African Penguins



DIETOver 25 different species of fish including anchovies, sardines, herring

RANGENamibia and South Africa

HABITATRocky ocean islands

African Penguins

Kingdom:  Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Sphenisciformes
Family: Spheniscidae
Genus: Spheniscus
Species: demersus

Status: Endangered

African Penguins, like other penguins, lack the long feathers used for flight in other bird species. Their feathers are small and dense, covering the body, and are used for insulation. African penguins are also known as black-footed penguins. They stand up to 70cm tall and generally weigh around 3kg. The common call of an African penguin sounds like the bray of a donkey.

They are black and white in coloration with black on the dorsal side and white on the ventral side of the body. The face of the penguin is black but white markings extend up from the throat and around the penguin’s eyes. A black horseshoe shaped marking is found on the penguin’s chest along with black spots. This black and white coloration serves as camouflage for the birds while they swim. The black back blends easily with the dark water below and the white belly, when viewed from below, blends with the sun’s light shining through the water. This means of camouflage is called counter shading.

African penguins have bodies shaped like bowling pins, and their feet are webbed. This makes them perfectly suited for a life of swimming. When on the hunt for prey, African penguins can reach a top speed of close to 12 miles/hr. The distance that African penguins have to travel to find food varies greatly. On the west coast a typical foraging trip could range from 18 to 43 miles for a single trip. On the south coast, foraging birds cover an average of 68 miles per trip. When penguins are feeding their young, the distance they can travel from the breeding colony is more limited. An average dive of an African penguin lasts about two and a half minutes, and is regularly about 98ft in depth, although dive depths of up to 426ft have been recorded.

When the African Penguins go off-grounds, or they are a part of a program, they are guaranteed that they will not be direct contact of any bird that is not a part of the Lehigh Valley Zoo’s animal program.  Individual animals will be transported in individual kennels; and there is also dedicated hygiene required for all equipment.  Constant monitoring of animals is required to ensure when that when an animal is return there are no signs of illness or distress and that any signs will be addressed immediately.  When programs involve other birds from the Lehigh Valley Zoo each carrier needs to be cleaned and disinfected and the penguin will always be transported in a specific carrier just for them.  We have a contract vet, and the birds are monitored daily by staff, they are on vaccinations schedules and malaria tx, if there is a question of illness, they can be segregated from the colony.  The health and safety of the birds is high priority.

Related to: Humboldt penguin, Magellanic penguin, Galapagos penguin

African penguins breed at 25 islands and four mainland sites in Namibia and South Africa. It has been recorded as far north as Gabon and Mozambique. Breeding on Neglectus Island, Namibia, was confirmed in 2001, following the absence of confirmed breeding since 1952 at least, and an increase in numbers since 1995. In 2003, there were thought to be 11 breeding pairs on the island. In the 1980s, the species colonized Stony Point and Boulders Beach on the South African mainland, and recolonized Robben Island. Immigration to mainland sites in recent years has been attributed to an eastward shift in the species’ prey populations. Just seven islands now support 80% of the global population. Its population at the beginning of the 21st century had fallen to about 10% of its numbers 100 years before. The total population was estimated at 141,000 pairs in 1956-1957, 69,000 pairs in 1979-1980, 57,000 pairs in 2004-2005 and 36,000 pairs in 2006-2007. Declines have continued, with the global population in 2009 estimated at just 25,262 pairs, equating to a decline of 60.5% over 28 years (three generations).

Diet in Wild:
The diet of African penguins is made up of marine dwelling animals. These birds have been known to eat over 25 different species of fish including anchovies, sardines, herring, and many others. Other than fish, African penguins may consume some types of squid and crustaceans if they are abundantly available.

Diet in Zoo:
The penguins are fed previously frozen herring, smelt, sardines, and capelin twice daily. Vitamins are provided, 1 to each penguin, daily to compensate for nutrients that may be lacking due to the limited number of species that can be obtained for their diet. Fish is defrosted each day for the next day’s feeds.

African Penguins are preyed upon by sharks and sea lions. Kelp Gulls, Sacred Ibises, skunks, armadillos, foxes, dogs and cats tend to feed on penguin eggs and chicks. Humans often also collect penguin eggs for consumption as a delicacy.

Life Cycle/ Social Structure:
African penguins live in colonies. They start breeding from between two to six years of age, but normally at four years. As with most other penguins, the African penguin breeds colonially, mostly on rocky offshore islands, either nesting in burrows they excavate themselves or in depressions under boulders or bushes. Historically, nests were excavated in the sun-hardened guano that existed on most islands. However, with the removal of the guano for fertilizer, surface nesting and nesting under bushes and other objects has become more frequent. Shelter at the nest site is important to provide shade and for protection against predators of eggs and chicks, such as Kelp gulls and Sacred ibises.

