Spheniscus demersus, commonly known as African, black-footed, or jackass penguin, is the only penguin species found on the African continent. This species inhabits the Benguela and western Agulhas ecosystems of southern Africa. African penguins form colonies near a chain of islands between Hollamsbird Island, Namibia, and Bird Island in Algoa Bay, South Africa.
Biogeographic Regions: ethiopian (Native )
Adults stand around 45 cm tall and weigh an average of 3.1 kg. African penguins have black plumage on the back and white feathers with black markings on the chest and belly. The white and black plumage serves as camouflage to predators, with the white appearing to aquatic predators from below and the black appearing to aerial predators from above. They also have a horseshoe-shaped white band that goes around the eye from the chin towards the beak. Additionally, a horseshoe-shaped band of black goes across their chest. Juveniles have gray-blue feathers that darken to black with age. The change from juvenile plumage to adult plumage takes around 3 years.
African penguins resemble their close relatives, other species in the genus Spheniscus, including Galapagos penguins of the Pacific Ocean and Humboldt penguins and Magellanic penguins of South America. The 4 Spheniscus species share size and plumage characteristics.
Average mass: 3.1 kg.
Average length: 45 cm.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry
Sexual Dimorphism: sexes alike
African penguins live in large colonies on rocky coastlines of southwest Africa. They can swim up to 20 kph and can travel 30 to 70 km during each trip. They spend the night gathered together on shore and much of the day feeding in the water.
Range depth: 130 (high) m.
Average depth: 30-60 m.
Habitat Regions: temperate ; terrestrial
Aquatic Biomes: coastal
Habitat and Ecology
African penguins feed primarily on shoaling pelagic fish such as anchovies (Engraulis encrasicolus), pilchards (Sardinops sagax), horse mackerel (Trachurus capensis), and round herrings (Etrumeus whiteheadi), supplemented by squid and crustaceans. When on the hunt for prey, African genguins can reach a top speed of close to 20 km/h. The distance that African penguins have to travel to find food varies regionally.
Animal Foods: fish; mollusks; aquatic crustaceans
Primary Diet: carnivore (Piscivore )
African penguins are predators of small shoaling fish, including anchovies (Engraulis encrasicolus) and sardines (Sardinops sagax). Up to 18 species of crustaceans are also prey to the African penguin.
Additionally, four types of blood parasites, Plasmodium relictum, P. elongatum, P. cathemerium, and Leucocytozoon tawaki have been recorded in Spheniscus demersus.
- Plasmodium relictum
- Plasmodium elongatum
- Plasmodium cathemerium
- Leucocytozoon tawaki
African penguins are on the endangered species list. Initially, their decline was due to the exploitation of 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 competition with commercial fisheries for pelagic fish prey and oil pollution. Natural threats include competition with Cape Fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus) for space at breeding colonies and for food resources, as well as predation by seals on penguins. Feral cats are also present and pose a problem at some colonies. African penguins also face predation of eggs and chicks by avian predators such as kelp gulls (Larus dominicanus) and sacred ibises (Threskiornis aethiopicus), while natural terrestrial predators, such as mongooses (Cynictis penicillata), genets (Genetta tigrina), and leopards (Panthera pardus) are also present at mainland colonies.
- Cape fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus)
- kelp gulls (Larus dominicanus)
- sacred ibises (Threskiornis aethiopicus)
- yellow mongooses (Cynictis penicillata)
- large-spotted genets (Genetta tigrina)
- leopards (Panthera pardus)
Anti-predator Adaptations: cryptic
Life History and Behavior
African penguins are also called jackass penguins because they emit a loud, braying, donkey-like call to communicate. 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.
Communication Channels: visual ; acoustic ; chemical
Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
The average lifespan of Spheniscus demersus 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 15 to 20 years. Limits to aging are predation, human impact, and storm systems.
Status: wild: 27 (high) years.
Status: captivity: 25 (high) years.
Status: wild: 10 to 15 years.
African penguins are monogamous. During breeding, male and female penguins are most distinguishable from one another due to the pattern of colors. African penguins dig shallow burrows under rocks, in sand or under sparse vegetation. They gather in breeding areas called 'rookeries' from September to February, where they lay two eggs. 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/or 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.
