Galapagos Penguin


Galapagos Penguin

No other animal embodies the strange mix of tropical and antarctic fauna in the Galapagos as well as the Galapagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus). Closely related to the Humboldt penguin (S. humboldti), which is found along the coast of Chile, and from which it probably evolved, and to the Magellanic penguin (S. magellanicus), which is found along the east and west coasts of the tip of S. America, the Galapagos penguin is the world's smallest penguin, and the only one to live and breed on the equator.

The ancestors of the Galapagos penguin probably found their way to the Galapagos by following the cold Humboldt current. It is typical to see a few penguins at Pinnacle Rock, Bartolome, and around Rabida. I also once saw one at Floreana, but they are found in the greatest numbers in the colder waters on the western side of the islands, around Fernandina and Isabela, After years of occasional penguins at Bartolome, I was shocked to see some 200 at Elizabeth Bay on Isabela!

Although penguins are considered to be flightless, they do not have any of the skeletal adaptations to flightlessness typical of other flightless birds, such as a reduced keel on the breastbone. Indeed, their keel is strongly developed, as are their very sturdy, flipper-like wings. Penguins, in fact, are not flightless at all. Rather, they are simply adapted for flying through a different medium - water.

When swimming on the surface, penguins move slowly, with most of their body submerged and the head sticking up. At times, however, they swim with their head down in the water, looking for fish. But when they move into action, they dip under the water and move with incredible speed, using their powerful flippers/wings for propulsion and their feet as rudders. I have only seen penguins fish independently at Bartolome, but when there are large schools of fish and several penguins, they fish cooperatively.

On land, Galapagos penguins walk more upright than other birds because their legs are farther back. They take small, waddling steps and two-footed hops. Often they will touch the tip of their beak down at the spot to which they intend to hop. When coming out of the water, they jump up onto the rocks with both feet. I have seen penguins hit by large waves as they try to get out and am always surprised to see them still standing on the rock after the wave recedes!

Galapagos penguins are opportunistic breeders. In good conditions a pair can produce three clutches in a year. They normally molt before breeding, and are the only penguins to moult more than once a year. During the two week moulting period they avoid the water, and fast. Courtship involves preening of the mate's head, wing slapping, and bill crossing. Two eggs are laid in holes and crevices on the rocky shore, and both parents share incubation. Typically, only one chick survives to fledging, and it is cared for for about two months, until it can live independently.

Penguins are usually silent, but at times they make a braying noise that sounds very much like a donkey. They will stretch their necks out, spread their wings, and visibly force air from their chest, issuing forth a loud "eeh-aaah".

Some of my most memorable Galapagos moments involve penguins at Pinnacle Rock. In 1991 my son Jeremy and I were snorkeling and we found a few penguins sitting on some low rocks at water's edge. We sat down next to them and they sat looking at us with their beautiful, salmon-colored eyes. In 1995 my daughter Ellen swam up to a penguin sitting on a rock. It bent down and gazed intently into her face. On my 1997 trip I was swimming with a pair of penguins who were slowly swimming together, taking turns gently gripping and shaking each other's beak. I instinctively raised my camera to take a picture, but did not because of the strobe. While the camera was up and the birds momentarily out of view, I felt one of the penguins come up, grasp my finger, and shake it in the same way.

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