The Galapagos Penguin

The Galapagos Penguin: The Beach Bum

Think of a penguin. What do you see? Allow me to hazard a guess: You see a cathedral of snow and ice, and towering glaciers. You see, in the cold, crystalline waters, icebergs so white they seem to glow blue. You see a remote and forbidding landscape, thousands of miles from everywhere, and in the midst of that emptiness you see a gathering of monkish, black-and-white birds huddled against the unrelenting winds, the very essence of animal stoicism.

Now let me propose an alternative. Replace the snow with sand. Instead of ice, think of lava rock. Instead of bitter cold, think dazzling sun. And instead of a somber group of birds utterly at home in those freezing climes, far removed from any trace of people, imagine a gaggle of penguins who enjoy frequent visits from a steady stream of human well-wishers, and who have never encountered ice or snow in their entire lives—and wouldn’t even know what to do with the stuff if they did.

You can, however, keep the wind.

This is the life of the small (a little more than a foot tall, weighing about five pounds), churlish (it’ll snatch fish right out of a pelican’s beak), and vocal (its territorial call sounds a heck of a lot like a donkey braying) Galapagos Penguin, or Spheniscus mendiculus. Truth be told, it’s actually the life a surprising number of penguins—only two of the 18 penguin species live solely in Antarctica—but the Galapagos Penguin does have the distinction of being the only penguin in the world that breeds in the northern hemisphere. Debating whether penguins have it better down at the icy southern tip of the world or the sunny, sandy middle is as fruitless as debating the merits of L.A. versus New York—but I know which one I’d choose.

Living as they do smack on the equator, Galapagos Penguins have had to adapt to the hot desert, where temperatures regularly run north of 100 degrees, and they beat the heat in a number of ways. For one thing, feathers can get burdensome in the heat, so when they breed, Galapagos Penguins will shed the feathers around their bills and eyes, exposing bare skin, which helps keep them cool. They’re also experts in thermodynamics: They know to stand so that the glaring sun is facing their reflective white belly, not their heat-absorbing black back. And then there’s the matter of refrigerating their eggs: The sun-exposed lava rocks over which Galapagos daintily hop can become so hot as to boil an egg, so the penguins will nest in lava tubes, caves, cracks in the rocks—any place they can squeeze into and find a little shade.

One more thing: They pant, like dogs.

So the Galapagos Penguin has adapted to the heat—but so have a lot of animals. What really sets these birds apart is how they have adapted to the predictable unpredictability of their environment. One of the quirks of living on the equator is that the Galapagos Penguin doesn’t encounter the strong seasonality that penguins elsewhere have to deal with. Instead, it is subject to the whims of the currents, and one in particular: the Cromwell Current. A deepwater current that runs along the equator, the Cromwell Current is extremely productive: During periods of upwelling, when its deep, cold, nutrient-rich waters are hauled to the surface, marine life abounds around the Galapagos. For the penguins, this means a glut of fish on which they happily feast—anchoveta, pilchard, and mullet, among other things.

But while these penguins can be sure that the eating will be good when the Cromwell Current comes to town, they can never be sure when that will actually happen. And a visit from the Cromwell doesn’t mean that all the penguins have to do is kick back and gorge themselves—the wealth of nutrition also makes it prime breeding time. That means that the Galapagos Penguins have to be ready to breed at a moment’s notice. March, November—it doesn’t matter to them; when the water gets cold they get down to business. Sometimes pairs will successfully breed two or three times a year to take advantage of abundant food—each go of it results in a two-egg clutch, and the chicks will be ready to fledge a few months later—and then go for months or longer without breeding at all.

That the Galapagos Penguins have adapted to roll with the currents has the unfortunate side effect of making them vulnerable to strong El Niño events, during which the ocean around the islands stays warm, food levels plummet and penguins stop breeding. And these birds need to breed: The Galapagos Penguin is one of the rarest penguins, with a population of somewhere between 1,500 and 4,700 individuals. As climate change takes its toll, El Niños are only expected to increase in frequency and strength, which has scientists worried about the Galapagos Penguin’s future. On the other hand, just last week scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution released a study suggesting that climate change may actually be helping the Galapagos Penguin by shifting the path of the Cromwell Current so that it reaches parts of the island that haven’t in the past been graced by its cold, fish-filled waters, expanding the penguins’ habitat. Hot sun, cold grub, a (possible) lifeline from the threat of climate change—those little guys down in Antarctica don’t know what they’re missing.