Magellanic penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus)

GenusSpheniscus (1)
SizeLength: 70 cm (2)
Weight4 kg (2)

The Magellanic penguin is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The Magellanic penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus) is named in honour of the maritime explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who first recorded it during an expedition in 1519 (3) (4). A medium-sized penguin, this species can be identified by the distinctive white bands which loop over the eye, down the side of the neck and meet at the throat (5) (6) (7).

A thick black band also runs adjacent to the border of the breast and belly, extending down the flanks to the thighs (2) (5). Aside from these markings, the colouration of the Magellanic penguin is almost entirely uniform black on the upperparts and white on the breast and belly. However, during the breeding season, the adults lose feathers from around the eye and the stout, hooked, grey-black bill, leaving a distinctive patch of pink skin, with an area of dark pigment in the centre (5) (6).

The Magellanic penguin produces a loud, mournful call, similar to that of a donkey bray. This is used most commonly by the males when seeking a mate, but also during other activities such as territorial disputes (5).

During the breeding season, colonies of Magellanic penguins can be found along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of southern South America, as far north as Golfo San Matías in Argentina and Puerto Montt in Chile. Colonies also occur on several offshore islands, including the Falklands (2) (8).

Outside the breeding season, the Magellanic penguin takes to the ocean, migrating north as far as Peru and Southern Brazil (5).

During the breeding season, the Magellanic penguin can be found nesting in grassland, amongst bushes, and on coasts and cliff faces (5).

In the Falklands, the Magellanic penguin is found around the coastline, especially in areas of tussac grass, where the ground is suitable for burrowing (6).

The adult Magellanic penguin spends the greater part of the year securing a mate and raising chicks. The adults arrive at the nesting sites in September where, if already part of a breeding pair, they engage in the repair of the nest. Otherwise, the adult penguins commence courtship behaviours (2) (5), which involve the male making a loud braying call to advertise for a mate. This is followed by walking in a circle around an interested female, and finally engaging in flipper patting, in which the male’s flippers are vigorously vibrated against the female’s body. Once formed, the breeding pairs are long-lasting and are maintained by behaviours such as mutual preening (5).

The nests of Magellanic penguins comprise either a simple scrape, often hidden under vegetation, or, where soil conditions permit, a burrow in soft soil or peat. The burrow may be up to one metre long and ends in a round chamber (5) (6).

After mating, a clutch of two eggs is usually laid, which are incubated by both adult birds, with each taking an initial long shift of just over two weeks, while the other forages in the ocean (5) (9). The foraging trips of the Magellanic penguin may be incredibly wide ranging, with some individuals tracked as far as 600 kilometres from the breeding colony (8). Towards the end of the 39 to 42 day incubation period, the incubation shifts become much shorter (2) (9).

Once hatched, the young Magellanic penguins are brooded for 24 to 29 days, during which time they grow a rudimentary layer of feathers that helps them to maintain their body temperature. The adults then leave the young unattended and only return to feed them every one to three days (5). During this time, the burrows provide better nesting grounds than surface nests, as they help protect against the wind and rain. However, they do on occasion become flooded, often resulting in the death of the chicks due to hypothermia (2).

After 40 to 70 days the chicks fledge, usually between January and March, and the adults moult their feathers in preparation for returning to the sea. The newly-fledged juveniles and adults then spend May to August following the northward movements of anchovies, their preferred prey. They will also take other fish, squid and crustaceans (4) (6) (10). The diet of the Magellanic penguin in the Falkland Islands is thought to contain a higher proportion of squid and crustaceans than elsewhere in its range (9).

Although the Magellanic penguin is not classified as globally threatened, it has nevertheless been severely impacted by several threats. These include oil pollution resulting from the deliberate release of oily ballast water from tankers (4) (5) (7). Penguins are particularly vulnerable to oil spills because they do not fly, instead swimming low in the water. This makes them less likely to detect and avoid petroleum compared with other seabirds (11). Chronic oil pollution is believed to kill more than 20,000 adult and 22,000 juvenile Magellanic penguins every year on the Argentinean coast (8), and is likely to be the most significant cause of decline of the biggest Magellanic penguin colony at Punta Tombo (11). The threat of oil pollution could be further increased by the development of offshore petroleum extraction around the Falklands (8).

Expanding commercial fisheries, particularly the Argentine anchovy fisheries, may also be having a detrimental effect on the Magellanic penguin population, although it has not yet been possible to quantify the exact impact (8). Prey availability may be reduced by fisheries operating within the foraging range of the Magellanic penguin, with important species such as juvenile hake and anchovy often taken intentionally or as bycatch. In some areas penguins are accidentally caught in nets, while in others they may be hunted for use as bait (4) (7) (8).

At a more local level, threats to the Magellanic penguin include egg collection, predation by foxes, rats and cats, and disturbance by tourists (2) (7) (8). Climate change is also likely to increasingly affect penguin populations. El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events are reported to cause breeding disruption in the Magellanic penguin, with increased rainfall contributing to apparent increases in chick mortality due to collapsing burrows and hypothermia (4) (8).

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), along with other conservation organisations, has been working to conserve the Magellanic penguin across parts of its range by protecting key breeding sites and monitoring populations. In 1982, the WCS Penguin Project was started (now Penguin Sentinels), which aimed to study the world’s largest colony of the Magellanic penguin at Punta Tombo (4).

After successfully radio-tracking breeding Magellanic penguins on their long distance foraging expeditions, it became apparent that they were often frequenting shipping lanes and becoming oiled. Heavy publicity of this fact resulted in changes in laws within the Argentinean province of Chubut, so that a shipping lane was moved, thereby reducing, to some degree, the threat to this species (4) (8).

Recently, the WCS was instrumental in helping to impose a ban on commercial fishing at Burdwood Bank in Argentina, and in creating a marine park at Golfo San Jorge, which are both key habitats for the Magellanic penguin (4).

Nevertheless, further work must be undertaken to mitigate the threats of commercial fishing and oil pollution, otherwise the Magellanic penguin’s decline is likely to continue. Other recommended conservation measures for this species include carrying out population censuses in Chile, and monitoring the effects of Argentinean fisheries on the Punta Tombo Population (8).

For more information on the magellanic penguin:

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  1. IUCN Red List (June, 2011)
  2. International Penguin Conservation Work Group (May, 2009)
  3. Chester, J. (2001) The Nature of Penguins. Celestial Arts, Berkeley.
  4. Wildlife Conservation Society - Magellanic penguin (June, 2011)
  5. Williams, T.D. (1995) The Penguins. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  6. Falklands Conservation - Magellanic penguin (June, 2011)
  7. Penguin Sentinels (The Penguin Project) (June, 2011)
  8. BirdLife International - Magellanic penguin (June, 2011)
  9. Otley, H.M., Clausen, A.P., Christie, D.J. and Pütz, K. (2004) Aspects of the breeding biology of the Magellanic penguin in the Falkland Islands. Waterbirds: The International Journal of Waterbird Biology, 27(4): 396-405.
  10. Perrins, C. (2009) The Encyclopedia of Birds. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  11. Garcı´a-Borboroglu, P., Boersma, P.D., Ruoppolo, V., Reyes, L., Rebstock, G.A., Griot, K., Heredia, S.R., Adornes, A.C. and Pinho da Silva, R. (2006) Chronic oil pollution harms Magellanic penguins in the Southwest Atlantic. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 52:193–198.