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African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) Fact Sheet: Summary

San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Library fact sheet for the African penguin, Spheniscus demersus

African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) Fact Sheet

African Penguin swimming

African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus)

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.


Taxonomy Physical 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 (7.3 lb), on average
Female: 2.96 kg (6.53 lb), on average

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 & Status Behavior & 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 (2018 assessment)

CITES Appendix: Appendix II

South Africa: Protected since 2007 under the National Environment Management: Biodiversity Act

Populations in the Wild: approximately 41,700 mature individuals, or about 20,850 breeding pairs (2019 estimate)

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 & Development Species 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

Typical Life Expectancy:
Managed care: median life expectancy of about 18 years

Feature Facts

  • Africa's only endemic penguin
  • Aggregates on coasts and islands, forming large breeding colonies
  • Consumes pelagic fishes, especially anchovy and pilchard
  • Overlapping feathers repel water, wind, and provide insulation
  • Gives donkey-like calls
  • Monogamous mating system (some exceptions)
  • Population declines largely driven by historical guano harvesting and egg exploitation
  • Threatened by ongoing oiling, lack of food due to overfishing and food competition with seals

About This Fact Sheet

© 2013-2019 San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. Updated August 2015. Population estimate updated May 2023.

How to cite: African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) Fact Sheet. c2013-2019. San Diego (CA): San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance; [accessed YYYY Mmm dd]. africanpenguin/home. 
(note: replace YYYY Mmm dd with date accessed, e.g., 2014 Sep 15)

Disclaimer: Although San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance 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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