The African penguin, also known as Jackass penguin or Black-footed penguin, is the only species of penguin found in the African continent. This species was first described by Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician Carl Linnaeus in the tenth edition of Systema Naturae as Diomedea demersa.
Species: S. demersus
The scientific name for the African penguin is Spheniscus demersus.
African penguins possess a robust body, and adult specimens are around 26 to 28 inches tall. They weigh approximately between 2.2 to 5 kilograms.
The primary color of their body is black on its back and white color below, with different individuals carrying different black colored markings on belly and breast. The body color of the young ones is slate-blue or brown that slowly turn into black as they grow. They develop a white-and-black facial pattern when they are two or three years old. They have tiny muscles at the bottom of each feather. They have a pink gland above their eyes. Male African penguins are a bit larger compared to females, and males also possess longer beaks. Their beaks are more pointed compared to that of a Humboldt. Their feet color is black and it also carries black patches that differ in different specimens.
African penguins inhabit rocky shorelines.
This penguin species occur in the western Agulhas and Benguela ecosystems. Their colonies can be found 24 islands between Hollams Bird Island in Namibia to all the way across the Bird Island (Algoa Bay) in South Africa.
The African penguin spends the day feeding in the water, and they spend the night gathering near the shore. Adults can swim 30 – 70 kilometers in order to search for food. Their swimming speed can be as near as 20 km/hour. Allopreening is common in this species as they cannot preen their necks or heads. They preen each other with their feet and beak. During warmer days, they prefer to spend time in the water. They occasionally engage in fighting that involves biting and beating of wings.
Their pink glands above the eyes help them in thermoregulation. As the body of this penguin gets hotter, more blood is propelled to these glands so that it can be cooled by the circumambient air. Their feather muscles help them to tightly hold on to the body when they are in the water. These species have a bare skin patch on its lower abdomen area, which is called ‘brood patch’. It helps a breeding pair to allow greater heat transfer to the eggs during incubation.
Their black upperparts and white underparts offer them a unique form of camouflage popularly known as countershading.
These species do not have any fixed breeding season, but in Namibia, nesting takes place between November to December, while in South Africa nesting takes place between March to May. They are colonial breeders and mating pairs often come back to the same breeding site each year.
The nest is based in small burrows or little depressions under bushes or stones that will be able to give them protection from possible harsh temperatures and potential predators. Females lay a clutch of two eggs. Both male and female take part in the incubation process that lasts for around 40 days. Once hatched, the chicks are cared for by the pair till they are a month old or so. During this time, parents regurgitate food to the juveniles straight from their gut after each foraging trips. The juveniles get their adult plumage when they are 65 to 130 days old, and then they leave the colony.
The African penguin generally feeds on squid and fish.
Their average lifespan is between 10 to 27 years in its natural habitat. And, it is known to live for around 30 years in captivity.
They have three recognized calls. They produce a yell mostly in relation to its territory defending. Mating pairs emit a distinct bray in order to communicate among themselves. They also emit another call when one is in the land, and the other is in the water.
The population of this species has sharply declined sharply, and its present size is just ten percent compared to what it was at the turn of the twentieth century. Oil pollution and overfishing causing food shortage are two of the biggest threats to the survival of this species. Competition for food and predation also have severe effects on its survival.
Their main predator’s Fur seals and Sharks. During breeding season, they fell victim to Caracals, Mongoose and Kelp gulls among others.
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species has kept this species in the ‘Endangered’ category.
At the start, if the nineteenth century, they had a population of 4 million. In the year 2000, the population came down to 200000. In 2010, their estimated population was 55000.
In 2008, Namibia had 5000 breeding pairs. In 2012, approximately 18700 breeding pairs were recorded in South Africa, with the majority of its population residing on the St Croix Island.
The African penguin is a banded penguin, and its closest relatives are the Magellanic penguin and Humboldt penguin that inhabit southern part of South America. Another closest member Galápagos penguin inhabits the Pacific Ocean near the equator. And, all their color, shape, and behaviour are almost similar.
Their scientific name Spheniscus demersus comes from Ancient Greek. The word ‘sphen’ means ‘wedge’ referring to its streamlined body shape. Their species name ‘demersus’ mean ‘plunging.’
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