February 22, 2012

The Black-footed Penguin

Spheniscus demersus

Photo by Tyler Mahard,  © 2010
What is it?
This is Africa's one and only native penguin.  Other common names include the "African penguin" and, more comically, the "Jackass penguin". Less than two feet tall, It's one of the smaller penguin species. They have sort of a hobble-like walk while on land but can be very swift underwater. Flight is out of the question, as it is for all penguins (birds in the order Sphenisciformes)(6).

Where is it?
Black-footed penguins are found along the coastlines of southern Africa. Most of the population occurs off shore of Namibia and South Africa. Though black-footed penguins are only known to breed on Islands and coastlines of Namibia and South Africa, they have been found as far up the western coast as Gabon and as far up the eastern coast as Inhaca Island, Mozambique(7).  
Black-footed penguin breeding range (in red)Adapted by 
Tyler Mahard under permission of license for original image by By Nrg800 (Own work)
[CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL 
(www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)],via Wikimedia Commons
     Breeding colonies most frequently occur on small offshore islands. BirdLife International reported  breeding populations on 25 islands and four mainland locations across South Africa and Namibia, citing the University of Cape Town's Avian Demography Unit as a source(2). Penguins established mainland colonies in South Africa for the very first time in the 1980s. Changes in the locations of colonies are most likely a result of penguins following their food supply. A possible example of this, Robben Island (map, below), the location of the prison in which Nelson Mandela was held, was re-colonized by penguins in 1983(4). Just 9 breeding pairs of birds founded the colony. By 1995, there were 3100 breeding pairs on the island. The birds were still here when I visited the Island in 2010.  I spotted one individual while riding a tour bus to the prison (now closed as a prison but open to tourists).

View Larger Map

How is it?
The black-footed penguin is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and is included on their Red List of Threatened Species.  Decreasing population sizes are primarily attributed to the harvest of penguin prey species (namely anchovies and sardines) by commercial fisheries(1)

What is it related to?
Close relatives include the Galapagos penguins (Spheniscus mendiculus), and two species of South American penguin (S. humboldti and S. magellanicus).  The black-footed penguin, together with it's three closest relatives, account for all extant (non-extinct) members of the genus Spheniscus.  
The Humboldt penguin (S. humboldti), swimming underwater. Notice the similarities to the African penguin in size, coloration, and beak shape.  The most obvious difference is the white area surrounding the base of the beak. By Wilfried Wittkowsky (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
What does it eat?
Black-footed penguins eat mostly anchovies and sardines(3), but  may also feed on herring, mackerel, and pilchards.  Non-fish menu items include squid (a mollusk) and crustaceans(7)

What eats it?
Cape fur seals and sharks are known to prey on adult penguins from time to time(2). Gulls and mongooses may prey on penguin eggs and chicks. Feral cats also pose a threat(1).

Photo by Tyler Mahard,  © 2010
Interesting facts
  • Black-footed penguins have been clocked at underwater speeds up to 12.4 kilometers per hour (11.3 feet in one second)(8).
  • The patches of bare skin above their eyes are used for thermoregulation. Slowing blood flow to the capillaries beneath the exposed skin helps to retain heat, while increasing blood flow helps to lose heat.  In intense heat, the skin will be a bright pinkish red(2).
  • Another common name for this species is the Jackass Penguin.  This bird's mating call sounds very similar to the sound a donkey makes.
  • Penguin colonies can be visited and enjoyed by Tourists.  Most of the photos on this web page were taken at Boulder's Beach, South Africa. 
  • Black-footed penguin guano was once harvested for use as fertilizer(2).

Photos from the field

Sheniscus demersus, Boulders Beach, South Africa. 
Photo by Tyler Mahard,  © 2010
Spheniscus demersus preening at Boulders Beach, South Africa.
Photo by Tyler Mahard,  © 2010

Note the pink regions above eyes for thermoregulation. Spheniscus demersus at Boulders Beach, South Africa.
Photo by Tyler Mahard,  © 2010

Parent with offspring in nest burrow. Spheniscus demersus, at Boulders Beach, South Africa.
Photo by Tyler Mahard,  © 2010
Spheniscus demersus, chick, at Boulders Beach, South Africa.
Photo by Tyler Mahard,  © 2010

Works Cited:
(1) BirdLife International. 2010. Spheniscus demersus. In: IUCN 2011. IUCN Red List of
          Threatened Species. Version 2011.2. <www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 01
          February 2012.
(2) BirdLife International. 2012. Species factsheet: Spheniscus demersus. Downloaded from 
          http://www.birdlife.org on 16/02/2012. 
(3) Crawford, RJM, L.G. Underhill, J.C. Coetzee, T. Fairweather, L.J. Shannon, A.C. 
          Wolfaardt. 2008.  Influences of the abundance and distribution of prey on African
          penguins Spheniscus demersus off western South AfricaAfrican Journal of Marine 
          ScienceVol. 30, Iss. 1.
(4) Crawford, R.J.M., L.J. Shannon, P.A. Whittington. 1999. Population dynamics of the 
          African Penguin Spheniscus demersus at Robben Island, South Africa. Marine 
          Ornithology 27: 139-147.
(5) Pearce, W. 2011. "Spheniscus demersus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed 
          January 18, 2012 at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/
(6) Pough, F. Harvey, Christine M. Janis, John B. Heiser. Vertebrate Life. 8th ed. San   
          Francisco, CA: Pearson Benjamin Cummings, 2009.
(7) Shelton, P.A., R. J. M. Crawford, J. Cooper, R. K. Brooke. 1984. Distribution, population 
          size and conservation of the jackass penguin Spheniscus demersus. South African 
          Journal of Marine Science.Vol. 2, Iss. 1.
(8) Wilson, RP. 1985. The jackass penguin (Spheniscus demersus) as a pelagic predator. 
          Marine ecology progress series. Oldendorf. Vol. 25, no. 3.