The African penguin is the only species found in Africa. These social, aquatic birds live in large colonies and take part in communal behaviors. With a pelage of black and white feathers that camouflage them from predators, these avians are often mistaken for similar penguin relatives. The African Penguin is endangered due to nest disturbance.t
Adult African penguins stand at 43-71 centimeters (17-28 inches) and weigh an average of 3.1 kilograms (6.83 pounds). This species exhibits slight sexual dimorphism as the males are slightly larger than the females and have longer beaks.
African penguins resemble the Humboldt penguin (Spheniscus humboldti), Magellanic penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus), and Galápagos penguins (Spheniscus mendiculus), but African penguins can be recognized by the broad, black breast-band that straps across the top of the chest and frames the stomach in the shape of an upside-down horseshoe. Magellanic penguins share a similar bar marking that often confuses the two, but Magellanics have a double bar on the throat and chest, whereas Africans have a single bar. African penguins also have a horseshoe-shaped white band that travels from the bird’s neck and around the back of the head to the beak. The African penguin’s beak is also more pointed than that of the Humboldt penguin.
African penguins have a very recognizable appearance with black plumage on their backs and white feathers with variable amount of black spotting on the breast and belly. The pattern of these black spots is unique to each penguin, like human fingerprints, and vary in size and shape between individuals.
African penguins have a distinguishable bit of bare, white skin that resides over the eyes in a horseshoe-shape. These sweat glands above the eyes cool the birds’ blood, and as the temperature rises, increased blood flow causes the glands to become bright pinkish-red.
African penguins have black feet.
The African penguin’s coloring is a form of protective coloration known as countershading. These achromatic markings serve as camouflage to aquatic predators as the white of the belly blends in with the light coming in from the surface of the water when viewed by aquatic predators from below and the dark of the back obscures the penguin into the darkness of the ocean depths when viewed by aerial predators from above.
Juvenile African penguins do not possess the bold, delineated markings of the adult, but instead initially have dark upperparts that vary from greyish-blue to brown and darken with age. The pale underparts lack both spots and the band. In the penguin’s second year, the plumage begins to turn brown, and in the third year, it shows varying amounts of adult facial pattern. The change from juvenile plumage to adult plumage takes around 3 years.
The average lifespan of the African penguin is 10 to 27 years in the wild, whereas an African penguin living in captivity generally has a longer lifespan. Other penguin species live for about 15 to 20 years. Limits to aging are predation, human impact, and storm systems.
SEXUAL DIMORPHISMLarger Males with Longer Beaks
BODY HEIGHT43-71 cm. / 17-28 in.
BODY MASS1-5 kg. / 2-11 lb.
GENERATION LENGTH12 Years
African penguins resemble their close relatives, other species in the genus Spheniscus, including Galapagos penguins of the Pacific Ocean (Spheniscus mendiculus) and Humboldt penguins (Spheniscus humboldti) and Magellanic penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus) of South America. The four Spheniscus species share similar size and plumage characteristics.Simple characteristics allow the four different species of the genus Spheniscus.
Galapagos penguins have a much thinner white horseshoe-shaped marking at the back of the head than African penguins.
Humboldt penguins have much more pink bare skin that resides over the eyes and around the beak than African penguins.
Magellanic penguins show a double black breast-band, rather than the single black breast-band of the African penguin. Very rarely, some African penguin individuals show a double black breast-band – indicative of the Magellanic penguin, which has never been positively recorded in Africa.
Due to its geographical location along the Cape Town coast of southern Africa, the African penguin is also known the Cape penguin or South African penguin. The African penguin is the only penguin species found on the African continent, so the name African penguin doesn’t necessarily require further clarification.
African penguins are also called jackass penguins because they emit a loud, braying, donkey-like call to communicate with each other.
Male birds, including the African penguin, are usually referred to as cocks, while females are called hens.
Young African penguins are known as hatchlings and chicks.
ALTERNATEBlack-Footed Penguin, Cape Penguin, Jackass Penguin, South African Penguin
GROUPColony, Crèche, Huddle, Raft, Rookery, Waddle
The African penguin is the only penguin species found on the African continent.
This species is endemic to southern Africa where it breeds in 28 localities in Namibia and South Africa. They also inhabit the Benguela and western Agulhas ecosystems and form colonies near a chain of islands between Hollamsbird Island, Namibia, and Bird Island in Algoa Bay, South Africa.
