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Galapagos penguin
25/04/2024 Wildlife facts

7 surprising facts about the Galapagos penguin

The Galapagos Islands are home to some uniquely adapted animal species, and the Galapagos penguin is arguably the most surprising resident of all.

Tom O'Hara

Communications Manager

These endearing birds are a favourite for many visitors to Galapagos, and they embody many of the things that make the Islands so unique. Here are seven fascinating Galapagos penguin facts to surprise and intrigue you…

1. The Galapagos penguin is found nowhere else in the world

The Galapagos Islands are volcanic in origin, rising out from the ocean floor millions of years ago. They’re isolated from the South American mainland, which limits the movement of species between the Islands and the continent. This isolation is a key factor in the development of endemic species like the Galapagos penguin. Possibly drifting on ocean currents from the South American mainland, over time the isolated population of Galapagos penguins underwent genetic changes through the process of natural selection. These changes allowed them to adapt to the unique environmental conditions of the Galapagos Islands, such as the marine food resources and climate.

Galapagos penguin
Galapagos penguin © Simon Pierce
Galapagos penguin

Galapagos penguin

Spheniscus mendiculus

A favourite with many visitors to the Islands, the Galapagos penguin is the most northerly occurring species of penguin in the world.

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2. The Galapagos penguin is the third smallest species of penguin in the world

One of the Galapagos penguin’s adaptations is being smaller in size compared to other penguin species, which helps them cope with the warmer climate of Galapagos, where they nest entirely in the tropics. Weighing only 2.2 kg when fully grown and reaching only 50cm in height, the Galapagos penguin squeezes into small crevasses and caves to hide from the sun, as there’s no soft peat in which to burrow.

3. On top of panting like a dog, the Galapagos penguin has a number of ways to stay cool

Although the Humboldt and Cromwell ocean currents bring cool penguin-friendly waters to the Galapagos, and supply nutrients that allow the Archipelago to support large stocks of fish on which the penguins can feed, the Galapagos Islands bake under a fiercely hot equatorial sun, and the life-giving ocean currents can also periodically disappear.

The Galapagos penguin has bare patches to help radiate heat, but it is not able to sweat, so it pants like a dog and stands with flippers extended to help it release heat. They also sleep with their flippers outward. Scientists think this is to prevent the heat from escaping their bodies at night.

Galapagos penguins, sensibly, tend to hunt in the cool water during the day and come onto land at night. And when on land during the day, the penguins adopt a characteristic pose, holding their wings out at their sides to lose heat to the cooling sea breeze, and they hunch over their feet to keep them in their shadow, to stop the exposed skin from absorbing the sun’s rays.

Galapagos penguin
Galapagos penguin in the water © Jonathan Green

4. Galapagos penguins are adept at avoiding starvation

A small body size helps the Galapagos penguin cope with periods of little or no food, as a smaller body requires fewer calories, and the penguin’s bill is lined with rear-facing barbs that help in swallowing their lunch, often a tasty sardine, whole.

Galapagos penguin society also shows adaptations to help them cope with periodic scarcity. Whereas most penguin species hunt in groups, Galapagos penguins usually hunt by themselves or in pairs, to ensure they search far and wide for food, and whilst most penguin species nest in colonies, the Galapagos penguin often makes solitary nests to take advantage of limited areas of shade.

5. Galapagos penguins are the only species of penguin without a clearly defined breeding season

When it comes to breeding, most penguins usually have seasonal breeding cycles, but the Galapagos penguin instead breeds opportunistically, whenever conditions are favourable.

Galapagos penguins mate for life. They frequently reaffirm their bond by engaging in mutual preening and bill tapping. Sometimes Galapagos penguins lay two eggs. The eggs are incubated by both parents for 38-40 days, but if both eggs hatch, only one chick is raised by the parents.

Galapagos penguins underwater
Galapagos penguins underwater © Martín Narváez
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6. The Galapagos penguin has to avoid a host of predators on land and sea

On land, the Galapagos penguin must keep an eye out for predators such as crabs, snakes, owls and hawks. While in the water they must avoid being eaten by sharks, fur seals, and sea lions.

Galapagos penguins are black on top and white underneath. This colouration helps them to blend with the sea floor when seen from above and the sky when seen from below. This makes them much harder for predators to spot.

Galapagos penguin’s habitat is restricted to the Galapagos Islands, making it highly vulnerable to environmental changes and human activities.

7. The Galapagos penguin is the rarest penguin species in the world

The main threats facing the Galapagos penguin include climate change, oil spills, plastic pollution, predation by introduced feral cats and introduced diseases such as avian malaria.

They face significant threats from shifts in oceanic currents and the impact of El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events, which disrupt the marine ecosystem they depend on. In 1982/83, El Niño reduced Galapagos penguin numbers by approximately 80%, and then again by 65% in 1997/98.

The many idiosyncratic elements of the Galapagos penguin, from its bare patches and relatively lower body fat through to its opportunistic breeding patterns, all point to its susceptibility to environmental changes, which is why it’s so important to protect them.

80 %

drop in the Galapagos penguin population following the 1982/83 El Niño

How you can help

Help us protect Galapagos penguins from threats such as invasive species and plastic pollution by making a donation or by purchasing one of our penguin adoption packs as a gift.

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