What’s black and white and sounds like a jackass?

You guessed it! The African Penguin, Spheniscus demersus, is one of the charismatic South African Marine Big 5 – also consisting of the Bottlenose dolphin, the Southern Right whale, Cape Fur seal and the famous Great White shark! They’re also known as ‘Jackass’ penguins. It seems like a mean thing to say, but there’s a reason for this; this nickname is based on their distinctive braying sound, similar to that of a donkey. These cute, flightless birds inhabit the coasts of Namibia and South Africa – the only two countries in the world that are home to African Penguin colonies!

A huddle of African penguins at Boulder’s Beach, Cape Town. Photo by David McClane via ManvsGlobe.com.

In South Africa, Boulder’s Beach – home to a penguin colony of about 3000 strong – is a great spot to see these little birds up close in action. Nearby, there’s a small naval town called Simon’s Town. Here, you might be lucky enough to spot a penguin or two waddling through the streets, perhaps up to some mischief.

The Truth about the Tux

When we think of penguins, the image that often comes to mind is one of adorable, waddling birds dressed in tuxedos. The African Penguin has a striking black and white coat of feathers, a beautiful feature that also serves a purpose. The black feathers on their backs serve to hide them from predators when seen from above, allowing them to blend in with the dark ocean depths. Their white bellies help them blend in with the light surface when viewed from below. This is an excellent example of counter-shading, a highly effective camouflage method.

However, this coat of feathers needs maintenance through a process known as preening. Preening in penguins is like a grooming session, where they clean and organize their feathers, and spread oils to keep them in good condition. This is why we see penguins grooming themselves or one another. This behaviour is often seen between parents and chicks and breeding pairs. These oils are essential for keeping water from soaking their feathers, ensuring they remain waterproof. This ability is a great adaptation for surviving in cold waters. A good demonstration of well-kept feathers is seen in the trail of bubbles a penguin leaves behind as it swims – this is true waterproofing at work!

One of the intriguing features of the African penguin is the black spotting on their chest, that are much like fingerprints in humans. These spots are distinct for each penguin, setting them apart from one another, making each bird unique! Another feature of this penguin is the bare skin patch above their eyes, which they use to regulate their body temperature. As their body temperature increases, their bodies send blood to this skin patch, which acts as a built-in cooling system. This increased blood flow gives the patch a bright pink colour.

Juvenile African penguins have a more blue-grey feather coat without the distinctive black and white colouring. As they mature, these feathers change to a brownish colour before they moult.

The Demersus Demeanor

While African penguins may appear slightly clumsy on land, their bodies are well-adapted for aquatic life. With their streamlined bodies and powerful flippers, they effortlessly dart and glide through the water, showcasing their exceptional swimming abilities. Given the competition they face from seals, sharks and killer whales, who are also proficient swimmers and potential predators, these impressive talents are vital for the penguins’ survival.

African penguins swimming through the water. Look at those bubbles! Photo by Kim Hairston via The Baltimore Sun.

African penguins use their distinctive, loud, donkey-like bray for communication within the colony. They produce these noises to assert dominance over territory and to signal availability for mating, among other behaviours. African penguins are monogamous, which means that they breed with the same partner throughout their lifetime. However, should a breeding attempt fail for any reason, they may seek out another partner. African penguins are philopatric, which means that the breeding pairs return to the same breeding colony and nesting site every year.

Most African penguin adults leave their colonies in the early morning, swimming out to forage for food. If they’re a breeding pair, the other adult always stays with the eggs and the chicks. Foraging adults usually only return in the late afternoon. These penguins commonly dive to depths of 35 m to catch their meals – which typically consist of sardines and anchovies. They can remain underwater anywhere between 1.5 – 4.5 minutes!

African Penguin Perils

Regrettably, the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List classifies African penguins as ENDANGERED. The breeding pair population of African penguins once numbered at a staggering 1 million, but has drastically declined to approximately 10 400 pairs today! There are concerns that by 2035, the species could reach functional extinction. This means that if the current population continues to decline at the current rate, the species might face irreversible decline. It could even reach a point where existing breeding individuals cannot produce viable offspring, and the species will be driven to extinction.

Decades ago, from the 1920s to 1950s, humans collected the eggs of African penguins for consumption. Additionally, their guano – a nice name for penguin poop rich in nutrients – was harvested and used as fertilizer. This was a big threat to these penguins since they rely on guano to construct nests for their eggs. Guano harvesting not only changed their habitat, but also left the unborn penguin offspring exposed and vulnerable to nature’s harshness.

Oil spills pose a significant threat to African penguins. They can either ingest toxins from the oil spills, resulting in poisoning, or have their feather coat completely covered in oil. This oily layer disturbs the waterproofing and thermoregulating function of their feather coats. This leaves the birds exposed to the cold or they face starvation. In some instances, oiled penguins abandon their chicks, leaving the little ones to fend for themselves.

Another present-day threat to these penguins is the overfishing of sardines and anchovies in the area. This has previously led to penguins in constant competition with fisheries, an uneven struggle.

How can you help?

We like to think all hope is not lost! Thankfully, SANCCOB (Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) has been the lifeline for these birds. They rescue many African penguins and their eggs each year, saving them from oil spills, abandonment, severe weather events, or unsafe nesting conditions. Consider offering your assistance by volunteering. Lend a helping hand and give these penguins a fighting chance.

The release of juvenile African penguins by SANCCOB. Photo by Rodger Bosch via Getty Images.

Exercise caution with the fish you choose to eat! Make sure that they are sustainable by checking the SASSI List. By doing so, you indirectly contribute to the responsible management of the penguins’ food source.

Join in on the False Bay Expedition with Cape RADD, where you can learn more about these fascinating creatures and other members of the Marine Big 5!

Alternatively, you can support these iconic little birds from the comfort of your own home by watching the entertaining and light-hearted Netflix show ‘Penguin Town’. It offers a closer look at the penguins waddling around in Simon’s Town. Even a bit of education about these creatures goes a long way!


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