Mating System: monogamous
African penguin pairs return to the same breeding sites year after year. Although breeding takes place throughout the year, nesting peaks in Namibia from November to December and in South Africa from March until May. Females typically lay two eggs, which are then incubated by both parents for about 40 days. All 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 incubate the eggs.
Breeding interval: African penguins breed once yearly.
Breeding season: Breeding occurs in Namibia from November to December and in South Africa from March until May.
Average eggs per season: 2.
Average time to hatching: 40 days.
Range fledging age: 60 to 130 days.
Average time to independence: 80 days.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 4 years.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 5 years.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; oviparous
After the eggs hatch, the pair feeds their young for about one month by regurgitating food into the hatchling's mouth. Hatchlings are then left alone in crèches, or groups, a characteristic common to bird species that breed in large colonies, while their parents forage for food. Young leave the colony once they develop their juvenile plumage in 2 to 4 months.
Parental Investment: altricial ; male parental care ; female parental care ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female)
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Spheniscus demersus
Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
-- end --
Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Spheniscus demersus
Public Records: 7
Specimens with Barcodes: 8
Species With Barcodes: 1
African penguins are classified as vulnerable. Since the early 1900s, the African penguin population has been in decline. The initial decline was due to commercial sales of eggs and disturbance of nesting birds. Presently, the species is threatened by oil pollution.
US Migratory Bird Act: no special status
US Federal List: endangered
CITES: appendix ii
State of Michigan List: no special status
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: endangered
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
Date Listed: 10/29/2010
Lead Region: Foreign (Region 10)
Where Listed: Entire
Population location: Entire
Listing status: E
For most current information and documents related to the conservation status and management of Spheniscus demersus , see its USFWS Species Profile
CITES Appendix II. CMS Appendix II. In South Africa, all breeding localities are national parks, nature reserves or otherwise protected. Collection of guano and eggs is prohibited within penguin colonies (Harrison et al. 1997). Oiled birds are rehabilitated with great success (Nel and Whittington 2003). More than 80% of birds admitted for rehabilitation are returned successfully to the wild (Nel and Whittington 2003). In one study it was found that the age at first breeding of five oiled and rehabilitated birds did not differ significantly from populations on Robben and Dassen Islands (Whittington et al. 2005). Since 1995 there has been a captive breeding programme at an aquarium in Cape Town, where around six birds are bred annually, and a total of 14 have been released nearby (Lahana 2003). This programme has contributed to public awareness and education (Lahana 2003). Research into feeding behaviour involving the use of satellite-tracking and transponders is ongoing (Koenig 2007). On Dyer Island, the effects of guano collection in the past are being mitigated by the installation of small fiberglass igloos as nest-sites, with 200 put in place by 2006 and an eventual target of 2,000, roughly one for every pair in the colony (Hanes 2006). These artificial nest-sites are used by pairs very soon after installation, and if the programme is successful it will be expanded to other colonies in South Africa (Hanes 2006 theithacajournal.com). A research project into the potential positive impacts of small marine no-take zones surrounding breeding colonies is underway, with results in the first year showing a decrease in adult foraging effort (Pichegru et al. 2010, L. Pichegru in litt. 2010). Conservation Actions Proposed
Monitor population trends at all colonies (Ellis et al. 1998). Continue and maintain the SANCCOB oil spill rehabilitation centre. Initiate research into the impacts of fishing and predation (Ellis et al. 1998). Protect Namibian breeding localities (Ellis et al. 1998). Develop plans to conserve pelagic fish resources (Harrison et al. 1997), namely through management of the purse-seine fishery (Crawford et al. 2006). Prevent oilspills from illegal cleaning of ship tanks (Harrison et al. 1997). Eliminate feral cats from Bird, Dassen and Robben Islands and implement measures to preclude the introduction of rats to any colonies (Ellis et al. 1998, Crawford et al. 2006). Investigate reintroduction techniques (Ellis et al. 1998) and establish captive breeding populations to assist with future reintroduction or supplementation efforts. Assess whether climate change is a factor in the shifting of prey populations (Koenig 2007). Consider the idea of establishing no-fishing zones around breeding islands (Koenig 2007, L. Underhill per Koenig 2007). Consider translocating birds in reaction to shifts in food availability (L. Underhill per Koenig 2007). Maintain suitable breeding habitat (Crawford et al. 2006). Control the spread of disease (Crawford et al. 2006). Establish and then monitor 'trial colonies' close to current concentrations of food resources (R. Wanless in litt. 2010).
