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African Penguins

About AquaFacts: AquaFacts are a resource for students who are looking for information on the animals at the Aquarium or other Aquarium-related topics. Here, we’ve compiled some of the most frequently asked questions that we’ve received about African penguins. The answers come from our biologists and from reputable sources that we reference at the end of this page. If you have a question about African penguins that’s not addressed in this page or the references below, please feel free to email our librarian.

African Penguins

Questions & Answers

What kind of penguin lives at the Aquarium?

The African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) – it’s the only penguin known to live along the southern coasts of Africa today. They breed in colonies on islands and the coastal mainland from Namibia to South Africa.

It’s also called the black-footed penguin (due to the colour of its feet), and the jackass penguin (because of its very distinct donkey-like call).

How many kinds of penguins are there?

There are 18 different kinds (species) of penguins, and they all live in the Southern Hemisphere, except one – the Galapagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus). It lives at the equator.

Contrary to popular belief, penguins and polar bears don’t live in the same part of the world. Polar bears live in the Arctic, which is at the opposite end of the world from Antarctica.

Some (older) penguin information sites may still say that there are 17 penguin species, but we follow the list produced by BirdLife International, which is the official information source for birds used by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

Are African penguins endangered?

Yes, the African penguin is listed as endangered by the IUCN, and by the United States’ Fish and Wildlife Service through the Endangered Species Act.  

95% of them have disappeared since the early 1900s.

One of the biggest threats facing them today is lack of seafood.  These penguins’ main diet is sardines and anchovies, are shifting away from their established breeding colonies, meaning that the birds need to swim further to get their food which is harder for the penguins during the critical time of raising their hungry chicks. African penguins are also competing against the commercial fishery for these fishes.

logo-ocean-wise-small.gifYou can help African penguins by checking to see where your seafood is coming from, and looking for the Ocean Wise symbol. Ocean Wise is a Vancouver Aquarium conservation program created to educate and empower consumers about the issues surrounding sustainable seafood. The Ocean Wise logo next to a menu or seafood item is an assurance that the item is a good choice for keeping ocean life healthy and abundant for generations to come.

Where do the penguins at the Aquarium come from?

They come from the New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts. They were bred there as part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP).

Why were they sent to the Vancouver Aquarium?

They are here as ambassadors for their species, giving our visitors an opportunity to get to know them. This will also help our visitors understand the plight of the African penguins living in southern Africa. 

As a member of the AZA, the Aquarium works with other zoos and aquariums to meet SSP and Penguin Taxonomic Advisory Group (TAG) goals to protect these birds. Besides breeding them, AZA members also work hard to educate our visitors about animals, especially those that are endangered.

Don’t all penguins live in the South Pole?

No they don’t. Of the 18 species of penguins, only four live among the snow and ice of Antarctica year round. 

Two of them, the Adélie (Pygoscelis adeliae) and emperor (Aptenodytes forsteri) live along the coast of mainland Antarctica, and two more, the chinstrap (Pygoscelis Antarctica) and gentoo (Pygoscelis papua) live just on the Antarctic peninsula.  The rest of the species live along the coasts of South America, the Galapagos, New Zealand and Australia as well as small islands throughout


What are those pink patches above the African penguin’s eyes?

Those are bare skin patches that turn pink when the penguin gets hot. It’s a way for them to cool off. Think about your face flushing up (getting red) when you feel hot.

Because they live in sub-tropical climates, African penguins have to cope with both cooling down on land and keeping warm in the water.

How big can these penguins get?

They can grow to 70 cm (2.3 ft) tall (the males are usually a little bigger than the females), and can weigh roughly 3 kg (roughly 6.5 lbs).

How long do African Penguin live?

In the ocean, they seem to have a 10-15 year lifespan, while in human care they can live to be 27 years of age.  They reach sexual maturity at the age of two to four years.


Do these penguins mate for life?

African penguins appear to be a monogamous bird, with mates returning to each other on the same beach and nest site for successive years.  However, if a mate were not to return, an African penguin can find another mate to breed with.

The female will lay a clutch of two eggs in sand or guano (poop) burrows, and both the male and female will take turns incubating their eggs for 40 days.




What do African Penguins eat and how do they catch their food?

African Penguins eat fish, like sardines and anchovies, as well as squid.

They dive for their food using their torpedo-shaped bodies, webbed feet and flipper-shaped wings. 

These birds can swim as fast as 20 km/hr and travel up to 70 km away from land. Their diving trips last about 2.5 minutes and they can go as deep as 60 metres!




Do African penguins raise their chicks?

Yes. After the eggs hatch, the adults will stay with the chicks for a period of 30 days, bringing up swallowed food from their stomachs (regurgitating) and dropping it into their chick’s beaks and also protecting the young from predators. 

After this time, the chicks will join a group of other chicks, called a crèche, while the parents head to sea to forage for food.  



Do African Penguins have any predators?

Yes.  In the water, they have to watch out for Cape fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus), sharks and the occasional killer whale (Orcinus orca).

On land, especially in the breeding colonies, mongooses (Cynictis penicillata), genets (Genetta tigrina), domestic cats, kelp gulls (Larus dominicanus) and sacred ibises (Threskiornis aethiopicus) will eat penguin eggs and chicks.  


Facts & References


  • Koenig, Robert. (2 March 2007) African Penguin Populations Reported in a Puzzling Decline. Science, Vol. 315, p. 1205
  • Encyclopedia of Life, Saundry, P., Caley, K. J. (2010) "Black-footed penguin". In: Encyclopedia of Earth. Eds. Cutler J. Cleveland (Washington, D.C.: Environmental Information Coalition, National Council for Science and the Environment). Last revised Date January 15, 2010; Retrieved May 11, 2012 http://www.eoearth.org/article/Black-footed_penguin

Permission is granted by the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre for classroom teachers to make copies for non-commercial use. This permission does not extend to copying for promotional purposes, creating new collective works, or resale.


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