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Overview

Brief Summary

Description

The African penguin is a medium-sized penguin, and the only species breeding on the African continent (5). Penguins have a robust, heavyset body and this species are black on the back and white below, with variable black markings on the breast and belly (2). Juvenile plumage is slate blue on the upper surface and this gradually turns darker, developing the adult black-and-white facial pattern in the second or third year. Penguins have small muscles at the base of each feather that enable them to be held tightly against the body whilst in water, forming a waterproof layer; alternatively, on land they are held erect, trapping an insulating layer of air around the body (5). These penguins are also known as 'jackass penguins' due to their loud, braying call (6).
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Biology

African penguins are colonial breeders with pairs returning to the same site year after year. Unusually, there is no fixed breeding season although nesting peaks in Namibia between November and December and in South Africa between March and May. Nests are situated in burrows or depressions under boulders and bushes where they will receive some protection from the potentially harsh temperatures (5). The clutch size is usually two and both parents take it in turns to incubate the eggs for a period of about 40 days; penguins have a bare patch of skin on the lower abdomen (known as the 'brood patch'), which allows greater transfer of heat to the eggs. Following hatching, the adults will continue to guard the chicks until they are about 30 days old, regurgitating food straight from their stomach following foraging trips. Chicks are then left alone in crèches whilst their parents forage; at between 60 and 130 days old they develop juvenile plumage and leave the colony (5). These penguins feed on fish such as anchovies (Engraulis capensis) and sardines (Sardinops sagax) (2). Adapted for their aquatic lifestyle, African penguins can reach speeds of 20 kilometres per hour in the water and range from 30 to 70 kilometres in a single trip; average dives last for 2.5 minutes, reaching depths of 60 metres. Penguins have waterproof coats that need to be constantly maintained by preening, when a waxy substance is distributed from the base of the tail. Even with these measures, their plumage is replaced yearly and African penguins come ashore to moult over 20 days between November and January in South Africa and between April and May in Namibia (5).
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Distribution

Spheniscus demersus, commonly known as African, black-footed, or jackass penguin, is the only penguin species found on the African continent. This species inhabits the Benguela and western Agulhas ecosystems of southern Africa. African penguins form colonies near a chain of islands between Hollamsbird Island, Namibia, and Bird Island in Algoa Bay, South Africa.

Biogeographic Regions: ethiopian (Native )

  • Crawford, R., J. David, L. Shannon, J. Kemper, N. Klages, J. Roux, L. Underhill, V. Ward, A. Williams, A. Wolfaardt. 2001. African penguins as predators and prey-coping (or not) with change. African Journal of Marine Science, 23: 435-447.
  • Frost, P., W. Slegfried, J. Cooper. 1976. Conservation of the jackass penguin (Spheniscus demersus). Biological Conservation, 9/2: 79-99.
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Range Description

Spheniscus demersus breeds at 25 islands and four mainland sites in Namibia and South Africa (Kemper et al. 2007). It has been recorded as far north as Gabon and Mozambique (del Hoyo et al. 1992). 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 (Roux et al. 2003). In 2003, there were thought to be 11 breeding pairs on the island (Roux et al. 2003). In the 1980s, the species colonised Stony Point and Boulders Beach on the South African mainland, and recolonised Robben Island (Petersen et al. 2006). Immigration to mainland sites in recent years has been attributed to an eastward shift in the species's prey populations (R. Crawford per Koenig 2007, L. Underhill per Koenig 2007). Just seven islands now support 80% of the global population. The most important sites in South Africa are Dasssen island: 13,283 pairs, St Croix Island: 8,077 pairs, Robben Island: 3,697 pairs, Bird Island (Nelson Mandela Bay): 2,822 pairs, Dyer Island: 2,076 pairs and the Boulders: 1,075 pairs (Kemper et al. 2007). In Namibia, Mercury Island held 1,813 pairs in 2006 (Kemper et al. 2007). 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 (Kemper et al. 2007). Declines have continued, with the global population in 2009 estimated at just 25,262 pairs (R. Crawford in litt. 2010, J. Kemper in litt. 2010), equating to a decline of 60.5% over 28 years (three generations).

