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African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) Fact Sheet, 2013   Tags: animals, birds, fact sheets, san diego zoo, sdzg, wildlife  

San Diego Zoo Global Library fact sheet for the African penguin, Spheniscus demersus
Last Updated: Apr 25, 2017 URL: Print Guide RSS UpdatesEmail Alerts

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African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) Fact Sheet, 2013

African penguin swimming

Image Credit: San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

TaxonomyPhysical Characteristics

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Aves

Order: Sphenisciformes

Family:  Spheniscidae

Genus:  Spheniscus

Species: Spheniscus demersus (Linnaeus, 1758) - African Penguin

Body Weight: Body mass highly variable with seasonal moult.

Male: 3.31 kg, on average (7.3 lb)
Female: 2.96 kg, on average (6.53 lb)

Body Length: Male & female: 60-70 cm (c. 2 ft)

Sexual dimorphism: Little to none

Pelage: Adult: back black with white underparts; a single black elliptical band running across breast to either flank; bill, legs, and feet black; whitish bare skin over the eye. Immature: back is blue grey when they first fledge, fading to brown before molt, bill dusky to dark grey. Chick: first down brown and replaced with a darker color; face, throat and belly white

Distribution & StatusBehavior & Ecology

Range: Endemic to Africa. Inhabits coastal shores and islands off Africa's southern cape, with populations in the countries of South Africa and Namibia.

Habitat: On land, found on low-lying, rock-strewn islands and more recently established mainland colonies. At sea, to within 50 km or more from islands or within 15 km of the mainland.

IUCN Status: Endangered A2ace+3ce+4ace ver 3.1; demonstrates a decreasing population trend. 60% decline in the six years between 2001 and 2009.

CITES Appendix: Appendix II (January 7, 1975)

NEMBA: Protected (February 23, 2007)

Population in Wild: Recent (2011) estimate of 25-26,000 breeding pairs, or roughly 75-80,000 total individuals.

Locomotion: On land, walks upright, with a straight-backed gait; flippers held away from the body, hops over small rock gaps and slides down large inclines. At sea, efficient swimmer; uses wing strokes to move the body. Steers with tail, feet, and wings. Travels quickly while porpoising (c. 12km/hr). At the water surface, head and back are visible and tail is held level with water surface. Overall speed during foraging trips 3.5-6.3 km/hr. Dive to forage; flippers held to sides; commonly reaches depths between 15 and 23 m; submerged between 87 and 275 seconds.

Activity Cycle:  Most adults leave colonies around dawn, swimming out to forage; one adult remains with eggs and chicks at all times. Foraging adults usually remain at sea until late afternoon or dusk. Courtship and mating frequently occurs at dawn and after dusk, although is not restricted to these times. Nest building is carried out during the day.

Social Groups: As with other penguins, forms large colonies for breeding and resting. Allopreening on land believed to reduce aggression. May synchronize foraging when in small groups at sea.

Diet: Consume pelagic fishes across a range of sizes; primarily anchovy and pilchard. Take squid and at least 15 other fishes; rarely crustaceans. Some evidence for seasonality in the diet. Undergo regular fasting for up to 18 days during molt.

Predators: Various animals; commonly fall prey to Cape fur seals. Gulls, ibis, snakes, and cats prey on eggs and chicks. Sharks may take individuals at sea.

Reproduction & DevelopmentSpecies Highlights

Breeding Season: Prolonged; records of breeding in most months at multiple sites.

Sexual Maturity: Most first reproduce at four years of age; may be as early as two or as late as seven.

Courtship: Complex courtship displays performed by male and female; includes behaviors such as bowing and embracing.

Nest Construction: Three primary forms: burrows, surface scrapes, and covered nests, most lined with collected materials. Burrows are the traditional nest type.

Clutch Size: 1-2 eggs

Egg Characteristics: First laid egg generally slightly larger than the second; 54-76 mm x 47-55 mm, 99-118 g. Color is chalky, white.

Chick Weight: c. 60 g (Hatching weight)

Incubation and Care: Incubation lasts 38-41 days. Incubation and feeding undertaken equally by parents; most shifts last 1-2 days. Food is provided  by the adults until shortly before the chick fledges.

Fledging: 70-80 days of age; 1750-3000 g

Longevity: Maximum lifespan recorded in wild, over 27 years

Feature Facts: Africa's only endemic penguin is medium sized, 60-70 cm (c. 2 ft) tall. Temperate in distribution, inhabiting coastal shores and islands of South Africa and Namibia. Individuals aggregate on the coasts and islands, forming large breeding colonies. Consumes pelagic fishes, especially anchovy and pilchard.

Endangered due to human actions, largely driven by historical guano harvesting and egg exploitation. More recently threatened by ongoing oiling. The current main threat to this species is a mis-match between the distribution of its main prey items and their main breeding locations.   When breeding, their foraging range is limited to an average of c. 40km; adequate food resources must be fairly close to the colony.  Competition with humans and an expanding Cape fur seal population for food is a compounding threat.


About This Fact Sheet

© 2013 San Diego Zoo Global. Updated August 2015.

How to cite: African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) Fact Sheet, 2013. c2013. San Diego (CA): San Diego Zoo Global; [accessed YYYY Mmm dd]. 
(note: replace YYYY Mmm dd with date accessed, e.g., 2014 Sep 15)

Disclaimer: Although San Diego Zoo Global makes every attempt to provide accurate information, some of the facts provided may become outdated or replaced by new research findings. Questions and comments may be addressed to

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