marine mammals. In the process, she fell in love with penguins. In a Daily Dose of Nature Webinar, she explained that while penguins’ remarkable ability to adapt to different environments and temperatures has taken place over millions of years, they are not able to adapt fast enough to keep up with the changing conditions in which they live around the world today. Receding sea ice, warm El Niño winds and water, invasive predators, and overfishing all threaten penguin populations around the world.
In honor of World Penguin Day on April 25, here are five stories from across the planet of people, places and programs devoted to penguin conservation, where you can get involved and see penguins firsthand.
Colossal Colonies, Continued Adaptation: Witnessing Penguins in Antarctica
Iconic images of travel to Antarctica almost always feature penguins, but only two penguin species make their permanent homes on the continent: Adelies and emperor penguins. Another three species—chinstraps, gentoos and macaronis—breed at the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.
When those iconic Antarctic images come to mind, they are almost always of the largest penguin species—the emperor penguin. Emperor penguins stand over four feet tall and weigh up to 100 pounds. They breed in the southern winter, from March to December. To do so, they must endure some of the coldest temperatures on Earth. They form huddles to keep warm, taking turns in the middle. They also have insulating feathers, large body fat reserves and small flippers relative to their size to conserve heat.
Male emperor penguins stand for about 65 days through the icy temperatures and storms to keep their eggs warm while the female hunts at sea. Once the chick has hatched, they switch roles so the male can hunt and feed. There are an estimated 600,000 emperor penguins.
Most Antarctica tours never encounter emperor penguins because they breed and nest on sea ice over 30 miles from the water’s edge. Large ships and groups cannot make the journey. On Nat Hab’s Antarctica expedition, though, just seven travelers enjoy special permits and access that allow us to sail, hike, kayak and camp ashore with penguins. It’s a rare polar wildlife expedition, a once-in-a-lifetime Antarctica adventure.
Much easier to spot, the most common Antarctic penguin species is the chinstrap penguin, which owes its name to the narrow black band under its head. The second-most populous is the Adelie penguin, numbering approximately 2.3 million pairs in Antarctica. Both species’ numbers are declining rapidly as water and air temperatures rise.
At the end of the Southern Hemisphere winter in 2014, there was a record high of 7.7 million square miles of frozen saltwater around Antarctica. In early 2023, sea ice reached a low of less than 700,000 square miles, breaking the previous record set in 2022.
Adelie penguins are good indicators of environmental changes because their ecology is closely related to sea ice. It turns out they do not like to pick up and move. In fact, while Adelie and chinstrap penguins stick to their colonies, gentoo penguins are proving more nomadic, ranging farther south. They show a willingness to chase new prey and abandon nests to increase long-term survival. As a result, their numbers are increasing. Meanwhile, Adelie and chinstrap populations have declined by as much as 80% in some areas.
In the d’Urville Sea of the East Antarctic sector, the Adelie population recently experienced two catastrophic breeding seasons (2013–2014 and 2016–2017) with no chick surviving out of over 20,000 breeding pairs. This had never been recorded over the 36 years that the Adelie colony was monitored.
There’s good news: recent satellite measurements have led to a new estimate in the number of Adelie penguins, as well as in the number of colonies across the continent. A previously unknown Adelie supercolony of around 1.5 million individuals was discovered on remote Antarctic islands in 2018. The birds were located in part due to huge guano stains on NASA satellite imagery!
Are you interested in assisting in the monitoring of penguin populations? Members of the public are invited to contribute directly to penguin conservation. The information gathered will be used to assist in the development of Marine Protected Area (MPA) proposals for the Antarctic Peninsula. For more information and to participate in people-powered research and citizen science initiatives, see WWF’s Working Together to Protect Penguins page.
Up Close with Penguins in the Galapagos
Galapagos penguins are endangered and unique. They’re the smallest of the banded penguins, standing about 19 inches tall and weighing between 4 and 5 pounds. They are the only penguins north of the equator.