African Penguins are monogamous, and the same pair will generally return to the same colony as well as the same nest site each year.

Both parents continue to brood the chicks, and for about the first 15 days the chicks are constantly brooded by one of the adults. After hatching, the offspring are fed by regurgitation and watched over for eight weeks. These penguins may use a special fold of skin extending from the stomach to cover the eggs and keep them warm.  After this, the chicks attain full control over their body temperature, and no longer need heat from their parents. However, at this stage the chicks are still at risk from predators, and the adults continue to guard the chicks until they are about 30 days old, after which both parents can go to sea simultaneously. Chicks that are left alone often form creches, which serve more to reduce attacks on chicks from adults than to avoid predation. Unlike other penguin species, the African Penguin does not have a creche stage because of the isolative behavior during mating and nesting of the species.
African penguin chicks can fledge (molt) anytime from 60 to 130 days of age, losing their fluff and gaining “blue” feathers. The fledging period is often dependent on the availability and quality of food. The adults continue to feed chicks while they remain at the colony. When the young “blues” eventually leave the colony, they do so without their parents. These juveniles remain away from their natal colonies for anywhere from 12 to 22 months, after which time they return, normally to their natal colony, to molt into adult plumage.

Penguins are adapted primarily to cool aquatic environments, and the need to reduce heat loss is of major importance to all penguins. However some species, including the African penguin, have been able to successfully exploit warm terrestrial environments. Behavioral and physiological adaptations have enabled the African penguin to overcome the problem of being over-insulated for life on land in a temperate climate.

One of the ways in which African penguins have adapted to terrestrial life in the temperate zone is to confine their activities at breeding sites largely to dawn and dusk periods. Breeding birds nest mostly in burrows or under some other form of shelter, such as boulders and bushes, which provide some protection from the intense solar radiation during the day. Birds that are not incubating or brooding chicks, and other non-breeding birds, spend the day at sea or loaf in beach groups and swim regularly. Some birds do remain in the open in the colony; but these birds generally orientate themselves with their backs to the sun so that their feet, flippers and oral surfaces are shaded. Physiological responses to heat stress include panting (evaporative cooling) and moderate hypothermia.
When they aren’t in the tropical waters hunting for food, they live on the rocky shores where they reproduce and take care of their young.  When parents stop taking care of the young, they must learn to fend for themselves. Upon reaching maturity (of which only 40% ever do) they find a mate and remain with them for the rest of their lives. The adults, when hunting in the sea, live in groups of fifty to one hundred. While nurturing the young, however, the adults may live a more secluded life. These penguins live and hunt together and may look for food 50 km from their nesting grounds. African Penguins are able to get this far from shore because they can swim up to 7 km per hour.

An interesting behavior of this penguin is its manner of cooling off in the heat. The African Penguin spends most of the day in the water and spends the cool night on land. If they are unable to reach the water, as is the case when watching over the eggs, the African Penguin can dissipate heat through its flippers, feet, and open beak.

The molt cycle of African penguins is generally more synchronous than the breeding cycle. In South Africa most penguins molt from November to January, while in Namibia most molt in April and May. The entire molt takes about 20 days to complete, with the feather-shedding period lasting about 13 days of this period. Prior to the molt the penguins spend about five weeks feeding and laying down fat deposits, but lose almost half their body weight during the molt process. At the end of the molt the penguins return to sea and spend about six weeks fattening up again.

Life Span:
The average life span in the wild is 10-15 years. In human care the average is 20-30 years. The oldest known penguin in human care lived to be 40 years old.

Interesting Facts:

  • Flighted birds have hollow bones, but the penguin have solid bones.
  • African penguins have over 70 feathers per square inch.
  • Only seven islands support 80% of the global population.
  • Out of the 17 species of penguins recognized, the African penguin is the only species found in southern or southwestern Africa.

Conservation Message:
The African penguin population has been reduced by about 98% in the past century and currently only about 40,000 birds remain.  What population is left is still threatened by water pollution and oil spills, guano collection, human encroachment, and feral dogs and cats. Due to the drastic nature of these charismatic bird’s decline, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums selected the African penguin to be among the first 10 species selected for the SAFE program- Saving Animals From Extinction. The SAFE initiative aims to band together zoos from across the country to dedicate resources to selected programs in the penguins’ wild habitat. These programs, including building artificial nest boxes, accurate census measures, fish population analysis, may be the key to this species survival.

How can you help?

Visit your local AZA zoo and support SAFE and other conservation programs. Watch what you eat! Visit to purchase only sustainably-harvested seafood. Use a Seafood Watch card or download the free app to your smartphone to help guide you in your seafood purchases.

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