KINGDOM: Animalia (Animals)
PHYLUM: Chordata (Possessing a notochord)
CLASS: Aves (Birds)
ORDER: Sphenisciformes (Penguins)
FAMILY: Spheniscidae (Penguins)
GENUS: Spheniscus (Banded Penguins)
SPECIES: Spheniscus demersus (African Penguin)
African Penguins are endemic to Southern Africa, where they can be found from South Africa to Namibia. They breed on 24 islands between Hollamsbird Island, Namibia and Bird Island in Algoa Bay, South Africa.
The African penguin has black and white plumage reminiscent of our typical mental images of penguins. While the back and wings are black, the chest is white with black spots and a mottled black curve across the chest. The face and beak are black with a white stripe going from the shoulder to above the eye. Between the top of the eye and beak is a featherless reddish gland used for regulating temperature. Males and females look alike and cannot be sexed on looks.
African penguins prefer to inhabit isolated islands where they were safe from humans and predators. Due to habitat loss, some colonies have sprung up close to beaches. Historically they used to build nests in their guano, which had built up over centuries, but since it was all stripped for fertilizer by colonists, they now build nests in burrows or depressions under boulders or bushes. This protects the eggs from the elements. They typically won’t swim further than 40km from shore.
The African penguin is a carnivore and eats pelagic fish such as pilchards, horse mackerel, anchovies, and sardines, supplementing their diet with crustaceans and squid. When hunting, they can reach a top speed of about 20 km per hour!
They live in large colonies of up to 2500 individuals made up of breeding pairs.
African Penguins are monogamous and mate for life, but divorces and re-marriages do occur, mainly when egg clutches are not fertile. They breed in colonies, and pairs return to the same site each year. African penguin courtship rituals include visual and auditory displays to attract a mate. Breeding takes place throughout the year.
A clutch of two eggs are laid within days of each other. After an incubation period of about 40 days, two brownish/dark grey chicks will hatch, although typically only one chick will survive. Both parents share incubation and feeding duties, taking turns leaving the nest. Chicks will constantly accompanied by a parent and fed regurgated fish for about a month. After that, the parents may leave the chicks in a crèche to go out and forage. After two to three months chicks will be fledged, and develop their juvenile plumage. Fledged chicks will leave their natal colony and only return after a period of a year or two, when they’ve developed adult plumage. They will reach sexual matury at 4-5 years.
African penguins shed all of their feathers once a year (called moulting), in order to re-waterproof themselves. This process takes about 20 days, and the penguins don’t eat during this whole time. They can’t forage, because they’re not waterproof! Right before the moulting period, the penguins will consume unsually large amounts of food, in order to have reserves for when they moult. African penguins can live up to 24 years old, but one African penguin has been recorded as living up 34 years old.
African penguins are preyed on by Cape fur seals, kelp gulls, sacred ibises, yellow mongooses, large-spotted genets and leopards. The biggest threat to African penguins at the moment is overfishing, as they are losing their food supply. Oil spills are also a big problem. When these penguins are covered in oil from an oil spill, their feathers are no longer waterproof. They can’t swim anymore because they get too cold. This means they can’t hunt for food and so they and their chicks die of starvation. The African penguin population has decreased by 90% in the past 100 years and there’s only about 26 000 breeding pairs left in the wild.
Did you know?
- Every penguin’s spots are unique and can be used to identify them, like fingerprints
- The African penguin is the only penguin species that breeds in Africa
- Penguins are only found in the Southern hemisphere
- It is very difficult to tell the gender of a penguin without doing a genetic test
- They may look odd on land but they can run quite quickly!
- African penguins used to be known as “jackass penguins” because of their braying call