Galapagos penguins have adapted to variable El Niño and La Niña temperatures through a unique set of behaviors and characteristics. Their small size helps them regulate body temperature. Researchers believe they have adapted to warmer temperatures by panting to cool off. They molt twice per year.
Breeding season for Galapagos penguins begins in April, and pairs of penguins mate for life. Galapagos penguins nest in the shade near water, but trees are rare on the islands, so they build their nests in lava tubes and rocky crevices along the shore. Each female lays 1-2 eggs. Parents take turns incubating the eggs for about 40 days. Once the chicks hatch, both parents feed and care for the young until they are old enough to leave the nest at eight to nine months.
Galapagos penguins’ small population size and restricted range make them vulnerable to habitat loss and other threats. Climate change is also a major concern, as rising sea temperatures can disrupt the food chain and make it more difficult for penguins to find enough food to survive. El Niño events have severely affected populations of this penguin over the last 50 years. In 1982 alone, a particularly strong El Niño wiped out approximately half the population.
Here’s a glimmer of hope for Galapagos penguins: In 2010, the University of Washington Professor P. Dee Boersma, in conjunction with biologist Godfrey Merlen, carved additional nests in rocky crevices away from introduced predatory species. Five months later, a Galapagos penguin pair moved into one of the recesses and raised their young. The next year, another pair of penguins moved in.
Today, at least 84 of the 120 nests are still usable. A recent census reveals 25% of the occupants are juveniles. That’s significant for a species that likely numbers around 2000 individuals.
Natural Habitat Adventures pioneered kayaking in the Galapagos, and our special paddling permits allow for access to places most visitors never see, including the habitat of the endangered Galapagos penguins. Join the hiking and kayaking Galapagos tour to witness the Galapagos penguin yourself.
Where to see an endangered Hoiho or Yellow-Eyed Penguin
The yellow-eyed penguin, hoiho in te reo Māori, appears on the back of the New Zealand five-dollar bill. Visitors can also see the endangered species on Nat Hab’s New Zealand tour, both in the wild and at the Otago Peninsula’s Penguin Place, a private conservation reserve and rehabilitation center for endangered yellow-eyed penguins.
The reserve, one of the world’s first entirely tourism-funded conservation programs, was founded in 1985 when just eight breeding pairs inhabited the property and peaked in 1996 with 36 breeding pairs.
The yellow-eyed penguin is considered one of the rarest penguin species in the world and has experienced a significant decline over the past 20 years. On New Zealand’s Otago Peninsula, numbers have dropped by 75% since the mid-1990s; population trends indicate the possibility of local extinction in the next 20 to 40 years.
Yellow-eyed penguins are endangered, with an estimated population of 4000 in 2007, 2400-3400 in 2019, and fewer than 3000 mature individuals. Habitat degradation, introduced predators, human activities at sea, rising ocean temperatures and an infectious outbreak in the mid-2000s have played a role in the species’ decline.
Today, yellow-eyed penguins are found in two distinct populations, known as the northern and southern populations. The northern population extends along the southeast coast of the South Island of New Zealand, down to Stewart Island and Codfish Island. It includes four main breeding areas in Banks Peninsula, North Otago, Otago Peninsula and the Catlins. The southern population includes the Subantarctic Auckland Islands and Campbell Island.
On New Zealand’s southern islands, visitors may also encounter the little penguin as well as the rare Fiordland penguin, known in te reo Māori as tawaki.
Little Penguins in large numbers across southern Australia
The Australian little (blue) penguin, also known as the fairy penguin, is the smallest penguin species in the world. They typically grow to between 12 and 13 inches tall and weigh 3–3.5 pounds on average. The head, upper parts and flippers are blue.
Fairy penguins are designated “Least Concern” as populations are stable in most locations. However, these tiny birds remain highly vulnerable to human threats such as development, domestic pets, invasive and introduced species, and human disturbance at nesting colonies.
