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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Species Fact Profile: African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus)

African (Black-Footed) Penguin
Spheniscus demersus (Linnaeus, 1758)

Range:  Southern Africa (Coastal Namibia and South Africa)
Habitat:  Coastlines, Offshore Islands
Diet:  Small Fish. Squid, Crustaceans
Social Grouping: Large Colonies
Reproduction: Monogamous for life, colonial breeders returning to the same site annually, no fixed breeding season (different peaks in different places), nest in burrows or under bushes, 2 eggs incubated for 40 days, chicks placed in crèches at 30 days old, leave colony at 60-130 days
Lifespan: 10-15 Years (Wild), 25 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Endangered, CITES Appendix II

  • Body length 60-70 centimeters, average weight 3.1 kilograms
  • Black back with a white belly and variable black markings on the breast and belly; juveniles are slate blue on back
  •  Waterproof coat is constantly maintained with waxy substance from base of tail; moults twice annually to keep feathers in good condition
  •  Several terrestrial and aquatic predators: the main predator is the Cape fur seal, which also competes with penguins for food and space in breeding colonies
  • The only African penguin (apart from sub-Antarctic vagrants); it is thought to be most closely related to the South American penguin species
  •  Sometimes called “jackass penguins” due to loud braying, donkey-like calls, used to attract mate (this nickname is also applied to some of the South American species)
  •  Population has been greatly reduced in recent years, the result of over-collection of eggs, disturbance caused by guano collection, depletion of food stocks due to over-fishing, and oil spills
  •  African penguins are the most commonly kept penguin species in zoos due to size and disease resistance, due to their temperate habitat (Antarctic penguins are more susceptible to diseases)

Zookeeper's Journal: The African penguin, perhaps more than any other species, reminds me of why we need zoos.  When zoos first began working with this species years ago, there were two reasons.  One is that, as a bird of the temperate zones, it's able to thrive in temperatures at which cold-weather penguins would sicken and die.  Secondly was that it was still abundant in the wild and could be imported, compared to many other, more endangered penguins, such as the closely related Humboldt penguin of South America.  All of that has changed.  In recent years, the numbers of this species in the wild have crashed, a victim of a wide array of threats, from oil spills to food shortages.  Thankfully, the captive population is large and self-sustaining, with lots of expertise on how to care for these birds.  The story would have been very different if zoos and aquariums were forced to jump in now that the birds are becoming threatened and have to learn everything from scratch.  The case study of the African penguin goes to show that the time to start saving an endangered species is before it becomes endangered.  

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