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Range

Coasts and islands off Namibia, South Africa and adj. waters.
  • Clements, J. F., T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, D. Roberson, T. A. Fredericks, B. L. Sullivan, and C. L. Wood. 2014. The eBird/Clements checklist of birds of the world: Version 6.9. Downloaded from http://www.birds.cornell.edu/clementschecklist/download/

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Range

Found in southern Africa, these penguins are known to breed on 24 islands between Hollamsbird Island, Namibia and Bird Island in Algoa Bay, South Africa (2).
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Historic Range:


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Physical Description

Morphology

Adults stand around 45 cm tall and weigh an average of 3.1 kg. African penguins have black plumage on the back and white feathers with black markings on the chest and belly. The white and black plumage serves as camouflage to predators, with the white appearing to aquatic predators from below and the black appearing to aerial predators from above. They also have a horseshoe-shaped white band that goes around the eye from the chin towards the beak. Additionally, a horseshoe-shaped band of black goes across their chest. Juveniles have gray-blue feathers that darken to black with age. The change from juvenile plumage to adult plumage takes around 3 years.

African penguins resemble their close relatives, other species in the genus Spheniscus, including Galapagos penguins of the Pacific Ocean and Humboldt penguins and Magellanic penguins of South America. The 4 Spheniscus species share size and plumage characteristics.

Average mass: 3.1 kg.

Average length: 45 cm.

Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry

Sexual Dimorphism: sexes alike

  • Cooper, J. 1977. Moult of the black-footed penguin. International Zoo Yearbook, 18: 22-27.
  • Stefoff, R. 2005. Penguins. 99 White Planes Road Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark.
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Diagnostic Description

Description

Length: 60 cm. Plumage: Adult black above white below with black band extending from upper breast down sides of body to feet, occasionally with a second narrower complete or incomplete black neck band and very sparce black spotting on belly; face black with broad white band separating face patch from crown and back of head. Immature sooty black on back, white on belly with sparce black spotting. Bare parts: iris hazel; bill black with cream band behind tip; feet blackwith pink blotches; skin above eye red.
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Ecology

Habitat

Habitat and Ecology

Habitat and Ecology
Behaviour The adults of this species are largely sedentary but some movements occur in response to prey movements (Hockey et al. 2005). They generally remain within 400 km of their breeding locality, although they have been recorded up to 900 km away (Hockey et al. 2005). They breed and moult on land before taking to the sea where they remain for four months before returning to land for the next breeding season (del Hoyo et al. 1992). Small crches of up to five juveniles may form at the breeding site (del Hoyo et al. 1992). On gaining independence, juveniles disperse up to 1,900 km from their natal colonies (Hockey et al. 2005), with those from the east heading west, and those from the west and south moving north (del Hoyo et al. 1992). Most birds later return to their natal colony to moult and breed (del Hoyo et al. 1992), although the growth of some island colonies has been attributed to the immigration of first-time breeders tracking food availability (Crawford 1998, Hockey et al. 2005). Adults nest colonially and at sea forages singly, in pairs, or sometimes co-operatively in small groups if up to 150 individuals (del Hoyo et al. 1992, Hockey 2001, Hockey et al. 2005). It breeds year round with peak months varying locally (del Hoyo et al. 1992). In the north-west part of the range, peak laying occurs during the months of November to January, in the south-west it occurs between May and July and in the East Colonial between April and June (del Hoyo et al. 1992). Habitat This species is marine, and is usually found in seas within 40 km of the shore, coming ashore on inshore islands or isolated areas of the mainland coast to breed, moult and rest (del Hoyo et al. 1992, Hockey et al. 2005). Breeding Breeding habitats range from flat, sandy islands with sparse or abundant vegetation, to steep rocky islands with practically no vegetation, although the former is preferred (Hockey et al. 2005). It is sometimes found close to the summit of islands and may move over a kilometre inland in search of breeding sites (Hockey 2001). Non-breeding At sea its distribution is restricted to the area influenced by the Benguela Current (Williams 1995). It usually feeds within 12 km of the coastline (Kemper et al. 2007). Diet Adults feed on pelagic schooling fish of 50-120mm in length (del Hoyo et al. 1992). Important prey includes sardines (Sardinops sagax), anchovies (Engraulis capensis), pelagic goby Sufflogobius bibarbatus, and herring (Etrumeus teres) (Crawford et al. 1985, del Hoyo et al. 1992). In some localities cephalopods also represent an important food source (Crawford et al. 1985). Juveniles tend to prey on fish larvae (Hockey 2001). Breeding site The nest is often built in burrows that are dug in guano or sand (Shelton et al. 1984, Hanes 2006 theithacajournal.com). Nests may also occur in depressions under large boulders or bushes (Hockey 2001). Nesting in open areas has become increasingly common owing to the past harvesting of guano (Hanes 2006 theithacajournal.com). At some sites artificial nest-burrows made from pipes and boxes sunken into the ground have been regularly used by the species (Crawford et al. 1994). The average age at first breeding is thought to be 4-6 years (Whittington et al. 2005).