One of Australia’s conservation success stories involves Phillip Island’s little penguins. A buyback scheme in a residential area near a breeding colony began in 1985, with nearly 800 hundred properties purchased. Now over 40,000 breeding penguins nest on the island. A new visitor center was opened in 2019. During COVID-19 lockdowns, it live-streamed the evening penguin parades. Check out WWF’s Penguins on Phillip Island video to see parade footage!
Three little-known interesting facts about penguins in Tasmania, Kangaroo Island and the Great Ocean Road, where Nat Hab’s southern Australia tour visits, include:
- The penguins in Tasmania and Kangaroo Island have a unique vocalization pattern that distinguishes them from other little penguins.
- The Great Ocean Road is home to the largest colony of little penguins on mainland Australia.
- Penguins in all three locations have a strong homing instinct and will return to the same nesting site year after year.
To see Australian little blue penguins (fairy penguins) yourself, visit Kangaroo Island on our tour of southern Australia. The best time to see the penguins is during the breeding season from March to December, when they come ashore to their burrows.
Cause for Celebration: African Penguin Breeding Success
African penguins are only found on the coastlines of South Africa and Namibia. The population has decreased by more than 60% in the last 30 years due to overfishing, predation, oiling, disease and noise pollution from increased shipping traffic.
Still, a million people visit Simonstown, South Africa, each year to catch a glimpse of one of the country’s 28 known breeding colonies of African penguins. Boulders Beach is one of the few sites where the penguins can be observed at close range. From just two breeding pairs in 1982, the penguin colony has grown to about 3,000 birds.
Numerous conservation efforts are currently underway to protect African penguins from predation and extreme weather. World Wildlife Fund worked in collaboration with local seabird protection non-profit SANCCOB and the national parks to improve the success rates of nesting sites. Three types of artificial nest boxes (cement, ceramic and fiberglass) were placed in the colony to assist breeding by providing protection to chicks. Rangers monitor breeding and assist with habitat maintenance and rescue of eggs for hand-rearing when chicks or eggs are abandoned during extreme weather. Over the course of one breeding season, 60 chicks and 112 eggs were rescued in this way from the colony.
Over 140 of those hand-reared birds have been released since 2021 at De Hoop Nature Reserve, where scientists are working to re-establish a former penguin colony.
A small number of penguins started breeding on a peninsula on the eastern edge of the De Hoop Nature Reserve in 2003. By 2008, at least 18 pairs were breeding, and larger numbers of penguins were roosting at the site. Predation by caracal caused the penguins to abandon the site.
In 2018, a predator-proof fence was constructed, but penguins did not return to roost. They’re more likely to adopt a site if there are other penguins there, so conservationists had to make it look and sound like a colony had formed. They did that by placing penguin decoys and a speaker playing penguin calls on the rocky beach.
The hope was that the young birds would return to breed when they had matured in three to six years. Researchers didn’t have to wait that long. In June 2022, three adult penguins were found roosting at the site. The number of penguins fluctuated throughout 2022, with a maximum of seven seen one day. Some penguins had formed pairs, but no nests were confirmed. Then in November, scientists suddenly spotted two chicks, the first chicks to hatch at De Hoop in 15 years.
Hopefully, the protected and monitored De Hoop site will grow into another South African colony with thousands of birds.
Visit Boulders Beach and see African penguins for yourself on Nat Hab’s Cape Town tour safari extension.
Protecting Penguins on World Penguin Day
During the last half of the 20th century, temperatures rose nearly 3°F on the western coast of the Antarctic Peninsula—five times more than the global average. Still, on this World Penguin Day, there are causes for hope and ways to contribute to penguin conservation.
From the adaptive gentoo penguins of Antarctica to new nests for Galapagos and African penguins to citizen-based science and penguin parade videos, there are ways you can see penguin species in many parts of the world.