Endangered African Penguins’ Instincts Are Working Against Them

Animals’ natural instincts help them survive, but for African penguins, those instincts are leading them into a trap.

African penguins, who live mainly on the coasts of Namibia and South Africa, have declined by 80 percent over the past 50 years and are now listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. As of 2015, there were only believed to be an estimated 50,000 mature individuals left, and they’re continuing to decline.

According to the IUCN, over the past few decades they’ve had their nests disturbed by people collecting eggs and guano for use as fertilizer, they have been seriously hurt by oil spills, they have had to compete with other species for food and have faced the threat of predators.

Now according to a study published this month in the journal Current Biology, it’s their natural instincts that are causing problems by tricking them into what’s known as an ecological trap – where the environment has changed, but animals who rely on it haven’t yet adapted to survive.

For the study, scientists tracked juvenile penguins who venture hundreds of miles out into the open ocean in search of a meal of anchovies and sardines. The natural signals in the ocean, including colder waters and the presence of phytoplankton, should lead them to where there should be a buffet, but when they arrive, there is nothing to be found.

The phytoplankton is still there, but the fish are gone. The changes are being driven by warming waters, which have caused the fish to move to new areas, and by overfishing. Older penguins aren’t as vulnerable to the problem as fledglings who are still learning to hunt are.

“Juvenile African penguins look for areas of low sea temperatures and high chlorophyll-a, which indicates the presence of plankton and therefore the fish which feed on it,” said the study’s lead author Dr. Richard Sherley, of the Environment and Sustainability Institute at the University of Exeter. “These were once reliable cues for prey-rich waters, but climate change and industrial fishing have depleted forage fish stocks in this system.”

The authors believe this trap explains why there’s such a low survival rate, and that it’s now contributing to their ongoing decline.

According to the study’s authors, there is hope that we can help these penguins survive. Abandoned penguin chicks in need are rescued, rehabilitated and released by The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds – including a few who were followed for this study. Chicks who are rescued could be moved to start colonies in locations where they would have more food and a better chance at survival.

Still, more needs to be done. The study’s authors are hoping to see restrictions on fishing by reducing quotas, or suspending them entirely when stocks are low, to protect penguins and other seabirds from starving. They also hope to see more studies on the survival strategies of young seabirds.

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Marie W
Marie W8 months ago

Thanks for posting

Laurice G
Laurice Gilbert10 months ago

This is sad news indeed.

Jennifer H
Jennifer H11 months ago

Another species in trouble because of humans. Sad.

Mayo U
Maryann U11 months ago

Is anyone else having trouble reading articles because of the image that pops up on the left margin of the screen for facebook, twitter, pinterest and google+? I stop reading most of the time now.

Rev. Royce B
Rev. Royce Beasley11 months ago


Rev. Royce B
Rev. Royce Beasley11 months ago


heather g
heather g11 months ago

SANCOB does wonderful work with sea birds. I do hope that their new location provides a bigger source of food for the penguins and that they settle in their new home.

earthism info
earthism info11 months ago

we should maintain steady healthy food chains for animals without over exploitation

John B
John B11 months ago

Thanks Alicia for providing the info and very important links. Here is a link to a petition to help save African Penguins: https://animalpetitions.org/19908/save-african-penguin-from-extinction/

Patricia H
Patricia Harris11 months ago

Am I the only sane person on this site that knows what needs to be done?! A lot of people on Care2 say they know exactly what should be done, but then complain that nothing is being done. Then why don't you get off your asses and do it yourself!! Don't expect anyone without a heart or brain to do it for you because they're either to stupid or too evil to care and you claim you do care!! I would do something about this situation myself, but I'm just one person and I came to this site for help. You people seem to be smart enough to know right from wrong and how stupid and cruel the majority of our species is, automatically dividing you from that majority. And yet, you refuse to accept the real reason why you even care about what you should be saving but have no hope for. And it's all because something is not being done that you decided to give up on hope, well guess what YOU ARE HOPE, and you're throwing it all away by doing nothing but sitting at home, fearing for the worst to come!!