World Penguin Day 2020

World Penguin Day is celebrated to honour penguins, one of the world’s most unique birds. It coincides with the annual northern migration of the Adelie penguins, which are endemic to Antarctica. Adelie penguins migrate north during the winter in search of food. Then, before summer, Adelie’s return to Antarctica for nesting and breeding season. World Penguin day initiated by the resident scientists working at McMurdo Station, an American research centre on Ross Island.

Gentoo penguins Antarctica
Gentoo penguin highway, Antarctica
Why do we celebrate World Penguin Day?

This day is an education initiative to encourage people to learn more about penguins. In addition, to raise awareness of their decreasing population. The decreasing penguin population is mainly due to human activities. Such as climate change, ocean pollution, oil spills, overfishing, illegal egg harvesting, the introduction of predators. Penguins also have natural predators. These are skuas, caracaras, and sheathbills—these birds are predatory birds that prey on penguin eggs and young chicks.

Skua, Antarctica
Skua, Antarctica
A pair of skuas, Falkland Islands
A pair of Skuas with a stolen Gentoo penguin egg, Falkland Islands
Sheathbill, Antarctica
Sheathbill, Antarctica
A pair of sheathbills, Antarctica
A pair of sheathbills, Antarctica
Caracara, Falkland Islands
Caracara, Falkland Islands

Skua's over gentoo penguin colony
Skua’s hovering over Gentoo penguin colony at sunset, hoping to steal an egg or a chick.
Penguin facts:

There are 18 species of penguins, 11 of which are Globally Threatened (WWF, IUCN). Penguins are aquatic, flightless birds. They live mainly in the cooler climates of the Southern hemisphere (Antarctic Coastline, sub-Antarctic Islands, Falkland Islands, and New Zealand).

Trio of King penguins, Falkland Islands
A trio of King penguins, Falkland Islands
Chinstrap penguin, Antarctica
Chinstrap penguin, Antarctica
Rockhopper penguins swimming, Falkland Islands
Rockhopper penguins using their muscular bodies, flippers and feet to propel themselves out of the water, Falkland Islands

Penguins spend half their life divided between land and sea. The penguin’s diet is mainly fish, krill, and squid, which they catch during deep-water diving. Their coat has short overlapping waterproof feathers. Beneath their outer feathers, is a layer of fat, which provides excellent insulation for swimming in the freezing waters. Their feet and tails act as rudders, and their flippers act as propellers.

Magellanic penguins heading out to sea, Falkland Islands
Magellanic penguins heading out to sea on Sea Lion Island, Falkland Islands
Rockhopper landing on the rocks, Falkland Islands
Rockhopper penguin landing on the rocks following a swim in the ocean, Falkland Islands
Why don’t penguins fly?

Some evidence suggests that penguins once did fly. However, over time their wings became shorter, the bones fused and flattened and formed into flippers. Penguins are aquatic birds who spend up to 75% of their lives in the water, swimming, fishing, and migrating during their feeding require strong flippers. It is due to evolution they eventually lost their ability to fly. Their strong flippers assist for survival and swimming, diving, and fleeing from their sea predators; leopard seals, killer whales, and sea lions. Penguins can swim up to 24 km/h and dive down to 15 metres.

Penguins waddle along, swaying from side to side due to having heavy bodies and short legs. They also walk this way to conserve energy. At times they will toboggan along the ice and snow on their bellies.

Gentoo penguins waddling down the snowy mountains, Antarctica
Gentoo penguins waddling down the snowy mountain, Antarctica

Their black and white ‘tuxedo’ colouring serves as a vital camouflage in the water, known as countershading. Their black back blend into the dark hues of the deep ocean. From below, their white belly blends into the light surface waters.

Penguins live in very harsh climates. Their feathers help regulate their body temperature, protect against the elements, and provide insulation while swimming in the icy waters. They spend many hours during the day preening their feathers to ensure they are in good condition. The oil gland at the base of their tail secretes a water-repelling and microbial deterrant oil that is dispersed over their body during their preening to ensure their feathers are waterproof.

Colony of Gentoo chicks braving the storm, Falkland Islands
Gentoo penguin chicks huddling together for protection on a 100 km windy day.

Most penguins will breed in colonies of up to 1000 birds. Others, however, will make their nests with pebbles, sticks, and feathers on the ground in burrows. Emperor and King penguins incubate a single egg. They will keep it on the top of their feet under a loose fold of skin, keeping the egg warm.

King penguin tenderly caring for its egg, Falkland Islands
King penguin tenderly caring for its egg, Falkland Islands

In some species, the male will incubate the egg. Meanwhile, the female goes off to hunt for food, often for weeks at a time. Both parents share incubation and rearing their hatchling until it is old enough to hunt for their own food. It can take around 7-12 months before hatchlings are mature enough.

Magellanic penguin with her two chicks
Magellanic penguin chicks with their parent

Penguins face many critical dangers despite their strong, robust bodies, large colonies, and ability to survive in harsh, remote environments.

THREATS

Human behaviour has the most detrimental effect on penguins’ environment and major cause their decline in numbers.

Overfishing

Penguins rely on fish and krill as their primary food source. Fishing in or near penguins feeding grounds depletes their food supply. Many penguins get caught up in fishermen’s nets and fishing lines resulting in severe injuries and or drowning. Fishing boats leaking fuel and other pollutants into the water affects their habitat.

Climate change

Changing ocean temperatures e.g. warming temperatures melting ice reduces penguin habitats for breeding areas.

Oil spills

Since penguins spend most of their lives at sea, oil spills and other oceanic pollutants can be devastating for penguins. Large cruise ships spilling oil and dumping rubbish out at sea causing pollution.

Invasive species

Introduced cats, rats, mice, rabbits, and dogs all contribute to a decline in penguins, their eggs, and young chicks.

Tourism

Tourists coming too close to penguin colonies, causes penguins to flee off nests leaving their eggs and chicks unguarded. Consequently, the eggs and chicks become targets for predators to steal their eggs and chicks.

Gentoo penguin caring for her newly hatched chicks
Gentoo penguin tenderly caring for her two chicks.
Poaching

Penguin hunting and egg poaching.

Lack of research

More research is needed. Being aware of major threats to penguins enables appropriate conservation measures to be implemented.

Conservation status

Many penguin species are endangered, and their population is decreasing. This can which can lead to extinction. For example, the African penguin and the Galapagos penguin are considered endangered. Other species of penguins are on the cusp of becoming endangered. Emperor, and Adelie penguins, both of which live in Antarctica. Education and raising awareness is essential for penguins survival. Therefore, it is important to choose ethical penguin viewing tours. Keeping a distance from breeding colonies not to scare or disrupt penguin colonies. Support local penguin research and conservation programs. Sponsor a penguin.

Gentoo penguin colony, Sea Lion Island, Falkland Islands
Gentoo penguin colony, Sea Lion Island, Falkland Islands

Happy World Penguin Day 2020

References

https://www.birdlife.org/list-penguin-species

https://www.thespruce.com/threats-to-penguins-386309

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