At sea, their distribution is mainly restricted to the greater Benguela Current region.
African penguins have been recorded as far north as Gabon and Mozambique.
EXTANTAngola, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa
African penguins are terrestrial and marine and are usually found within 40 kilometers of the coast, coming ashore on islands or at non-contiguous areas of the mainland coast to breed, moult, and rest. On land, African penguins inhabit temperate shrublands, rocky shorelines, sea cliffs, rocky offshore islands, and shingle and pebble shorelines and beaches. African penguins are pelagic and epipelagic and inhabit marine neritic, oceanic, intertidal, and coastal/supratidal habitats where they can be found 0-200 meters from the water’s surface.
Breeding habitats range from flat, sandy islands with varying degrees of vegetation cover, to steep, rocky islands with little vegetation. African Penguins are sometimes found close to the summit of islands and may move over a kilometer inland in search of breeding sites.
African penguins usually feed within 20 kilometers of the colony when breeding, although at some colonies the distance is greater.
They can remain out at sea for up to four months at a time.
MARINE OCEANICEpipelagic (0-200m)
MARINE INTERTIDALRocky Shoreline, Shingle and/or Pebble Shoreline and/or Beaches
MARINE COASTAL/SUPRATIDALSea Cliffs & Rocky Offshore Islands
African penguins are social creatures that live in large colonies on the rocky coastlines of southwest Africa. Adults generally nest colonially, but may also nest in isolation. At sea, African penguins forage singly, in pairs, and sometimes cooperatively in small groups of up to 150 individuals. The primary viewing site of African penguins at False Bay in Simons Town, South Africa has over 2000 penguins.
African penguins cannot easily preen their own heads and necks, and as such, participate in allopreening, or the preening of each other. This practical behavior allows for cleaning and rearranging of feathers and aids in the removal of parasites, such as ticks. African penguins often bathe within a few meters of the shoreline while shaking their bodies around wildly and preening themselves with their beaks and feet. When a penguin is by himself, using the foot to preen is the only option for reaching his head.
African penguins are diurnal and spend much of the day feeding in the water. They also dive into the water on warmer days to keep cool. Throughout the night, these penguins spend their time gathered together on shore.
Adult African penguins are largely resident, but some movements occur in response to prey movements.
There are three types of calls used: bray, yell, and haw. The yell, or contact call, is used to defend a territory from another colony member. The bray, or display call, is used to attract mates and is used between partners in a colony. Penguins also perform displays that are used to establish nesting areas, help with partner/hatchling recognition and defense against intruders. The haw is used by partners when one is on land and the other is in the water.
Fighting between African penguins occurs occasionally and involves the beating of wings and biting. Often, a penguin can be observed chasing throughout the colony while clutching an opposing penguin’s back with his beak while beating the bird with his wings.
Up to 18 species of crustaceans are prey to the African penguin. Adult African penguins feed primarily on small schooling pelagic fish of 50-120 millimeter length, such as Southern African anchovies (Engraulis encrasicolus), sardines (Sardinops sagax), pelagic goby (Sufflogobius bibarbatus), Cape horse mackerel (Trachurus capensis), and Whitehead’s round herring (Etrumeus whiteheadi), supplemented by squid and crustaceans. In some localities, cephalopods represent an important food source.
Juveniles are thought to prey on fish larvae.
In Namibia, where sardine and anchovy are virtually absent from the foraging ranges of breeding penguins, breeding birds feed principally on the energy-poor pelagic goby.
At sea, African penguins forage singly, in pairs, and sometimes cooperatively in small groups of up to 150 individuals. When on the hunt for prey, African penguins can reach a top speed of close to 20 kilometers per hour.
The distance that African penguins have to travel to find food varies regionally, temporally, and spatially. On the west coast of Africa, a typical foraging trip could range from 30 to 70 kilometers for a single trip. On the south coast, foraging birds can cover an average of 110 kilometers per trip.
African penguins are monogamous as pairs return to the same breeding sites year after year. Adult African penguins generally remain within 400 kilometers of their breeding locality, although they have been recorded up to 900 kilometers away.
