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African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

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

Activity Cycle

Daily activity patterns (Frost et al. 1976a; Petersen et al. 2006)

  • Most adults leave colonies at or before dawn, swimming out to forage
    • Numbers increase in late afternoon and evening as foraging birds return to the colony
      • One parent remains with nests containing eggs and small chicks at all times
      • Loafing adults are often seen
    • Most individuals return before nightfall
  • Breeding site activity (Frost et al. 1976a)
    • Courtship and mating
      • Frequently at dawn and after dusk, although not restricted to these times
      • Evident by increase in "ecstatic" and "loud mutual" displays (see Vocalization, below)
    • Nest building carried out during the day (P Whittington, personal communication)
    • Chicks fed in late afternoon and evening
    • Incubation changes likely occur at dusk
  • Beach activity (Frost et al. 1976a)
    • Many drink and/or bathe in water (5-10m from shore); presumably to cool down


  • Active foraging starts near sunrise (Frost et al. 1976a; Heath and Randall 1989; Petersen et al. 2006; Wilson and Wilson 1990)
    • Outbound journeys begin as penguins move to beaches before swimming offshore
    • Characterized by zig-zagging patterns (Heath and Randall 1989)
  • Swimming speeds vary over trip
    • 3.5-6.3 km/hr (2.2-3.9 mi/hr) over entire trip (Heath and Randall 1989)
    • Mean daytime speed 3.28 km/hr (2 mi/hr) (Petersen et al. 2006)
    • Move more slowly at night, with mean speed 1.73 km/hr (1.1 mi/hr) (Petersen et al. 2006)
  • Distance and duration of travel dependent on prey availability and abundance
    • 5.7-27.9 km (3.5-17.3 mi) foraging range (Petersen et al. 2006, similar to results of Heath and Randall 1989)
    • 14-32 km (8.7-19.9 mi) foraging range in another study (Pichegru et al. 2010)
      • Distances decreased with the establishment of a no-fishing permitted zone near the colony
    • Chick influence on parental foraging effort unclear (Petersen et al. 2006)
      • Conflicting results from two separate populations
    • Foraging is generally not a group activity (Wilson and Wilson 1990)

Diving (Petersen et al. 2006; Pichegru et al. 2010)

  • Depth and duration variable and likely influenced by food availability
    • Depth
      • Typically 15-25 m (16.4-27.3 yd)
      • Up to 91 m (99.5 yd)
    • Duration
      • 87-275 seconds
  • Over 40% foraging trip time spent in dives (Petersen et al. 2006)


Social Behavior

Form groups

  • On land
    • Aggregate in large colonies on land to reproduce, molt, and rest (like all penguins)
  • At sea
    • Typically form small groups at sea, generally 10-50 birds (Mori 1999)
    • Synchronized dive behavior in groups of 12 or fewer (Wilson et al. 1986; Wilson and Wilson 1990)
      • Synchronicity breaks down within larger groups (Wilson et al. 1986; Wilson and Wilson 1990)


  • Mutual preening between chicks, chicks and parents, breeding pairs, and colony members (Eggleton and Siegfried 1979)
  • Believed to reduce aggression


(Data from Eggleton and Siegfried 1979 unless otherwise noted)

Features of aggression

  • Most aggressive behavior occurs between individuals approximately 0.5 m apart


  • Basic aggression display is "point"
    • Bill of one individual pointed directly at another
    • Crest held erect in extremely aggressive displays
  • Pecking
    • Occurs when birds are near one another, e.g. gathering or stealing nesting materials
  • Bill-slapping
    • Occurs between birds at nest-site, e.g. if female refuses to mate
    • Heads shaken side to side, with bills making sharp contact
    • May include pecking and interlocking of bills, pulling, and pushing in an effort to push or dislodge opponent


  • Beat another with flippers
  • Growl when pecking

Chick and juvenile aggression

  • Juveniles 
    • Hiss with mouth held agape; directed toward adults
  • Clutch siblings rarely fight (Seddon and Van Heezik 1991a; Seddon and Van Heezik 1993a)
    • Competition between siblings during feeding limited to jostling for the best position
    • Some pecking, flippering and hissing occurs (Seddon and Van Heezik 1993a)
    • Older sibling often interrupts feeding of the younger; rarely the other way around
  • Molting chicks aggressive toward adults, including their parents

