Why Is the Galapagos Penguin Endangered? Threats and How You Can Help

A young Galapagos penguin on a rocky coast

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Classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) since 2000, the Galapagos penguin is one of the world’s smallest penguin species. These incredible animals have evolved to rely on the unique marine conditions found in the Galapagos Islands and are the only penguin species found north of the equator.

Being the only endemic penguin in the Galapagos doesn’t come without its challenges, however, and the IUCN estimates the remaining population to be just 1,200 mature individuals and decreasing. 

Threats

Galapagos penguins are mainly threatened by environmental changes and human influence. Drastic and frequent climate events that reduce the density of penguin populations within their small range can reduce the species’ resilience to other threats as well, such as disease outbreaks, oil spills, and predation. 

Limited Nesting Options

A Galapagos penguin competes with marine iguana over nest

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Galapagos penguins prefer to nest in small caves or crevices in lava rock, which are growing more difficult to find as water levels increase and environmental changes occur.

Other wild animals, like some species of marine iguanas, also use these rocky areas for their own nests, competing with penguins over the few remaining spots. 

Pollution

The adaptations that allow these incredible flightless birds to tolerate a warmer climate are directly linked to environmental conditions.

Historically, the cold currents that feed the Galapagos Islands supplied penguins and their young with plenty of sardines and other small fish during breeding season. When the coastal waters become too warm to support fish populations (such as during El Nino events), adult penguins that can’t find enough to eat often either abandon their young or stop breeding altogether.

Since extreme weather events are only poised to increase in both frequency and intensity as the Earth warms, Galapagos penguin populations will continue to face environmentally influenced threats and fluctuations in the future.


Environmental Variation

Galapagos Penguins hunting sardines
Rodrigo Friscione / Getty Images.

Arguably one of the planet’s most famous destinations for wildlife and nature-based tourism, the Galapagos Islands are sensitive to issues that accompany growing visitor numbers. Although only about 30,000 people live on the islands full time, the Galapagos receive approximately 170,000 tourists each year. 

The islands are largely protected as a combination of national park, marine reserve, and  UNESCO World Heritage Site, but that doesn’t mean the region isn’t susceptible to visitor impact. Factors like waste management, inter-island transportation, and growing infrastructure are creating more pressure on the environment as well as those who manage the landscape there. 

Non-Native Predators

Introduced predators like rats, cats, and dogs can threaten Galapagos penguins by direct predation or by introducing outside diseases into already-vulnerable communities.

In 2005, for example, one individual feral cat was found to be responsible for killing 49% of adult penguins over a single year at one of the species’ breeding sites on Isabela Island.

What We Can Do

Luckily, the entire world’s population of Galapagos penguins is protected within the Galapagos National Park and Galapagos Marine Reserve. The Galapagos National Park Service, which manages these areas, strictly regulates access to breeding sites and attempts to control introduced predators. Together with the national park, the Galapagos Conservancy is largely involved with protecting penguins and developing educational programs for locals and visitors alike.

Research

A young Galapagos penguin molting
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Studying population patterns and feeding habits remains an important component of saving the Galapagos penguin, especially considering the expected shifts in island environment conditions due to climate change.

According to a 2015 study, the nutrient-rich, cold pool currents that penguins in the Galapagos depend on for food have actually been intensifying slowly since 1982, causing populations to expand northward. The research helped advise conservation programs to increase on the northern coasts of the islands and made a case for expanding marine protected areas there to support population growth.

Artificial Nest Construction

In 2010, a University of Washington research team led by Dr. Dee Boersma built 120 nest sites in primary penguin nesting areas throughout Fernandina Island, Bartolome Island, and the coast of Isabela on the Mariela Islands in Elizabeth Bay. Since then, the team has revisited two to three times per year to monitor and evaluate the status of the penguin populations and their reproductive success.

Following an El Nino event in 2016, Dr. Boersma identified over 300 adults—most of which were skinny and coated with algae—and only one juvenile. Just a year later, however, the breeding season proved successful and juvenile penguins made up almost 60% of the observed population.

Since the program began, almost a quarter of all Galapagos penguin breeding activity observed has taken place in the constructed nests, and in some years, the constructed nests accounted for 43% of all breeding activity. The project proved not only that Galapagos penguins respond well to artificial nests, but also that they are resilient enough to bounce back after significant climate events when aided by conservation programs.

Save the Galapagos Penguin

  • Become a citizen scientist while visiting the Galapagos Islands with the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels. The program encourages visitors to upload any photos of penguins they take on the islands to help establish a database with information on when penguins are molting and when new penguins are born.
  • Donate to conservation organizations that focus on the Galapagos penguin specifically, such as the Galapagos Conservancy.
  • Practice sustainable travel in destinations like the Galapagos that rely on wildlife tourism and ecotourism.
View Article Sources
  1. "Galapagos Penguin." International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species, 2020., doi:10.2305/iucn.uk.2020-3.rlts.t22697825a182729677.en

  2. "Galapagos Penguin." Galapagos Conservation Trust.

  3. "Galapagos Penguin." Oceana.

  4. "Galápagos Islands." United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

  5. Borboroglu, Pablo Garcia, and P. Dee Boersma. "Penguins: Natural History And Conservation." University of Washington Press, 2013, pp. 285-302.

  6. Karnauskas, K.B., et al. "Strong Sea Surface Cooling in the Eastern Equatorial Pacific and Implications for Galápagos Penguin Conservation." Geophysical Research Letters, vol 42, no. 15, 2015, pp. 6432-6437., doi:10.1002/2015gl064456

  7. "Galapagos Penguin Population Conservation Efforts." Galapagos Conservancy.