The African penguin, also known as the black-footed penguin, the jackass penguin, and the South African penguin, is a penguin found in southern Africa. It is the only penguin living in that continent.
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African Penguin Scientific Classification
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Size: African penguins are 24-28 in (60-70 cm) tall.
Weight: They weigh between 4.9 and 7.7 lb (2.2-3.5 kg).
Color: They have a black back and white belly and breast. The breast also has a black stripe and is riddled with black spots the pattern of which is unique to each individual. There are pink glands above each eye. Juveniles have a dark dorsal side varying in color from a slate blue to brown. They do not have the stripe and spots on the ventral parts, which is much paler than the adults. The feet of both the adult and juveniles are black.
Sexual Dimorphism: Male African penguins are larger than the females, while the beaks of the latter are longer than the males’.
These penguins are endemic to southwest Africa and live in an island chain between Algoa Bay in South Africa and Namibia.
They inhabit rocky islands usually within 25 miles (40 km) of the southwestern coast of Africa.
- These birds are largely non-migratory, although some populations can be seen northwards in Gabon and Mozambique.
- They are very social and often engage in social grooming.
- They can be seen bathing within a few feet of the shoreline. When the weather gets too warm, they dive deep into the water to keep themselves cool.
- Their social lifestyle sometimes leads to fighting within themselves, which they do by beating their wings and biting the adversary.
They feed on anchovies, horse mackerel, round herrings, and pilchards. They may also eat crustaceans and squid.
Mating & Reproduction
African penguins form monogamous pairs and are loyal to the breeding sites, returning each year. They breed in colonies. Although there is not a well-defined breeding season, nesting has been seen to peak in November and December in Namibia and between March and May in South Africa. Courtship rituals include a male initiating a display that includes motioning and brays, head-swings are made to convey the ownership of a nest and to rival males away. Once a female is attracted to the male, a mutual attachment is formed when both parties engage in harsh calls and extension of the head and neck towards the sky. The female usually lays a clutch of two eggs. Both parents incubate the eggs for around 40 days.
The parents take care of the offspring for about a month after they hatch. During this period they regurgitate food directly into the babies’ mouths. After a month they are left in crèches while both the parents go out for food. The chicks grow their juvenile plumage at 2-4 months of age, and around this time they leave their native colonies. Males become sexually mature when they are 5 years old, while females become active when they are 4 years of age.
In the wild, they live for around 10-15 years, although some individuals have lived for up to 27 years. In captivity, they can live for up to 30 years.
Sounds & Communication
The reason why the African penguin is also called the jackass penguin is that they use a loud bray, donkey-like, to communicate with each other. Other calls used are yells and haws. The yell is a contact call and is used during territorial defenses. The bray is used to attract mates, and the haw is used between partners, usually when one is in the water and the other one on land.
- The pink glands above the eyes of the African penguin are a useful tool in thermoregulation. If the bird gets too hot, blood is sent the glands so that it can be cooled by the air surrounding it.
- The black and white plumage forms an effective camouflage, as when it is in the water, predators looking from above are not able to differentiate the black back from the dark water, and underwater predators cannot tell apart the white belly from underneath as it blends in with the sky above.
- The shape of the body of the African penguin helps it in reaching speeds of up to 12.5 mph (20 kph) in the water when it chases after prey.
Oceanic predators of the African penguin include sharks, brown fur seals, and occasionally orcas. Terrestrially, they are preyed upon by genets, mongooses, leopards, caracals, and domestic cats. Kelp gulls have been seen to take the eggs and newborns.
IUCN Conservation Status
The IUCN lists the African penguin under their ‘Endangered’ category. The reasons for this categorization are the over-collection of eggs until very recently, the collection of guano for use as fertilizer, and several other factors have depleted African penguin populations to a mere ten percent of what it was at the turn of the 20th century. Recent oil spills in their habitat have also raised problems for about 40 percent of their population. An estimated population of around 140,000 African penguins is left in the world.
- African penguins are popular among tourists, as they tolerate people coming up to a few feet of them.
- Because of their climate needs and ease of maintenance, African penguins are the most common penguins seen in zoos.
- During their molting, African penguins become unable to forage as the new feathers are not waterproof, and they fast for the entire 20 day period.