As the only penguin species found north of the equator in the Galápagos Islands, this penguin is quite unique. It’s the smallest of the South American penguin species, and generally survive for 15 to 20 years. They are one of the few animals in the world that mate with one partner for life. The Galápagos penguin is an endangered species, with less than 2,000 left in the wild.
Unlike most cold-water penguins, they have several adaptations that allow them to tolerate the warmer climate of Galápagos. The penguins’ breeding success is closely linked to environmental conditions. When the currents that feed Galápagos are cold and full of sardines and other small fish, the penguins will molt, breed, and feed their nestlings.
When water temperatures increase and food becomes scarce, such as during El Niño events, the penguins cannot get enough to eat. They stop breeding and abandon their young.
The long-term goals of this project are to reverse the decline of the Galápagos penguin population, and to strengthen the population so that it can better withstand more frequent and intense El Niño events, which are occurring more due to global climate change. They are also threatened by introduced species such as dogs and cats, pollution and bycatch fishing equipment.
One of the reasons for the endangered status of the penguins is limited nesting options. Many nests (small caves or crevices in lava) used 40 years ago either no longer exist, are used by marine iguanas, or get periodically flooded. In an attempt to rebuild the penguin population, Dr. Dee Boersma of the University of Washington and her research team built 120 high-quality, shady nest sites in 2010.
The nesting sites, constructed of stacked lava rocks or tunnels dug into the slope, were built in primary penguin nesting areas — on Fernandina and Bartolomé Islands, and off the coast of Isabela on the Mariela Islands in Elizabeth Bay.
Dr. Boersma’s team conducts monitoring trips two to three times per year to evaluate the status of the penguin population and determine if the constructed nest sites do, in fact, increase their reproduction and reproductive success when food is available.
At the end of El Niño in 2016, Dr. Boersma counted over 300 penguins, but only one juvenile. The adults were skinny and coated with green algae, indicating that they had been spending lots of time in the water looking for food.
Then, during the monitoring trips in 2017-2018, the team found numerous juvenile penguins (nearly 60% of all penguins observed) in good condition, indicating a successful breeding season. Penguins were using both constructed and natural nests. The favorable conditions may result in the first population increase in years.
Since the program began, nearly a quarter of all penguin breeding activity observed has been in constructed nests. In some years, in the Mariela Islands, constructed nests have accounted for up to 43% of penguin breeding activity.
Dr. Boersma and her team have recommended that the Galápagos National Park create a marine protected area in Elizabeth Bay, as the area around the Mariela Islands represents the highest density breeding area for Galápagos penguins. Providing special protection for this area will also benefit many other species of seabirds, marine mammals, and fish. Dr. Boersma also recommends creating a second Penguin Conservation Zone around Bartolomé Island.
Dr. Boersma has established the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels, with a focus on Galápagos and Magellanic penguins. Visitors to Galápagos can help by uploading photos of penguins and providing date and location. As this database grows, it helps Dr. Boersma’s research team to determine when penguins are molting and track when juveniles appear in the population.
- In 2010, researchers constructed 120 high-quality, shady penguin nest sites in prime penguin habitat to increase access to nests (a limited resource), and thus impact reproduction and recruitment into the population.
- In 2017-2018, conditions were optimal for productive breeding seasons following the poor conditions of El Niño 2015-2016. In 2017, about 45% of the penguins observed were juveniles, and in February 2018, the percentage of juveniles had increased to about 60% (in contrast to only a single juvenile observed in 2016). All penguins were in good condition during the July 2018 trip.