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
There are no real negative economic effects of the African penguin. They do not eat enough fish to be detrimental to the local fishing industry.
African penguins provide a substantial source of guano. Guano was excavated from rookeries, processed, and made into fertilizer, which was then sold around the world. Penguin skins have been used as gloves. Guano is now forbidden in fertilizer, which has reduced the economic importance for humans. African penguins also benefit humans by ecotourism. They are a species that humans can get up close to and watch how 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 2000 penguins. African penguins are the most common penguin found in zoos due to their size and temperature requirements, which are easy to maintain.
Positive Impacts: ecotourism
The African penguin (Spheniscus demersus), also known as the jackass penguin and black-footed penguin is a species of penguin, confined to southern African waters. It is also widely known as the "jackass" penguin for its donkey-like bray, although several related species of South American penguins produce the same sound. Like all extant penguins it is flightless, with a streamlined body, and wings stiffened and flattened into flippers for a marine habitat. Adults weigh on average 2.2–3.5 kg (4.9–7.7 lb) and are 60–70 cm (24–28 in) tall. It has distinctive pink patches of skin above the eyes and a black facial mask; the body upperparts are black and sharply delineated from the white underparts, which are spotted and marked with a black band. This pink gland above their eyes helps them to cope with changing temperatures. When the temperature gets hotter, the body of the African penguin sends more blood to these glands to be cooled by the air surrounding it. This then causes the gland to turn a darker shade of pink.
The African penguin is a pursuit diver and feeds primarily on fish and squid. Once extremely numerous, the African penguin is declining due to a combination of threats and is classified as endangered. It is a charismatic species and is popular with tourists.
The African penguin was one of the many bird species originally described by Linnaeus in the landmark 1758 10th edition of his Systema Naturae, where he grouped it with the wandering albatross on the basis of its bill and nostril morphology and gave it the name Diomedea demersa.
The African penguin is a banded penguin, placed in the genus Spheniscus. The other banded penguins are the African penguin's closest relatives, and are all found mainly in the Southern Hemisphere: the Humboldt penguin and Magellanic penguins found in southern South America, and the Galápagos penguin found in the Pacific Ocean near the equator. All are similar in shape, colour and behaviour.
The African penguin is a member of the class Aves, and the order Sphenisciformes. It belongs to the penguin family Spheniscidae. It is classified as Spheniscus demersus, which is somewhat descriptive about its behaviour when analysed with etymology.
The genus to which the African penguin belongs to, Spheniscus, derives from the Ancient Greek word sphen, which means wedge. This refers to their streamlined body shape. Its species name, demersus, is a Latin word for "plunging".
African penguins grow to 60–70 cm (24–28 in) tall and weigh between 2.2–3.5 kg (4.9–7.7 lb). They have a black stripe and black spots on the chest, the pattern of spots being unique for every penguin, like human fingerprints. They have pink glands above their eyes, which are used for thermoregulation. The hotter the penguin gets, the more blood is sent to these glands so it may be cooled by the surrounding air, thus making the glands more pink. This species exhibits slight sexual dimorphism: the males are larger than the females and have larger beaks. Juveniles do not possess the bold, delineated markings of the adult but instead have dark upperparts that vary from greyish-blue to brown; the pale underparts lack both spots and the band. The beak is more pointed than that of the Humboldt. Their distinctive black and white colouring is a vital form of camouflage called countershading– white for underwater predators looking upwards and black for predators looking down onto the dark water. African penguins look similar and are thought to be related to the Humboldt, Magellanic, and Galapagos penguins. African penguins have a very recognizable appearance with a thick band of black that is in the shape of an upside-down horseshoe. They have black feet and unique black spots that vary in size and shape per penguin. Magellanic penguins share a similar characteristic that often confuses the two, the similarity is a double bar on the throat and chest. These penguins have the nickname of "jackass penguin" which comes from the loud noises they make.