Systems
  • Terrestrial
  • Marine
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African penguins live in large colonies on rocky coastlines of southwest Africa. They can swim up to 20 kph and can travel 30 to 70 km during each trip. They spend the night gathered together on shore and much of the day feeding in the water.

Range depth: 130 (high) m.

Average depth: 30-60 m.

Habitat Regions: temperate ; terrestrial

Aquatic Biomes: coastal

  • Crawford, R., P. Barham, L. Underhill, L. Shannon, J. Coetzee, B. Dyer, T. Leshoro, L. Upfold. 2006. The influence of food availability on breeding success of african penguins Spheniscus demersus at Robben Island, South Africa. Biological Conservation, 132/1: 119-125.
  • Heath, R., R. Randall. 1989. Foraging ranges and movements of jackass penguins (Spheniscus demersus) established through radio telemetry. Journal of Zoology, 217: 367-379.
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African penguins are generally found within 40 kilometres of the coast, emerging onto rocky offshore islands to breed, rest and moult (2).
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Trophic Strategy

African penguins feed primarily on shoaling pelagic fish such as anchovies (Engraulis encrasicolus), pilchards (Sardinops sagax), horse mackerel (Trachurus capensis), and round herrings (Etrumeus whiteheadi), supplemented by squid and crustaceans. When on the hunt for prey, African genguins can reach a top speed of close to 20 km/h. The distance that African penguins have to travel to find food varies regionally.

Animal Foods: fish; mollusks; aquatic crustaceans

Primary Diet: carnivore (Piscivore )

  • Randall, R., B. Randall. 1990. Cetaceans as predators of jackass penguins Spheniscus demersus: deductions based on behaviour. Marine Ornithology, 18: 9-12.
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Associations

African penguins are predators of small shoaling fish, including anchovies (Engraulis encrasicolus) and sardines (Sardinops sagax). Up to 18 species of crustaceans are also prey to the African penguin.

Additionally, four types of blood parasites, Plasmodium relictum, P. elongatum, P. cathemerium, and Leucocytozoon tawaki have been recorded in Spheniscus demersus.

Commensal/Parasitic Species:

  • Plasmodium relictum
  • Plasmodium elongatum
  • Plasmodium cathemerium
  • Leucocytozoon tawaki

  • Jones, H., G. Shellam. 1999. Blood parasites in penguins, and their potential impact on conservation. Marine Ornithology, 27: 181-184.
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African penguins are on the endangered species list. Initially, their decline was due to the exploitation of eggs for food. Also, habitat alteration and disturbance associated with guano collection at breeding colonies contributed to their decline. These factors have now largely ceased, and the major current threats include competition with commercial fisheries for pelagic fish prey and oil pollution. Natural threats include competition with Cape Fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus) for space at breeding colonies and for food resources, as well as predation by seals on penguins. Feral cats are also present and pose a problem at some colonies. African penguins also face predation of eggs and chicks by avian predators such as kelp gulls (Larus dominicanus) and sacred ibises (Threskiornis aethiopicus), while natural terrestrial predators, such as mongooses (Cynictis penicillata), genets (Genetta tigrina), and leopards (Panthera pardus) are also present at mainland colonies.