African penguin breeding takes place throughout the year with peak months varying locally. In the northwest part of the African penguin’s range, in Namibia, peak laying occurs during the months of November to January. In the southern section of the penguin’s range, in South Africa, nesting happens within March and May. In the Southwest, it occurs between May and July, and in the East, the penguins breed between April and June.
African penguins gather in breeding areas called rookeries. They prefer flat, sandy islands with varying degrees of vegetation cover or steep rock islands with little vegetation for their breeding grounds. They can sometimes be found close to the summit of islands and may move over a kilometer inland in search of breeding sites.
African penguin courtship rituals typically begin with the male projecting visual and auditory displays to attract a mate. Head-swinging motions usually refer to ownership of nest site, attracting females, and can be used as a warning for other males. The next stage is used to ensure a mutual bond is formed; which involves a harsh vocal call released while extending the neck and head upward. The final stage includes bowing, where one or both penguins duck the head while the bill points at the nest or at the other bird’s feet.
During breeding, male and female African penguins are most distinguishable from one another due to their patterns of colors. Males also have deeper, more robust bills.
Adults generally nest colonially, but may also nest in isolation. In the past, African penguin nests were usually built in burrows dug in guano or sand. Guano collection has historically been a major cause of disturbance at many penguin colonies and today, the removal of guano has deprived penguins of nest-burrowing sites. This has caused the birds to start nesting on open ground where they are more vulnerable to heat stress resulting in the abandonment of nests, flooding of nests by rain, and increased predation. African penguins will usually dig shallow burrows under rocks, in sand, or under sparse vegetation. At some sites, artificial nest-burrows made from pipes and boxes sunken into the ground, and shelters shaped from dry vegetation have been regularly used by the species.
Incubation is shared amongst African penguins between both parents and lasts for about 40 days. All African penguins have a patch of bare skin at the base of their bellies, called a “brood patch,” that helps the parent provide direct heat to their eggs for incubation.
After the eggs hatch, the parenting pair feeds their young for about one month by regurgitating food into the hatchling’s mouth.
Juvenile African penguins initially have dark slate gray-blue feathers that darken with age. In the penguin’s second year, the plumage begins to turn brown and in the third year, it shows varying amounts of adult facial pattern. The change from juvenile plumage to adult plumage takes around 3 years.
African penguin hatchlings are left alone in crèches, or groups, a characteristic common to bird species that breed in large colonies, while their parents forage for food.
Once an African penguin develops its juvenile plumage at about 2-4 months of age, it will leave the colony. On gaining independence, juvenile African penguins disperse up to 2,000 kilometers from their natal colonies, with those from the east heading west, and those from the west and south moving north. Most birds that survive, later return to their natal colony to moult and breed, although the growth of some colonies has been attributed to the immigration of first-time breeders tracking food availability. The average age at first breeding is thought to be 4-6 years.
BREEDING SEASONMarch-May, November-December
BREEDING INTERVAL1 Year
PARENTAL INVESTMENTMaternal, Paternal
SEXUAL MATURITY4-5 Years
Natural threats of the African penguin include competition with Afro-Australian fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus). The seals compete with penguins for food, displace them from breeding sites and impose significant mortality at some colonies.
African penguins also face predation of eggs and chicks by avian predators such as kelp gulls (Larus dominicanus) and African sacred ibises (Threskiornis aethiopicus), while natural terrestrial predators, such as yellow mongooses (Cynictis penicillata), cape genets (Genetta tigrina), caracals (Caracal caracal), and leopards (Panthera pardus) are also present at mainland colonies. In the water, African penguins need to fear sharks looking to take birds at sea.
Feral cats (Felis catus) and dogs (Canis lupis familiarus) are also present along the coastlines and mainlands of Southern African and have posed a problem with some African penguin colonies.
Four types of blood parasites, Plasmodium relictum, Plasmodium elongatum, Plasmodium cathemerium, and Leucocytozoon tawaki have been recorded in African penguins.
African penguins benefit humans by ecotourism. They are a species that humans can approach closely and watch as they interact with their environment. The primary viewing site of African penguins is the colony at False Bay in Simons Town, South Africa. This colony has over 2,000 penguins.
African penguins are the most common penguin found in zoos due to their size and temperature requirements, which are easy to maintain. Black-footed penguins can be found on display at zoos such as the San Diego Zoo, Lincoln Park Zoo, Toronto Zoo, and Dallas Zoo.
