African penguin (Spheniscus demersus)

Also known as: black-footed penguin, jackass penguin
French: Manchot du Cap
Spanish: Pingüino del Cabo
GenusSpheniscus (1)
SizeLength: 60 - 70 cm (2)

The African penguin is classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (1). Listed on Appendix II of CITES (3), and Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS or Bonn Convention) (4).

The African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) is a medium-sized penguin, and the only penguin species breeding on the African continent (5). Like all penguins, the African penguin has a robust, heavyset body, and this species is black on the back and white below, with variable black markings on the breast and belly (2). Juvenile African penguins are slate blue on the upper surface, gradually turning darker and developing the adult black-and-white facial pattern in the second or third year. Penguins have small muscles at the base of each feather that enable the feathers to be held tightly against the body whilst in water, forming a waterproof layer; alternatively, on land the feathers are held erect, trapping an insulating layer of air around the body (5). The African penguin is also known as the ‘jackass penguin’ due to its loud, braying call (6).

Found in southern Africa, the African penguin is known to breed on 24 islands between Hollamsbird Island, Namibia and Bird Island in Algoa Bay, South Africa (2).

African penguins are generally found within 40 kilometres of the coast, emerging onto rocky offshore islands to breed, rest and moult (2).

African penguins are colonial breeders, with pairs returning to the same site year after year. Unusually, there is no fixed breeding season, although nesting peaks in Namibia between November and December and in South Africa between March and May. Nests are situated in burrows or depressions under boulders and bushes, where they will receive some protection from the potentially harsh temperatures (5). The clutch size of the African penguin is usually two, and both adults take it in turns to incubate the eggs for a period of about 40 days; penguins have a bare patch of skin on the lower abdomen (known as the ‘brood patch’) which allows greater transfer of heat to the eggs. Following hatching, the adults will continue to guard the chicks until they are about 30 days old, regurgitating food straight from their stomach following foraging trips. Chicks are then left alone in crèches whilst the adults forage; at between 60 and 130 days old they develop juvenile plumage and leave the colony (5).

The African penguin feeds on fish such as anchovies (Engraulis capensis) and sardines (Sardinops sagax) (2). Adapted for its aquatic lifestyle, the African penguin can reach speeds of 20 kilometres per hour in the water and travel from 30 to 70 kilometres in a single trip; average dives last for 2.5 minutes, reaching depths of 60 metres. Penguins have waterproof coats that need to be constantly maintained by preening, when a waxy substance is distributed from the base of the tail. Even with these measures, the plumage is replaced yearly, and African penguins come ashore to moult over 20 days between November and January in South Africa and between April and May in Namibia (5).

The population of the African penguin has declined and it is estimated that its current size is a mere 10 percent of what it was at the turn of the 20th Century. Originally, the fall in numbers was the result of the over-collection of eggs for food, and disturbance caused by the collection of guano for fertiliser. Today, however, depleted fish stocks due to over-fishing, and the risk of oil pollution are the most pertinent threats to the survival of the African penguin (5); a recent oil spill affected around 40 percent of the population.  Predation by Cape fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus) and competition with them for food and breeding sites, as well as shark predation, has also had severe effects on African penguin numbers (2). The ongoing and rapid decline of the African penguin led to the species being uplisted from Vulnerable to Endangered on the IUCN Red List in 2010 (2).

The African penguin is protected by its listing on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (3), and on Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) (4). All of the breeding areas of the African penguin in South Africa are protected as National Parks or Nature Reserves, and the collection of guano or eggs is no longer permitted. The recovery of rescued oiled African penguins has also been shown to be successful. Populations need further monitoring, and the possibility of conserving fish stocks is under investigation, amongst other measures, if the future of Africa’s only penguin is to be secured (2).

For further information on the African penguin see:

Authenticated (01/06/05) by Samantha Petersen, Seabird Conservation Programme Manager, BirdLife South Africa.

  1. IUCN Red List (December, 2010)
  2. BirdLife International (December, 2010)
  3. CITES (April, 2003)
  4. Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (March, 2008)
  5. International Penguin Conservation (April, 2003)
  6. Animal Diversity Web - Spheniscus demersus (April, 2003)$narrative.html