Galápagos Penguins, Volt Collection/Shutterstock

BIRD OF THE WEEK: SCIENTIFIC NAME: Spheniscus mendiculus
IUCN STATUS: Endangered
TREND: Decreasing
HABITAT: Endemic to the Galápagos Archipelago of Ecuador

Galapagos Penguin map, NatureServeThe Galápagos Penguin is the smallest South American penguin and the only one to live on the equator, a region it shares with other seabirds such as the Waved Albatross. It is the most northerly breeding penguin species in the world.

The main threat facing this unique penguin is the increasing frequency of El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events, perhaps due to climate change. These events reduce food availability and lead to low reproduction or starvation of colonies.

Other threats to the Galápagos Penguin include accidental drowning in fisheries; oil spills; predation by introduced cats; and avian malaria, which is carried by mosquitoes brought to the Galápagos by humans in the 1980s. (Mosquitoes are also a threat to other island birds such as the I'iwi of Hawai'i.)

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Galápagos Penguin's Unique Adaptations

Approximately 95 percent of the Galápagos Penguin's population is found on Isabela and Fernandina Islands in the western part of the archipelago. These birds depend upon the cool temperatures of the Humboldt and Cromwell Currents for a high density of prey year-round.

Galapagos Penguin_Wildnerdpix_SS_WEB

ABC's Seabird Program is working to address many of the threats faced by Galápagos Penguins, particularly fisheries that accidentally catch the birds. Photo by Wildnerepix/Shutterstock

Like other penguins, such as the King Penguin, the Galápagos has developed behavioral adaptations that help it keep cool. These include standing with flippers extended to aid heat loss, as well as panting and seeking shade. Galápagos Penguins and their close relatives also have bare patches on their faces to help release additional heat, always a factor in its equatorial environment.

Galápagos Penguins pair for life and will breed two to three times per year if food is plentiful. Females lay up to two eggs in a cave or rock crevice to protect them from the sun, and both parents help with incubation.

Recovering Penguin Populations

ABC's Seabird Program is working to address many of the threats, particularly fisheries, which face the Galápagos Penguin and other ocean-going birds including Tufted Puffin, Laysan Albatross, and Pink-footed Shearwater.

Since the entire Galápagos Penguin population is found within the Galápagos National Park and Marine Reserve, it is annually monitored by the Galápagos National Park Service, which also works to control introduced predators. A project to provide artificial nest sites begun in 2010 has shown some success and may help reverse this species' declining population.

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