by Emma Louise Oldham January 07, 2019

The Totally Tropical Type!

What do you call a penguin on a tropical island? Lost! This sounds like a joke, but there really are penguins that live on tropical islands. The Galápagos penguin lives in the Galápagos Islands (well, where else would you expect to find it?). This group of islands lies across the equator, 1,000km off the coast of South America in the Pacific Ocean. No one is really sure how this species got there, and its future is uncertain, but one thing is clear – this peculiar penguin is very different from its cool cousins!

One of a kind

Galápagos penguins are truly unique. They are... 

  • The only penguins that live on the equator. 
  • Found further north than any other penguin on Earth. Some penguins on the island of Isabela (the biggest island in the Galápagos) actually live in the northern hemisphere! 
  • Endemic to the Galápagos Islands. This means they are only found there and nowhere else in the world.
  • One of the smallest species of penguin on the planet. They’re only about 35cm tall! 
  • Also one of the rarest. There are probably fewer than 2,000 birds in the whole of the Galápagos.

Visiting relatives
How penguins came to live in the Galápagos has always been a bit of a puzzle. Long ago, their ancestors were probably carried to the islands from the Antarctic or the bottom of South America by strong ocean currents or a huge storm and got stuck there.

Climate changes

Over the years, the species has evolved and adapted in lots of ways to live in a hot, tropical climate. Galápagos penguins keep cool by...
  • Being small! This helps them lose heat more easily. 
  • Having less body fat and fewer feathers. This also stops them overheating.
  • Holding their wings out to the sides to cool down in the sea breeze.
  • Standing with their feet in their own shadow to prevent them getting sunburnt!
  • Panting like dogs! Like your pet pooch, these penguins can’t sweat.
  • Hunting for fish in the cool sea during the hottest part of the day, and chilling out on the shore at night.
  • Laying their eggs in shady caves and cracks on the islands’ rocky beaches, so they don’t cook in the hot sun!

Penguins under pressure

Galápagos penguins are an ENDANGERED species. The biggest threats to their survival are:

• Warmer oceans: Cold ocean currents flow around the Galápagos Islands, which means lots of fishy food for the penguins. But every few years, the water warms up. This is known as El Niño. There aren’t as many fish around during El Niño, so some penguins starve to death. Man-made climate change might make El Niño happen more often in the future. This would be bad news for these penguins.

• Introduced predators: Dogs, cats and rats have all been brought to the Galápagos Islands by humans. They prey on adult penguins, along with their chicks and eggs.

• Other dangers: Penguins sometimes get accidentally caught in fishing nets and drown. Other risks are plastic pollution, oil spills in the ocean, and diseases.

Scientists are trying to learn more about the unusual lives of Galápagos penguins to help save them from extinction. Wouldn’t it be a massive shame if this very special species was lost forever?

Enjoyed reading this feature? Find out more about penguins in issue 50, Penguins of the World

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