Known Predators:

  • Cape fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus)
  • kelp gulls (Larus dominicanus)
  • sacred ibises (Threskiornis aethiopicus)
  • yellow mongooses (Cynictis penicillata)
  • large-spotted genets (Genetta tigrina)
  • leopards (Panthera pardus)

Anti-predator Adaptations: cryptic

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Life History and Behavior

Behavior

African penguins are also called jackass penguins because they emit a loud, braying, donkey-like call to communicate. There are three types of calls used: bray, yell, and haw. The yell, or contact call, is used to defend a territory from another colony member. The bray, or display call, is used to attract mates and is used between partners in a colony. Penguins also perform displays that are used to establish nesting areas, help with partner/hatchling recognition and defense against intruders. The haw is used by partners when one is on land and the other is in the water.

Communication Channels: visual ; acoustic ; chemical

Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical

  • Cunningham, G., V. Strauss, P. Ryan. 2008. African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) can detect dimethyl sulphide, a prey-related odour. The Journal of Experimental Biology, 221: 3123-3127.
  • Thumser, N., M. Ficken. 1998. A Comparison of the Vocal Repertoires of Captive Spheniscus Penguins. Marine Ornithology, 26: 41-48.
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Life Expectancy

The average lifespan of Spheniscus demersus is 10 to 27 years in the wild, whereas an African penguin living in captivity generally has a longer lifespan. Other penguin species live for 15 to 20 years. Limits to aging are predation, human impact, and storm systems.

Range lifespan

Status: wild:
27 (high) years.

Range lifespan

Status: captivity:
25 (high) years.

Typical lifespan

Status: wild:
10 to 15 years.

  • Whittington, P., B. Dyer, N. Klages. 2000. Maximum Longevities of African Penguins Spheniscus Demersus Based on Banding Records. Marine Ornithology, 28: 81-82.
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Reproduction

African penguins are monogamous. During breeding, male and female penguins are most distinguishable from one another due to the pattern of colors.  African penguins dig shallow burrows under rocks, in sand or under sparse vegetation. They gather in breeding areas called 'rookeries' from September to February, where they lay two eggs. African penguin courtship rituals typically begin with the male projecting visual and auditory displays to attract a mate. Head-swinging motions usually refer to ownership of nest site, attracting females, and/or used as a warning for other males. The next stage is used to ensure a mutual bond is formed; which involves a harsh vocal call released while extending the neck and head upward. The final stage includes bowing, where one or both penguins duck the head while the bill points at the nest or at the other bird's feet.

Mating System: monogamous

African penguin pairs return to the same breeding sites year after year. Although breeding takes place throughout the year, nesting peaks in Namibia from November to December and in South Africa from March until May. Females typically lay two eggs, which are then incubated by both parents for about 40 days. All penguins have a patch of bare skin at the base of their bellies, called a "brood patch”, that helps the parent provide direct heat to incubate the eggs.

Breeding interval: African penguins breed once yearly.

Breeding season: Breeding occurs in Namibia from November to December and in South Africa from March until May.

Average eggs per season: 2.

Average time to hatching: 40 days.

Range fledging age: 60 to 130 days.

Average time to independence: 80 days.

Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 4 years.

Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 5 years.

Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; oviparous

After the eggs hatch, the pair feeds their young for about one month by regurgitating food into the hatchling's mouth. Hatchlings are then left alone in crèches, or groups, a characteristic common to bird species that breed in large colonies, while their parents forage for food. Young leave the colony once they develop their juvenile plumage in 2 to 4 months.

Parental Investment: altricial ; male parental care ; female parental care ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female)

  • Cooper, J. 1977. Moult of the black-footed penguin. International Zoo Yearbook, 18: 22-27.
  • Crawford, R., L. Underhill, J. Coetzee, T. Fairweather, L. Shannon, A. Wolfaardt. 2008. Influences of the abundance and distribution of prey on african penguins Spheniscus demersus off western South Africa. African Journal of Marine Science, 30: 167-175.
  • Crawford, R., P. Barham, L. Underhill, L. Shannon, J. Coetzee, B. Dyer, T. Leshoro, L. Upfold. 2006. The influence of food availability on breeding success of african penguins Spheniscus demersus at Robben Island, South Africa. Biological Conservation, 132/1: 119-125.
  • Shannon, L., R. Crawford. 1999. Management of the african penguin Spheniscus demersus-insights from modeling. Marine Ornithology, 27: 119-128.
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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Barcode data: Spheniscus demersus

The following is a representative barcode sequence, the centroid of all available sequences for this species.


There are 8 barcode sequences available from BOLD and GenBank.

Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.

See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.

