About African Penguins

African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus)

Size: African penguins can be between 18 to 25 inches tall and can weigh up to 11 pounds.

Range/Distribution: These are the only penguins to breed on the continent of Africa and live in Namibia and South Africa.

Appearance: African penguins have a rounded, football shaped body covered with black feathers on their back, flippers, and head and white feathers covering their front belly.  After a penguin molts (loses and regrows its feathers) a white stripe of feathers will develop around its cheek and throat.  To help them cool down in warm weather, there is a bare patch of pink skin above their eyes.

Habitat: When not swimming and hunting for food in the water, African penguins are found on rocky shores or brushy coastal areas.

Prey: African penguins eat 25 different types of fish, like sardine and anchovy.  A penguin may eat up almost a pound of food a day – that’s 14% of their body weight.

Predators: Land living predators of African penguins are gulls, cats and mongoose and sharks and fur seals can prey on African penguins when they are swimming in the water.

Life Span: African penguins in a zoo or aquarium may live more than 30 years but in Africa, 15 to 20 years is typical.

Mating Behaviors: Most pairs of penguins are monogamous (staying with the same mate for a long time) and will remain together for many years.  A male will dig a shallow hole in sand or brush and use guano (penguin waste), sticks, rocks and any materials to make a nest.  The female penguin will then lay two eggs.  Both the male and female take turns watching the nest, eggs and penguin chicks to keep them safe from predators and warm temperatures.  The chicks will hatch from the eggs after 38 and 42 days and will leave the nests when they are around 3 months old.

Conservation Status: In 2010, the African penguin was placed on the Endangered Species List.  Unfortunately the number of penguins has declined 90% over the past 60 years and now there are only around 100,000 penguins in South Africa.

Threats:  Threats include oil spills, over fishing of surrounding waters and changes in the environment, such as loss of habitat and global-warming-induced shifts in currents and atmospheric conditions

What’s being done?

  • SANCCOB (The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) partners with organizations around the world and is known as a leader in seabird conservation and rehabilitation.  Through rehabilitation of sea birds, public education and conservation programming, SANCCOB is responsible for making a positive, direct impact on the wild seabird populations (the African penguin population is proven to be 19% higher due to SANCCOB’s rehabilitation efforts).
  • Mystic Aquarium has responded to the population decline by uniting researchers, husbandry staff, educators, and concerned citizens.  These groups work to provide information on aquarium colonies of African penguins paired and field studies in South Africa to better understand the African penguin population both in aquariums and wild settings.  This is accomplished through the support of research conducted at Mystic and directly in the field, hosting educational penguin programs, and raising funds to support African penguin programs.
  • Zoos and aquariums (including Mystic Aquarium) around the country work to maintain a healthy genetic diversity among penguin populations in these facilities through the support of the Species Survival Plan.

 Fun Facts:

  • Male and female penguins look the same from the outside so a blood test is used to determine gender.
  • The pattern of black spots on a penguin’s chest is as unique as a human finger print.  Scientists are now using photographs to identify penguins in the wild when conducting population surveys.
  • Every feather of a penguin is controlled by a small muscle.  This allows the penguin to keep feathers close to their body to conserve heat when they are in cold water or lift their feathers to release heat when they are warm.
  • African penguins, like other penguins, cannot fly due to their solid bone structure and lack of flight feathers on their wings.  However, they can “fly” through the water at speeds up to 15 mph and regularly dive for 2.5 minutes.
  • African penguins have earned the nicknamed of the”jackass penguin” because of their donkey-like bray used to communicate.

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