The African penguin is only found on the south-western coast of Africa, living in colonies on 24 islands between Namibia and Algoa Bay, near Port Elizabeth, South Africa. It is the only penguin species that breeds in Africa and its presence gave name to the Penguin Islands.
Two colonies were established by penguins in the 1980s on the mainland near Cape Town, namely Boulders Beach near Simon's Town and Stony Point in Betty's Bay. Mainland colonies probably only became possible in recent times due to the reduction of predator numbers, although the Betty's Bay colony has been attacked by leopards. The only other mainland colony is in Namibia, but it is not known when it was established.
Breeding populations of African penguins are being kept in numerous zoos worldwide. No colonies are known outside the south-western coast of Africa, although vagrants (mostly juveniles) may occasionally be sighted beyond the normal range.
Roughly 4 million penguins existed at the beginning of the 19th century. Of the 1.5-million population of African penguins estimated in 1910, only some 10% remained at the end of the 20th century. African penguin populations, which breed in Namibia and South Africa, have declined by 95 percent since pre-industrial times.
The total population fell to 200,000 in 2000. In 2010, the number was estimated to be only at 55,000. If this decline is not halted, the African penguin is expected to be extinct within 15 years.
5,000 breeding pairs were estimated to live in Namibia in 2008; in 2012, about 18,700 pairs were estimated to live in South Africa, with the majority of those numbers on St Croix Island in Algoa Bay.
African penguins forage in the open sea, where they pursue pelagic fish such as pilchards and anchovies (e.g. Engraulis capensis), and marine invertebrates such as squid and small crustaceans. Penguins normally swim within 20 km of the shore. A penguin may consume up to 540 grams of prey every day, but this may increase to over 1 kg when raising older chicks.
Due to the collapse of a commercial pilchard fishery in 1960, African penguin diet has shifted towards anchovies to some extent, although available pilchard biomass is still a notable determinant of penguin population development and breeding success. While a diet of anchovy appears to be generally sufficient, it is not ideal due to lower concentrations of fat and protein. Penguin diet changes throughout the year; as in many seabirds, it is believed that the interaction of diet choice and breeding success helps the penguins maintain their population size. Although parent penguins are protective of their hatchlings, they will not incur nutritional deficits themselves if prey is scarce and hunting requires greater time or energy commitment. This may lead to higher rates of brood loss under poor food conditions.
The African penguin is monogamous. It breeds in colonies, and pairs return to the same site each year. The African penguin has an extended breeding season, with nesting usually peaking from March to May in South Africa, and November and December in Namibia. A clutch of two eggs are laid either in burrows dug in guano, or scrapes in the sand under boulders or bushes. Incubation is undertaken equally by both parents for about 40 days. At least one parent guards the chicks until about 30 days, whereafter the chick joins a crèche with other chicks, and both parents head out to sea to forage each day.
Chicks fledge at 60 to 130 days, the timing depending on environmental factors such as quality and availability of food. The fledged chick then go to sea on their own and return to their natal colony after a lengthy time period of 12–22 months to molt into adult plumage.
African penguin females remain fertile for 10 years. African penguins spend most of their lives at sea until it comes time for them to lay their eggs. Due to the high predation by larger mammals on the mainland, the penguins will go offshore to an island for protection from mammals and natural challenges. African penguins usually breed during the African winter when temperatures are lower. Ideally, eggs are incubated in a burrow dug into the guano layer, which provides a suitable temperature regulation, but the widespread human removal of guano deposits has rendered this type of nest unfeasible at most colonies. To compensate, penguins dig holes in the sand, breed in the open, or make use of nest boxes if such are provided. The penguins spend three weeks on land to provide for their offspring, after which chicks may be left alone during the day while the parents forage. The eggs are three to four times bigger than hen’s eggs. Parents usually feed hatchlings during dusk or dawn.
The average lifespan of an African penguin is 10 to 27 years in the wild, and can live up to 30 in captivity. However, the African penguin may often fall to predators.
Predators in the ocean include sharks, Cape fur seals and, on occasion, orcas. Land-based enemies include mongooses, genets, caracals, domestic cats, and the kelp gull which steals their eggs and newborn chicks. Pressure from terrestrial predators is higher if penguins are forced to breed in the open in the absence of suitable burrows or nest boxes.