    Comfort Behaviors

    Grooming (from Eggleton and Siegfried 1979)

    • Preen
      • Fluff and nibble feathers to remove dirt and debris
      • Rub and scratch the head
        • Often rub the top of the head and cheeks against the uropygial gland
      • Bite the flippers

    Stretching (from Eggleton and Siegfried 1979)

    • Stretch, shake, and yawn
    • Rapidly flap the wings



    • Nasal, donkey-like brays and sighing sobs (Brown et al. 1982)
      • Braying forms a large component of physical displays to advertise territory or availability for mating (Eggleton and Siegfried 1979)
      • Braying often observed when birds at sea in the dark or fog (Frost et al. 1976a)
      • Click here for audio of the African Penguin; provided by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Macaulay Library

    Juveniles (Eggleton and Siegfried 1979)

    • Bray and hiss
      • Hissing generally directed toward adults


    • Begging for food an attention
      • Characterized by high-pitched calls coupled with small, speedy side-to-side head shaking (Seddon and Van Heezik 1993b)
      • Parental recognition of offspring based on begging call is possible (Seddon and Van Heezik 1993b)
    • Hiss
      • Generally performed by older chicks and directed toward adults (Eggleton and Siegfried 1979)

    Thermal Stress Adaptations

    Cooling behaviors (from Frost et al. 1976a)

    • Pant
    • Bath

    Warming behaviors (from Frost et al. 1976a unless otherwise noted)

    • Sunning
      • On land
        • Orient the back toward the sun
          • Can increase or decrease body temperature
      • At sea
        • Hold flippers and feet above water while floating at the surface with body rotated c. 45O (Cooper 1977)
        • Highly vascularized flippers promote heat exchange with the environment (Louw 1992)
    • In extreme cold
      • Rest with beak tucked under flipper when temperatures are cool (Eggleton and Siegfried 1979)


    At sea

    • Swimming
      • Head and back visible when swimming at the surface; tail held level with water surface (Brown et al. 1982)
      • Continuous wing beat typical when swimming horizontal at constant speed (Clark and Bemis 1979)
      • Pattern of wing stroke analyzed using film of penguins at the Detroit Zoo (Clark and Bemis 1979)
        • Wing stroke nearly perpendicular to the long axis of the body
        • Up and down strokes roughly equal in duration
        • Conclusions: lift is directed upward and forward on downstroke and downward and forward on the upstroke
      • Maximum wing speed precedes leaps from water surface (Clark and Bemis 1979)
        • 3.23 m/sec maximum wing speed (Clark and Bemis 1979)
      • Maximum wing beat frequency 3.24 beats/sec (Clark and Bemis 1979)
      • Directional control using tail, feet, and wings (Clark and Bemis 1979)
        • Feet and tail alter movement up or down along body's vertical axis
        • Wing movements in both upward and downward strokes produce directional change
      • Always turn ventral surface to the inside of a turn (Clark and Bemis 1979)
      • Porpoising - leaping interspersed with brief swimming (Hui 1987)
        • Occurs relatively infrequently (Wilson and Wilson 1990)
        • Used for rapid travel (Wilson and Wilson 1990)
          • Speed approximately 12 km/h, with short dives followed by breathing leaps
          • Observed when fleeing, or when pursuing large, mobile schools of fishes
    • Diving
      • Flippers held to side (Brown et al. 1982)

    On land (Eggleton and Siegfried 1979)

    • Walk with an upright, straight-backed gait; flippers held away from the body
    • Hop over small gaps on rocks
    • Slide down large inclines


    African penguins

    Allopreening is thought to reduce aggressive behavior.

    Image credit: © Trisha Shears from Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.


    video of penguins

    Vocalizations by African Penguins.

    Click on image above for video. From © ARKive. Some rights reserved.

    Page Citations

    Brown et al. (1982)
    Clark and Bemis (1979)
    Cooper (1977)
    Eggleton and Siegfried (1979)
    Frost et al. (1976a)
    Heath and Randall (1989)
    Hui (1987)
    Louw (1992)
    Mori (1999)
    Petersen et al. (2006)
    Pichegru et al. (2010)
    Seddon and Van Heezik  (1991a)
    Seddon and Van Heezik  (1993a)
    Seddon and Van Heezik  (1993b)
    Wilson and Wilson (1990)
    Wilson et al. (1986)

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