Penguins are one of the most popular and loved creatures, and several films and documentaries have been made about them, such as Happy Feet and March of the Penguins. The marine animal can range in size from over four feet to one foot. Some penguin species are estimated to have a population in the hundreds of thousands, and smaller species can run into the millions.
Where Do Penguins Live?
When you think of penguins, you probably imagine a row of black and white tuxedoed birds waddling around on the icy lands of Antarctica. While penguins live primarily below the equator, it is a common misconception that all penguin species solely live in Antarctica. However, out of the 18 species of these flightless birds, only five enter the continent, and only two live there exclusively — the Adélie and emperor penguin. Penguins live in diverse environments, from Antarctica's icy waters to the Atacama Desert's dry shores in Chile and Peru. Each penguin species has unique characteristics that enable it to adapt to its home environment.
The emperor penguin is the largest species of penguin in the world, averaging 45 inches tall. They live exclusively on the Antarctic ice and its surrounding waters. They have a population of 238,000 breeding pairs in 46 colonies, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies them as Near Threatened.
The only other penguin that lives in Antarctica is the Adélie penguin. These birds are ice-dependent and rely on the ice for foraging. There are currently over seven million individuals, and they are listed as Least Concern.
While only the emperor and Adélie penguins live in Antarctica, many other species reside near the continent on subantarctic islands.
The macaroni penguin is known for its distinct crest of orange plumes on top of its head. The subantarctic island of South Georgia is home to about three million of these penguin species. In total, there are 6.3 million macaroni penguin breeding pairs, and they are all considered Vulnerable.
The chinstrap penguin gets its name from having a thin black band running across its chin. These birds have the largest population in the South Sandwich Islands, the South Shetland Islands, and the South Orkney Islands. There are about eight million individuals, and they are considered Least Concern.
On the other hand, the northern rockhopper mainly lives in Gough Island and Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic Ocean. They are considered Endangered and have a population of 480,600 individuals.
Australia And New Zealand
Penguins that either live or breed in Oceania are the little penguin, erect-crested penguin, Fiordland-crested penguin, Snares Island penguin, yellow-eyed penguin, and royal penguin. The Fiordland, Snares Island, and yellow-eyed are all native to New Zealand.
The little penguin, also known as the fairy penguin, is the smallest of the species and calls the rocky island coasts around Australia and New Zealand home. There are currently over 469,000 individuals, and they are of Least Concern. The erect-crested penguin is only found in the Antipodes and Bounty Islands of New Zealand and is known for its fanned yellow plumes. The IUCN classifies them as Endangered, with only 150,000 individuals living in the wild.
The Fiordland-crested penguin lives in the temperate rainforests of South Island and Stewart Island of New Zealand. Its current status is Vulnerable, with a population ranging from 2,500 to 9,999 individuals. Snares Island penguins get their name from the New Zealand island on which they live — Snares Island. They breed under the dense Olearia forest. There are currently 63,000 individuals, and they are considered Vulnerable.
Yellow-eyed penguins live in southeast New Zealand, where they prefer to nest away from other penguins. The IUCN lists them as Endangered, and they have a population of about 2,500 to 3,500 individuals. Finally, royal penguins only breed on Macquarie Island off New Zealand. This species is Near Threatened, with 1.7 million individuals.
The Humboldt penguin is native to the Atacama Desert on South America's coast in Chile and Peru. These species have bare skin patches around their eyes to stay cool amid a warm climate. There are currently 32,000 individuals, and they are listed as Vulnerable.
The Magellanic penguin was named after the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan. While these birds reside in the Falkland Islands, most of the Magellanic population live along the southern coast of South America, particularly in Argentina and Chile, where they number around 900,000 and 800,000 breeding pairs, respectively. Magellanic penguins are Near Threatened, with a population of between 1.1 and 1.6 million breeding pairs.
The African penguin, also known as jackass penguins due to its bray resembling that of a donkey's, lives only in Africa's southern shores, from Namibia to South Africa. The penguins' population has rapidly decreased by more than 60% since the early 1980s. There are now about 50,000 individuals, and they are considered Endangered.
