WOD2014: Penguins and Cormorants

Today is World Oceans Day; a day that commemorates the beauty and importance of our oceans which are so integral to our survival. As can be expected for a tropical archipelago, the Galapagos Islands have an especially intimate relationship with the seas. In the run-up to World Oceans Day we have been posting a series of daily blog articles on the marine wildlife and associated conservation projects in Galapagos. Today’s post focuses on the flightless birds of Galapagos.

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The Galapagos penguin and flightless cormorant are both somewhat uncharacteristic when compared to their close relatives.

When a person thinks of a penguin, they probably imagine vast white ice sheets, snow blizzards and penguins huddling together to keep warm during the Antarctic winter. Very few people, I would have thought, would picture a small penguin standing on lava alongside bright red crabs on an equatorial island. That, however, is exactly the situation with the Galapagos penguin. It is able to cope in these tropical climes thanks to a number of adaptations (find out about their adaptations here) and because the cold waters of the Humboldt Current provide a sufficient supply of penguin food, mostly in the form of sardines.

The flightless cormorant, as its name suggests, is another flightless species and is the only member of the cormorant family that can’t fly. It is thought that, having arrived at the Islands, its flying ancestors no longer needed to fly because there were no ground predators on the Islands and the productive seas surrounding them had an ample food supply. Over hundreds of thousands of years, their wings began to shrink and their bodies grew larger. They are now the largest cormorant species and their wings are about a third of the size they would need to be to fly.

For all their differences and unique qualities, these birds have plenty in common. They are both well-adapted to the sea, being powerful swimmers that easily propel themselves through the water in search of prey. They are also both endemic to the Galapagos Islands.

One other thing that they share is that they are both threatened species. Penguin and cormorant populations now number just 2,000 individuals each and the species are currently classified as endangered and vulnerable respectively. With a range of threats, including predation by introduced species, avian disease, habitat loss and climate change, the management and conservation of the remaining individuals is now at a critical point.

One essential element of any successful conservation strategy is monitoring the existing population. Since 2011, GCT has been funding quarterly penguin and cormorant monitoring surveys in order to get this vital data. Although our original funding only covered the first three years of monitoring, we recently ran a Galapagos Penguin Appeal to enable us to extend funding for this project into the future.

For your part this World Oceans Day, remember that the Galapagos penguin and the flightless cormorant are only two of the unique animals that live in this amazing archipelago. Their lives are profoundly linked with the ocean, as are ours, and that is why we should all do what we can to protect our seas.

It’s not too late to donate to our Galapagos Penguin Appeal. Every penny that you donate will go directly towards funding this crucial project and securing a brighter future for the flightless birds of Galapagos.

We hope that you have enjoyed our series of blog posts this week and have learned a bit more about the fascinating spectrum of marine wildlife in Galapagos. The efforts that we and other organisations in Galapagos are making to conserve this incredible place are only possible thanks to our supporters. If you would like to support the work of GCT, learn how to get involved by visiting our website.

by Pete Haskell and Jose Hong

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