The only penguin that lives north of the equator is the Galapagos penguin. This small-bodied species is restricted to the Galapagos Islands, which straddle the equator, if only by a few degrees of latitude. The Galapagos penguin is closely related to the other temperate penguins (that live on the coasts of South America and Africa) and more distantly related to the Antarctic penguins.
This species is able to survive at the equator because of the unique biogeography of the Galapagos Islands. Cold, productive water travels from Antarctica via the Humboldt Current, which flows to this island group.
Like many animals near the equator, Galapagos penguins breed year round. Unlike the Antarctic penguins, Galapagos penguins do not need to worry about their eggs freezing. Instead they have to worry about them overheating or being attacked by egg predators. Galapagos penguins nest along the shoreline, and when nesting, one parent feeds while the other cares for the egg. Incubation takes longer than one month. Galapagos penguins form strong pair bonds and remain with the same partner for their entire lives. They are foraging predators that primarily eat small fishes. They forage relatively close to shore, as they are prey for the large marine predators of the Galapagos Islands, namely sharks, fur seals, and sea lions.
Based on their small geographic distribution, their already naturally low numbers, and their decreasing population size, Galapagos penguins are considered endangered (highly vulnerable to extinction). Some individuals are accidentally caught by fishers targeting other species, but the two biggest issues for Galapagos penguin populations are climate variability and invasive species. The cyclical, large-scale climate phenomenon known as El Niño significantly reduces the amount of food available to Galapagos penguins, causing them to skip nesting. In severe cases, these events can lead to starvation of the adults. While El Niño is a natural phenomenon, there is some growing evidence that human activities acting on the climate system as a whole may increase the severity or frequency of El Niño events. Perhaps a greater risk to this species is the introduction of two very different species, both of which threaten adult and juvenile Galapagos penguins. Introduced cats attack and eat these penguins and have contributed to a direct reduction in population size. Introduced mosquitoes carry avian flu, a virus that is particularly deadly to Galapagos penguins and its close relatives. An outbreak of this flu could easily spread through large swaths of the remaining Galapagos penguin population. Finally, as Galapagos penguins (like all penguins) are air breathers that regularly come to the sea surface, an oil spill in the Galapagos Islands could be a major threat to this rare, coastal species. Scientists estimate that there are fewer than 600 breeding pairs of Galapagos penguins alive today, so without continuing conservation measures, the species could be at risk of being lost.
Oceana joined forces with Sailors for the Sea, an ocean conservation organization dedicated to educating and engaging the world’s boating community. Sailors for the Sea developed the KELP (Kids Environmental Lesson Plans) program to create the next generation of ocean stewards. Click here or below to download hands-on marine science activities for kids.