Can rare tropical penguins survive in the Galapagos?

The Galapagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus) is an endemic species, but that fact doesn’t save it from being threatened with extinction in its environment. Their nests can be found on Isabela, Fernandina, Bartolome and Floreana Islands, but their habitat is shrinking though time due to climate change and other threats.

Galapagos penguin posing during the last monitoring developed by the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) and the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD) in 2016. Photograph by: Daniela Vilema

Very docile and gentle, Galapagos penguins are unique. They are not only one of the smallest penguin species in the world, but also are the only penguins that live along the equator, in a tropical climate. Their feeding area is near the coast and their diet is mainly composed of fish and crustaceans. These birds are excellent divers, finding prey as deep as 50 m beneath the ocean surface.

But all this diving fun may be coming to an end, because the warming of the ocean is forcing the penguins to swim farther and farther in search of food. And along these longer journeys they become prey of bigger predators lurking in the open waters.

This change in foraging patterns is happening due to global climate change, and it is one of the main threats to the Galapagos penguin’s survival.

The future for the Galapagos penguin looks bleak

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently assessed the species as “Endangered” (close to extinction) ¹, because its population has been reduced to one of the smallest ever recorded.

Galapagos penguin released after being tagged by scientists from the CDF and the GNPD. Photograph by Daniela Vilema

The Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF), a scientific research institution based on the Galapagos Islands, has contributed to a catalogue of other threats to the indigenous penguin, including “introduced species” preying on their eggs and chicks. Alien predators include cats and rats. Pathogens and diseases carried by mosquitos and flies are also a concern.

Galapagos penguin ready to get back into the water; the lines on its chest were drawn with a red marker to avoid its recapture. Photograph by: Daniela Vilema

Besides these existential threats, penguins are not prolific breeders; they typically lay 2 to 3 eggs that hatch after 35 to 42 days, and the success rate depends on the quantity of the food.

Silver Lining

There is a silver lining to our penguin story. Since 2010, Charles Darwin Foundation together with Galapagos National Park Directorate have been monitoring and cataloguing individuals and nests, to obtain information such as survival rates, reproduction, and threats.

The leader of this project, Gustavo Jimenez-Uzcátegui, says that improved observation records and data sets are the baseline to develop a long-term management plan to guarantee the survival of the Galapagos penguin.

Penguins in the sunset at the west of the Galapagos after a tagging day. Photograph by Daniela Vilema

You can also help!

Learn more about the Galapagos penguins and the Charles Darwin Foundation; make a donation: CDF Galapagos

Headshot by Jen Shook taken at the National Geographic Storytelling Bootcamp_Galapagos 2017

Daniel Unda Garcia is a communicator, graphic designer, and illustration artist at the Communications Department 0f the Charles Darwin Foundation in the Galapagos Islands.


  1. International Union for Conservation of Nature, Red List of Threatened Species, assessed March 14, 2014, IUCN Red List information for specific penguin species can be obtained by entering the scientific name in the search field “Enter Red List search term(s).”

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Daniel Unda Garcia is a communicator, graphic designer, and illustration artist at the Communications Department of the Charles Darwin Foundation in the Galapagos Islands.