There are many projects in place to protect the African penguin throughout South Africa, including the Baywatch Marine Conservation Project based in Port Elizabeth and the African Penguin & Seabird Sanctuary  based in Gansbaai. The Baywatch Marine Conservation Project is the only permitted organization to conduct research on St Croix Island. BMCP are partly funded by Raggy Charters and were founded by Lloyd Edwards..
In February 2015, the Dyer Island Conservation Trust opened the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary (APSS) in Gansbaai, South Africa. This seabird rehabilitation center is the only center in South Africa permitted by the Department of Environmental Affairs and CapeNature to handle and treat endangered species, including the African penguin. The center was opened by the Department of Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom  and will serve as a hub for seabird research carried out by the Dyer Island Conservation Trust. The center will also run local education projects, host international marine volunteers, and seek to improve seabird handling techniques and rehabilitation protocols.
Commercial fisheries have forced these penguins to search for prey farther off shore, as well as making them eat less nutritious prey, since their preferred prey has become scarce. Global climate change is also affecting these penguins' prey abundance.
As recently as the mid-20th century, penguin eggs were considered a delicacy and were still being collected for sale. Unfortunately, the practice was to smash eggs found a few days prior to gathering, to ensure that only fresh ones were sold. This added to the drastic decline of the penguin population around the Cape coast, a decline which was hastened by the removal of guano from islands for use as fertiliser, eliminating the burrowing material used by penguins. Penguins remain susceptible to pollution of their habitat by petrochemicals from spills, shipwrecks and cleaning of tankers while at sea.
2000 MV Treasure crisis
Disaster struck on 23 June 2000, when the iron ore tanker MV Treasure sank between Robben Island and Dassen Island, South Africa. It released 1,300 tons of fuel oil, causing an unprecedented coastal bird crisis, oiling 19,000 adult penguins at the height of the best breeding season on record for this vulnerable species. The oiled birds were brought to an abandoned train repair warehouse in Cape Town to be cared for. An additional 19,500 un-oiled penguins were removed from Dassen Island and other areas before they became oiled, and were released about 800 kilometres east of Cape Town, near Port Elizabeth. This gave workers enough time to clean up the oiled waters and shores before the birds could complete their long swim home (which took the penguins between one and three weeks). Some of the penguins were named and radio-tracked as they swam back to their breeding grounds. Tens of thousands of volunteers helped with the rescue and rehabilitation process, which was overseen by IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) and the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), and took more than three months to complete. This was the largest animal rescue event in history; more than 91% of the penguins were successfully rehabilitated and released - an amazing feat that could not have been accomplished without such a tremendous international response.
Due to the positive outcome of African penguins being raised in captivity after tragedies, such as the Treasure oil spill, the species is considered a good "candidate for a captive-breeding programme which aims to release offspring into the wild"; however, worries about the spread of new strains of avian malaria is a major concerning factor in the situation.
Bringing the birds inland led to the exposure of parasites and vector species such as mosquitoes, specifically avian malaria which has caused 27% of the rehabilitated penguins deaths annually.
1994 MV Apollo Sea disaster
African penguin casualties were significant following the sinking of the MV Apollo Sea and subsequent oil slick in 1994. 10,000 penguins were collected and cleaned, of which less than half survived.
The African penguin is one of the species to which the Agreement on the Conservation of African–Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA) applies. In November 2013 the African penguin was listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. In September 2010 it was listed as endangered under the US Endangered Species Act.
Many organisations such as SANCCOB, Dyer Island Conservation Trust, SAMREC and Raggy Charters with the Penguin Research Fund in Port Elizabeth are working to halt the decline of the African penguin. Measures include monitoring population trends, hand-rearing and releasing abandoned chicks, establishing artificial nests and proclaiming marine reserves in which fishing is prohibited. Some colonies (e.g. on Dyer Island) are suspected to be under heavy pressure from predation by Cape Fur Seals and may benefit from the culling of individual problem animals which has been found effective (although requiring a large amount of management effort) in trials.
- Endangered species
- Wildlife of South Africa
- Dyer Island Conservation Trust
- African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary
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