African penguins rely on warm, sunny beaches to nest. However, they spend most of their lives swimming in the cold, nutrient-rich ocean waters flowing up from Antarctica.
What They Eat
African penguins eat sardines by the dozens. They may also snack on squid and anchovies, but their survival depends on their ability to find fatty, nourishing sardines.
Where They Live
African penguins live in the cold ocean off of the southern coast of Africa. They move to the beach mostly to mate, nest, raise young and molt.
What They Do
African penguins may swim 30 miles from the coast and spend days at sea gorging on schools of fish. Adults form tight bonds with their mates. During breeding season, a pair of birds lays one or two eggs in a burrow dug in guano (droppings), or in a sheltered sandy area. Both parents work together to incubate the eggs and raise the chicks.
How They’re Doing
African penguins, like most other penguin species, are endangered in the wild. Oil spills, historical hunting, and habitat loss have decreased the population by 70% in the last 40 years. Currently, the greatest threat to African penguin survival is a catastrophic drop in the number of sardines as a result of overfishing and a changing ocean climate.
- Penguins eat almost 15% of their body weight in fish each day. For a 150-pound person, that would be like eating 22.5 pounds a day.
- Penguins are covered with small, tightly-packed feathers that insulate against frigid water temperatures.
- Specialized wings help penguins swim efficiently through ocean water.
- When moving between the cold ocean depths and the hot beach, African penguins routinely experience a temperature change of more than 70°F.
- Penguins swim through the water at speeds of up to 15 miles per hour— faster than many fish can swim!
- Male and female African penguins look similar. At the Minnesota Zoo, male penguins have an ID band on their right wing, and females have an ID band on their left wing.
- African penguins make a braying sound like a donkey, so are sometimes called jackass penguins.
The African penguin population has declined dramatically since the beginning of the 20th century — dropping 70 percent in the last 40 years. There were approximately 1.5 million African penguins in the early 1900s; today that number has decreased to ~64,000 adult birds, or 20,000 breeding pairs. The species is now listed as “endangered” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
Food shortages are a major problem for African penguins. In addition to competition with commercial fisheries, climate change may be responsible for the shift in their prey to areas outside of the penguins’ normal feeding range. Anchovy and sardine density may be too low near penguin breeding areas to sustain the population and results in a downward spiral for the population. Parent birds are not able to bring enough food to the nest and are sometimes abandoning chicks to go complete their annual molt. Molting is when birds shed their old feathers and replace them with fresh ones. During molting, penguins lose all of their feathers at once and are confined to land until the new feathers grow in 2-3 weeks later. Since penguins are unable to hunt during this time, they must increase their body weight by 30% prior to molting. Without a successful molt, penguins can become hypothermic in the cold oceans, which can lead to death.
Cape fur seals and sharks prey on penguins. Avian predators eat penguin eggs and chicks. Excessive heat associated with climate change, combined with a lack of protected nest sites, impacts the survival of young penguins. The introduction of domestic animals, such as dogs and cats, also poses a threat to chicks and eggs at mainland nest sites.
In recent decades, conservation groups have become very effective in rescuing “oiled penguins,” malnourished adults and deserted penguin chicks, successfully returning them to the wild. However, these efforts are not keeping pace with the many challenges faced by African penguins, so population declines are predicted to continue.
Things the Zoo’s Done/Doing
The Minnesota Zoo participates in the African Penguin Species Survival Plan (SSP). An SSP is a breeding program for select species in zoos and aquariums. Since 2011, when the 3M Penguins of the African Coast exhibit opened, the Minnesota Zoo has successfully hatched and reared 24 penguin chicks. Additionally, the Minnesota Zoo participates in the Saving Animals From Extinction program through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA SAFE) for African penguins.
Through the Ulysses S. Seal Grant Program, Minnesota Zoo penguin zookeepers have travelled to South Africa to volunteer with the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB). Zoo staff have helped rehabilitate injured, sick and young wild penguins.
The Minnesota Zoo has sold African penguin lapel pins in the gift shop since 2018, contributing funds towards penguin conservation projects. The purpose of this campaign is to raise funds for SANCCOB to help with rescue, rehabilitation, and research of shorebirds in South Africa.
In 2018, the Minnesota Zoo Foundation donated towards the African penguin Artificial Nest Development Project. Funds were supplied to create and place 130 artificial nests in wild colonies to improve wild chick survival. Visit the African Penguin Nest Project‘s webpage for more information, and be sure to check out the amazing video about efforts to deploy artificial nests!
Since one of the greatest threats to African penguins is lack of food, your seafood choices can have an impact on penguin survival. Make sure any seafood you purchase is sustainably sourced by using a sustainable seafood guide.