Falkland Island is an isolated island about 300 miles off the southern tip of South America. Several penguin species live and breed on the island, including gentoo, king, and southern rockhopper penguins.
The largest population of gentoo penguins live on Falkland Island, with more than 121,000 pairs, but they also live on the South Sandwich Islands. Gentoos are known for their bright red bills. The IUCN classifies them as Least Concern.
King penguins live in the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Islands, the South Sandwich Islands, Crozet Islands, Kerguelen Islands, the Prince Edward Islands, Macquarie Island, and Heard Island and McDonald Islands. They have the longest breeding cycle of any bird, at 14 to 15 months. King penguins are the second-largest penguin species globally and have the largest penguin population outside of Antarctica, with around 1.6 million breeding pairs. Their current status is Least Concern.
The southern rockhopper is one of three rockhopper penguin species. They live on rocky environments in the Falkland Islands that forces them to hop from rock to rock to get around. Currently, they have a population of about 2.5 million and are considered Vulnerable.
The Galapagos penguin is the most northerly of all penguin species. They live primarily along the western coast of Isabela Island and around Fernandina Island. Since they live further north, they have special adaptations and behaviors that allow them to survive in the heat. They seek out shade, pant, spread their wings, and hunch over to shade their feet. There are currently 1,200 individuals on the island, and they are considered Endangered.
Habitat Of Penguins
Penguins prefer habitats that will provide them with shelter, food, and space to interact and reproduce. They generally live on subantarctic islands and remote continental regions that lack predators. The marine birds spend up to 75% of their lives in the water and are highly adapted to living at sea. While most penguin species live in cold climates, certain species can survive in warmer temperatures as long as the environment is not arid. The most southerly palace where penguins can live temporarily is at Cape Royds in Antarctica.
Threats To Penguins
Penguins face several threats to their populations, such as climate change, oil spills, illegal fishing, foreign predators, and plastic pollution. About two-thirds of the penguin species are listed as threatened on the IUCN Red List.
Perhaps the biggest threat to these marine birds in climate change, especially for the Adélie and emperor penguins that live in Antarctica. These species depend on ice to access food and breed, but the melting sea ice threatens their population. A 2016 study predicts that by the end of the 21st century, about 60% of Adélie penguin colonies in Antarctica will decrease due to climate change. Another research indicates emperor penguin populations will also decline by about 19% during the same timeframe, with two-thirds of the 45 known colonies experiencing declines larger than 50%.
Similarly, in Argentina, intense and frequent storms are affecting the Magellanic penguins. A 2014 study found that rainstorms and extreme temperatures were the leading causes of death for young penguins from 1983 to 2010. Over the same period, penguin numbers dropped by 20% while the number of storms rose during each nesting season.
Another threat to the penguin population is the illegal hunting of their prey. Penguins' diet consists mainly of krill, anchovy, and sardines, but human fishing has reduced the prey's numbers, therefore impacting penguin populations. For example, the fishing of anchovies and sardines in Cape Town, South Africa, resulted in a 60% reduction of the African penguin population between 2001 and 2013.
Foreign predators, such as foxes, dogs, and cats, are also threats to penguins. These predators often eat penguin eggs or harass breeding pairs, and in some cases, kill the penguins. In Australia's Middle Island, fairy penguin populations plummeted after red foxes were introduced and began to prey on the penguins.
Plastic pollution is an ongoing threat to penguins. A study estimates that by 2050, nearly every seabird species will be accidentally ingesting plastic debris, including penguins. If a penguin eats enough plastic, the indigestible parts can build up in their gut and prevent it from digesting real food. Plastic also absorbs industrial toxins from ocean water, causing health problems such as reproductive disorders and birth defects.
From the Galapagos Islands' warm, tropical climate to the temperate rainforest of South Island, New Zealand, the penguins' habitats are amazingly diverse. Unfortunately, several species are classified as threatened, and studies have shown that climate change is a massive threat to their future populations.