A small penguin that lives along the tropical and temperate eastern Pacific Ocean, south of the equator, the Humboldt penguin is named after an explorer who visited that region at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. This penguin lives almost as far north as the equator and has the most northward range of any penguin except the closely related Galapagos penguin.
This species is able to survive so close to the equator because of the biogeography of the western coast of South America. Cold, productive water travels from Antarctica via the Humboldt Current (named for the same explorer), which flows along this species’ entire distribution. The Humboldt penguin is closely related to the other temperate penguins and more distantly related to the Antarctic penguins.
Humboldt penguins breed year round and may raise more than one chick or clutch of chicks during a 12-month period. They lay their eggs in burrows that they dig out of the thick layers of guano (sea bird droppings) that cover the coastline throughout their range. While one parent feeds, the other parent guards the nest. Incubation takes longer than one month. Humboldt 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 their nests, as they are prey for the large marine predators of the area, namely sharks, fur seals, and sea lions. Like all penguins, Humboldt penguins provide significant parental care for both the eggs and the chicks.
Scientists consider the Humboldt penguin to be vulnerable to extinction. Natural climate variation, human-induced changes to Earth’s climate system, and overfishing of their preferred prey species (e.g., Peruvian anchoveta) all contribute to this finding. The cyclical, large-scale climate phenomenon known as El Niño significantly reduces the amount of food available to Humboldt penguins. 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. Direct capture – for human consumption or for use as fish bait – and accidental capture in fishing gear targeting other species have also both been threats to this species, even though it is offered legal protection throughout its range. Finally, historic (and ongoing) mining of guano for use in fertilizers and other products destroys Humboldt penguins’ burrows and alter their preferred breeding sites. Continuing scientific research and conservation efforts are both vital to ensure that decreasing population trends are reversed.
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.