CGATGATTATTCTCAACCAACCACAAAGATATTGGCACCCTTTACCTAATCTTCGGCGCATGAGCAGGCATAGCTGGAACCGCCCTC---AGCCTGCTCATCCGCGCAGAACTCGGTCAACCCGGAACCCTCCTAGGAGAC---GACCAAATCTACAATGTAATTGTCACCGCCCATGCCTTCGTAATAATCTTCTTCATAGTAATACCTATCATAATCGGAGGATTTGGAAACTGACTAGTCCCACTTATA---ATCGGCGCCCCCGACATAGCATTTCCCCGCATAAATAACATAAGCTTTTGACTACTACCCCCCTCCTTCCTACTCCTACTAGCCTCCTCCACAGTAGAAGCAGGAGCCGGCACAGGATGAACCGTATACCCACCATTAGCAGGCAACCTAGCCCATGCCGGCGCATCAGTAGACCTA---GCCATTTTTTCACTCCACCTAGCAGGAATCTCCTCCATCCTAGGAGCAATCAACTTCATCACCACCGCCACTAACATAAAACCCCCAGCCCTATCACAATACCAAACCCCCCTGTTCGTATGATCCGTCCTTATCACAGCTGTCCTCCTACTACTCTCACTTCCCGTACTTGCTGCC---GGCATCACCATGCTACTAACAGACCGAAACCTAAACACCACCTTCTTCGATCCAGCTGGAGGGGGAGACCCAATCCTATACCAGCACCTCTTCTGATTCTTTGGTCACCCAGAAGTCTACATCCTAATTCTACCAGGCTTCGGAATCATCTCTCACGTAGTAGCATACTATGCAGGCAAAAAG---GAACCCTTTGGCTACATAGGCATAGTGTGAGCAATACTATCCATCGGATTCCTCGGCTTTATCGTATGAGCTCACCACATATTCACAGTCGGTATAGACGTAGACACCCGAGCGTACTTCACATCCGCCACCATAATTATCGCCATCCCAACTGGCATCAAAGTCTTCAGCTGACTA---GCTACCCTGCATGGAGGG---ACCATCAAATGAGACCCTCCAATACTATGAGCCCTAGGCTTTATTTTCCTCTTCACCATCGGAGGGTTAACGGGCATCGTCCTAGCAAACTCCTCACTGGACATTGCCCTACACGACACATACTATGTAGTTGCCCACTTCCACTATGTC---CTCTCAATAGGAGCTGTCTTTGCCATCCTAGCAGGATTCACCCACTGATTCCCATTATTCACAGGATACACCTTGCACACCACATGAGCCAAAGCCCACTTTGGAGTCATATTCACAGGTGTAAACCTAACCTTCTTCCCACAACACTTCTTAGGCCTAGCTGGCATGCCACGA---CGATATTCCGACTACCCAGACGCCTATACC---ATATGAAACACCATATCATCTATCGGCTCATTAATCTCAATAACTGCAGTAATCATACTCATATTTATCATCTGAGAAGCCTTCACATCAAAACGAAAAGTC---CTACAACCCGAACTAACTGCCACCAAC
-- end --

Download FASTA File

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Statistics of barcoding coverage: Spheniscus demersus

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLDS) Stats
Public Records: 7
Specimens with Barcodes: 8
Species With Barcodes: 1
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Conservation

Conservation Status

IUCN Red List Assessment


Red List Category
EN
Endangered

Red List Criteria
A2ace+3ce+4ace

Version
3.1

Year Assessed
2015

Assessor/s
BirdLife International

Reviewer/s
Butchart, S.

Contributor/s
Crawford, R., Kemper, J., Pichegru, L., Simmons, R., Underhill, L. & Wanless, R.

Justification
This species is classified as Endangered because it is undergoing a very rapid population decline, probably as a result of commercial fisheries and shifts in prey populations. This trend currently shows no sign of reversing, and immediate conservation action is required to prevent further declines.


History
  • 2013
    Endangered (EN)
  • 2012
    Endangered (EN)
  • Endangered (EN)
  • Vulnerable (VU)
  • Vulnerable (VU)
  • Vulnerable (VU)
  • Vulnerable (VU)
  • Lower Risk/near threatened (LR/nt)
  • Threatened (T)