Galápagos Penguins (Spheniscus Mendiculus): Threats and Conservation

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Table of Contents

  • Background
  • Threats
  • Conservation Strategies
  • Conclusion
  • References


The majority of penguins are populated in the southern hemisphere, especially in Antarctica, however, not all penguins are found in cold climates. Several species can be found in the temperate zone and one species in particular is located in the northern hemisphere near the equator on the Galápagos Islands, the Galápagos penguin. The Galápagos Islands are located about/ approximately 1,000 km (621 miles) from Ecuador and were discovered in 1535 by Fray Tomas de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama. The former accidentally drifted upon the Islands whilst on a voyage to Lima, Peru from Panama, Mexico. These Galápagos Islands were annexed by Ecuador from Spain in 1832.

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Charles Darwin was an extremely important scientist and first visited the Galápagos Islands in September 1835. It was from this fundamental visit that Darwin formed his Theory of Natural Selection (Sadava, Hillis, Heller & Hacker, 2012).

There are nineteen islands that make up the Galápagos Islands but these distinctive penguins are mostly found on the islands of Isabela, Fernandina, Floreana and Bartolomé (Shifting winds, currents endanger Galapagos penguin population, 2015).

These unique penguins take their name from the archipelago they inhabit and are the third smallest species within penguins. Additionally, they have the smallest population size of all penguin species, this is due to nature and man-made causes which will be discussed.

The cause of these penguins' body is fundamental for their lifestyle and aids them in and out of water. Firstly, their body is designed to enable them to be agile in the water and move quickly without using too much energy in the body. Also their feathers offer two layers of insulation, not only keeping them warm in the sea but also at night on land. Galápagos Penguins are lifetime serial monogamous, meaning they only pair with one mate for their entire life span and produce offspring annually. This mating pattern differs greatly from other types of penguin; as many others find a companion to breed with and only stay with the partner until the chick is ready to live an independent life, then the two companions part ways.


There are fewer than 1700 individual Galápagos penguins alive today; they have been classed as endangered since 2000 by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In 2004 it was estimated that there are 1500 Galápagos penguins alive. During the 1980s the number of penguins declined by around 75 percent due to many different factors including El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events, introduction of species, viruses, destruction of habitat and many more (Levin, Outlaw, Vargas & Parker, 2009).

During periods of the ENSO the temperature of the sea becomes high which lacks adequate nutrients for them, resulting in food shortages. The penguins will delay breeding completely until food resources improve so that they can have fat stored up for moulting and mating season as they will not enter the sea during these periods. Their diet mainly consists of krill, fish, squid and crustaceans (Levin, Outlaw, Vargas & Parker, 2009).

Adults and juveniles are a food source for a number of animals around these Islands. These include sea lions, sharks and Galápagos fur seals (Arctocephalus galapagoensis) in the water. On land, all age groups of these penguins are vulnerable to the native Galápagos hawk (Buteo galapagoensis) and to introduced predators such as dogs, cats, rats, and birds of prey. Some feral cats are vectors in parasites such as Toxoplasma gondii which in 2010 was also found in Galápagos penguins which was carried over from the cats. T. gondii is capable of infecting all warm blooded animals (Deem et al., 2010).

Tourists can cause a disturbance to the penguins which could affect mating and eating. Illegal sea cucumber fishermen can also create disturbance when hunting. Fishermen and tourists cause threats by discarding refuse on land and in the sea that regularly entangles and kills unsuspecting birds.

The Galápagos islands have many mangrove trees which are often chopped down and burnt which affects the penguins nesting habitats. Oil spills are also a threat to these birds. Avian malaria is considered a threat to these seabirds and they are vulnerable to this disease, it is carried by mosquitos and was brought to the Galápagos islands by humans in the 1980s (AVIAN MALARIA AND MAREK'S DISEASE, 2001).

Conservation Strategies

The Galápagos National Park and Marine Reserve closely monitor all the Galápagos penguin's populations and control the feral animals humanely. Many other measures have been put into place to help this highly endangered species including, providing nest boxes in predator free areas, prevention of fishing nets in foraging areas, limitations made on overfishing around the Galápagos Islands to increase food chances and prevention of coastal developments just to name a few. With many years of conflict with the fishing industry, the government has set a 64km (40 miles) reserve out at sea from any point from any of the nineteen Galápagos Islands to prevent these birds becoming entangled in nets and to allow them to hunt for fish.

Tourism is the main income which the money goes towards research and conservation maintenance on the Galápagos Islands (Vargas et al., 2007). In 1959 the Ecuadorian government passed the first legislation to protect the animals and plants on the Galápagos Islands declaring the islands as a National Park, upon the publication of Charles Darwin's book On the Origin of Species. A committee was up under UNESCO, which became the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) for the Galápagos Islands in the same year. In 1960 a research centre was established and named the Charles Darwin Research Station on Isla Santa Cruz.

Dr. Dee Boersma of the University of Washington and her team are trying to increase the population and have assembled 120 nests for the Galápagos penguins nicknames ‘penguin condos' since 2010. These nests are constructed from natural materials such as lava rock. The nests are monitored several times a year to determine if penguins do in fact use these nesting sites which hopefully increases reproductive success (Vargas et al., 2007).


As the population of the short and very adapted Galápagos penguin is so minute and parlous, and restricted to just one location for they are still vulnerable to extinction. The threats of possible disturbance from tourists, illegal fishing activities, climatic chance and fluctuating food supply all remain threats to this species. All of the conservation efforts allow research to be done on the reproductive success of this species. The long term goal for the conservation projects is to reverse the dramatic deterioration of the Galápagos penguin population and sustain the population.


  1. AVIAN MALARIA AND MAREK'S DISEASE. (2001). Marine World Heritage. Retrieved 31 January 2018, from
  2. Deem, S., Merkel, J., Ballweber, L., Vargas, F., Cruz, M., & Parker, P. (2010). Exposure to Toxoplasma gondii in Galapagos Penguins (Spheniscus mendiculus) and Flightless Cormorants (Phalacrocorax harrisi) in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. Journal of Wildlife Diseases, 46(3), 1005-1011.
  3. Levin, I., Outlaw, D., Vargas, F., & Parker, P. (2009). Plasmodium blood parasite found in endangered Galapagos penguins (Spheniscus mendiculus). Biological Conservation, 142(12), 3191-3195.
  4. Sadava, D., Hillis, D., Heller, H., & Hacker, S. (2012). Life (10th ed.). Shifting winds, currents endanger Galapagos penguin population. (2015). Gale. Retrieved 25 January 2018, from
  5. Vargas, F., Lacy, R., Johnson, P., Steinfurth, A., Crawford, R., Dee Boersma, P., & Macdonald, D. (2007). Modelling the effect of El Niño on the persistence of small populations: The Galápagos penguin as a case study. Biological Conservation, 137(1), 138-148.

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