African penguins provide a substantial source of guano. At one point, guano was excavated from rookeries by humans, processed, and made into fertilizer, which was then sold around the world. Guano is now forbidden in fertilizer, which has reduced the economic importance of black-footed penguins for humans.
Penguin skins have also been used and sold as gloves.
There are no real negative economic effects of the African penguin on humans, however, as they do not eat enough fish to be detrimental to the local fishing industry.
PETS/DISPLAY ANIMALS, HORTICULTURENational, International
The African penguin is listed as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
This species is classified as Endangered because it is undergoing a very rapid population decline, probably as a result of commercial fisheries and shifts in prey populations. This trend currently shows no sign of reversing, and immediate conservation action is required to prevent further declines.
Since the early 1900s, the African penguin population has been in decline. The population in Namibia declined from 12,162 pairs in 1978 to an estimated 5,800 pairs in 2015. The South African population declined from c. 70,000 pairs in 1978 and 1979 to 19,300 pairs in 2015. In that year, the overall number of pairs was about 25,000 pairs, or 50,000 mature individuals. This roughly equates to about 80,000 individuals in adult plumage based on the conversion factor of 3.2 for pairs to individuals. Decreases in both countries amount to over 50% in three generations.
Initially, their decline was due to the disturbance of nesting birds and exploitation and commercial sale of their eggs for food. Also, habitat alteration and disturbance associated with guano collection at breeding colonies contributed to their decline.
These factors have now largely ceased, and the major current threats include oil pollution and competition with commercial fisheries for pelagic fish prey. Mortality also occurs in fishing nets when gill-nets are set near colonies.
African penguin population declines have been attributed to food shortages, resulting from shifts in the distributions of prey species, competition with commercial purse-seine fisheries and environmental fluctuations. A decrease in foraging effort at St Croix Island and an increase in chick survival and chick condition at Robben Island following the establishment of 20 kilometer no-take zones provide some support for this theory.
In the early 2000s there was an eastward shift in sardine and anchovy, with the mature biomass of these species decreasing near the breeding islands north of Cape Town. The abundance of these prey species is known to influence breeding success, adult survival, and juvenile survival, all of which may often be too low off South Africa’s west coast to maintain population equilibrium.
In the past, African penguin nests were usually built in burrows dug in guano or sand. Guano collection has historically been a major cause of disturbance at many penguin colonies and today, the removal of guano has deprived penguins of nest-burrowing sites. This has caused the birds to start nesting on open ground where they are more vulnerable to heat stress resulting in the abandonment of nests, flooding of nests by rain, and increased predation.
ENERGY PRODUCTION & MININGOil & Gas Drilling, Mining & Quarrying
BIOLOGICAL RESOURCE USEHunting & Trapping Terrestrial Animals, Fishing & Harvesting Aquatic Resources
HUMAN INTRUSIONS & DISTURBANCEWork & Other Activities
INVASIVE & OTHER PROBLEMATIC SPECIES, GENES, & DISEASESInvasive Non-Native/Alien Species/Diseases, Problematic Native Species/Dieseases
POLLUTIONIndustrial & Military Effluents
CLIMATE CHANGE & SEVERE WEATHERHabitat Shifting & Alteration, Storms & Flooding
In South Africa, the African penguin Biodiversity Management Plan (BMP), gazetted in 2013, guided the conservation actions to be implemented with the aim to halt the decline of the species. This 5-year BMP identified actions, such as: ensuring adequate prey for penguins during the breeding and non-breeding seasons; spatial management of the pelagic fishery; investigating conservation translocations in this species; improving the disaster response to oiling, disease and fire; establish minimum standards for rehabilitation and rehabilitation facilities; improving penguin numbers through targeted interventions at existing but declining breeding localities where the reasons for the decline can be addressed. This plan did not achieve its aims, and a revised plan was prepared and was expected to be approved for implementation in 2020. Threats such as predation and disaster prevention and mitigation were addressed in this plan as well as conservation translocations, habitat improvement, and ongoing essential population monitoring and disease surveillance. Critically, actions dealing with the food availability threat with protecting at sea habitat and the management of resources that are critical for the penguin’s survival at all phases in its life-cycle are included.
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