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A Penguin's Guide To Life And Death In The Galapagos Islands

Updated on November 12, 2011

Darwin's Jewel

Six hundred miles west of Ecuador lie the majestic Galapagos Islands. Cast away and isolated from the South American content and the chaos of civilization, the islands have flourished as a vibrant living museum and scientific treasure trove. Its stunning shorelines, highlands and fauna remain a turbulent still-life portrait whose colors merge and change with every day that passes.

Only three years after Ecuador claimed the islands in 1832, Charles Darwin began to pace its timeless highlands, instilling him with an inspiration that would soon shake the world. As we float past the savage beauty and variety of these Islands, it will become apparent why Darwin chose to describe it as "a little world within itself".

The ebb and flow of everyday life perfectly evokes our own personal struggles, fears and joys, a picturesque and timeless accentuation of life. Welcome to the Galapagos!

Our hero Spheniscus mendiculus has earnt its place and right to survive against a multitude of odds.
Our hero Spheniscus mendiculus has earnt its place and right to survive against a multitude of odds.

Spheniscus mendiculus

Found only in the Galapagos, Spheniscus mendiculus is the only known penguin that lives north of the equator.

Their population has dropped to a frightening 1500 in recent years but seems to have stabilized.

A Penguin's Struggle

The Galapagos penguin is one of many animals endemic to the Islands. In order to survive it has had to endure a great many dangers, and adapt to an ever changing environment. It takes a brave set of eyes to adjust to the shifting patterns of the Galapagos.

In this article we'll be following Ben, our Galapagos penguin friend, as he deals with the various struggles, joys and threats that his home throws his way.

Unlike his southern counterparts, Ben has had to evolve to survive the (comparatively) warm temperature of the Galapagos archipelago, where most of his kind live. In order to accelerate heat loss Ben will often be caught either hunched up to shade his feet, or upright with arms outstretched to retain as little warmth as possible. This strange dance is unique to his kind.

He has had to toughen up and weather the frustrating unpredictability of El Niño events, which can drastically lower his source of food (primarily small fish) and lead to drastic fluctuations in environmental and current temperature -- critical issues for any living creature. A salient example of how Ben manages to deal with it is the heightened flexibility of his breeding patterns. Most penguins designate a single time of year to breeding. In the Galapagos however, there's no such thing as a day-to-day.

Don't Look Down

Galapagos sharks reign over the Galapagos' temperate waters.
Galapagos sharks reign over the Galapagos' temperate waters. | Source
Swallow-tailed Gull "marriages" are known to last for years. There's little time to impress and date-around.
Swallow-tailed Gull "marriages" are known to last for years. There's little time to impress and date-around. | Source

The Cycle of Life

Breeding is a question of opportunity for Ben. Weather permitting, he could successfully father up to three clutches in a year!

Due to the savageness and limited time-frame the environment offers, Galapagos penguins bond for life. Selecting a partner's qualities is secondary to the need to survive and procreate. In an effort to improve intra-marital affairs, an ongoing ritual of preening and bill-tapping keeps the interest high and the divorce rates low.

Heat loss, as I mentioned earlier, is also of imperative importance. New-born chicks are covered in fluffy brown-white feathers that protect them from the sun's rays (and not , as one might initially guess, to keep them warm).

As we'll come to respect, the weather is but one of many dangers to chicks. Ben and his kind's awkwardness on the land make them an easy, cherished meal for many starving predators. Even below the sparkling turquoise waters that are their source of food and life, terrific dangers await.

A close shave

Despite Ben's incredible ability to adapt, Galapagos penguins rely on the cool currents that arrive from Antarctica (specifically, the Humboldt current) for much of their food. In the 1980's El Niño interference led Ben and his kind perilously close to exinction.

Playing Russian Roulette

Imagine for one second living in a world where everything you do could kill you, when even doing nothing poses a mortal threat. There is no solace for Ben, in order to live he must dive shallowly in the archipelago and hope to find food among under the underwater crags and rocks, and contend with the inevitable. Predators.

On land, the minute penguin is vulnerable even to notoriously slow and clumsy carnivores such as Sally lightfoot crabs. Other predators par excellence; birds of prey (hawks, owls), snakes, cats, feral dogs and even rats, pose a constant threat, especially to hapless chicks.

Galapagos Hawks control the air every bit as firmly as sharks do the surround water.
Galapagos Hawks control the air every bit as firmly as sharks do the surround water. | Source
Even the sluggish Galapagos Sea Lion has been occasionally observed killing penguins.
Even the sluggish Galapagos Sea Lion has been occasionally observed killing penguins. | Source

Below the deceptively crystalline waters, and despite the Galapagos penguin's relative speed and dexterity swimming, matters are equally challenging. Sharks, sea lions and fur seals can easily kill an adult Galapagos penguin and often do.

Perhaps the greatest threat of all comes from human interference. As the human race overpopulates and grows, fishermen and large oil companies have begun to seek their prize further afield, edging continuously closer to the fragile Galapagos ecosystem. Penguins tend to get caught in fishing nets and lines, and large scale oil spills have a profound affect on the ailing population that depends on an already delicate environmental balance.

Despite the large amount of predators that surround him, Ben's greatest threat comes from feral dogs and cats which have recently been introduced by humans on the island. The introduction of these predators has upset the isolated evolutionary arms race between predator and prey, giving endemic species little time to adapt. A study performed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that a number of cats let loose near a Penguin breeding area reduced their population by 51% in a single year! The only chance penguins have at long-term survival is to move away from their natural and unnatural predators by migrating once again.

A Little World Within Itself

Ben has a number of islands to call upon for safe refuge, even though the chance of finding a rich fishing spot complete with cool incoming currents may not be easy to find. Today, over 90% of Galapagos penguins are found on the western Islands of Fernandina and Isabela (although smaller populations can be found on many other islands).

The Galapagos Islands are wonderfully diverse, the old English names can be seen alongside their modern counterparts.
The Galapagos Islands are wonderfully diverse, the old English names can be seen alongside their modern counterparts. | Source

Despite their relative proximity, the main island and her six smaller sister islands are akin to small worlds within an even smaller world. While Ben's ilk are spread throughout the islands (although not uniformly given their necessities) many species are endemic to their respective islands. Due to the absence of land-bridges, there's always something unique to be found somewhere over the horizon.

As the sun sets on the western coast of Isla Fernandina, Ben may look longingly towards the daunting expanses of water which may one day be his only hope of survival. Behind him predators click and hiss, pressing him hesitantly towards the water.

Perhaps it's time to roll the dice once more, as his ancestor did so long ago. What would his chances of survival be? Where would he end up?

Ben let a strong sense of optimism flow through him, after all, they'd done it once before hadn't they?

Thank you very much for reading this article! I hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed writing it. I will be happy to address any questions or criticisms in the comment section below. Thanks again!



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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Thoog, you are doing wonderful writing in English. It does not seem to bother Ben the Penguin to be isolated from the "content" of South America. [I want a smiley here and don't know where to find them.]

    • ElizaDoole profile image

      Lisa McKnight 

      7 years ago from London

      Fantastic hub. I really really want to go there someday.Voted up.

    • profile image

      W. Ratliff 

      7 years ago

      very interesting article. I'm still wondering if it ever gets cold enough to freeze [ or kill ] an adult penguin.

    • thooghun profile imageAUTHOR

      James Nelmondo 

      7 years ago from Rome, Italy

      hahaha thanks for the awesome comment Tsadjako. Got a kick out of me :)

    • tsadjatko profile image

      7 years ago from now on

      I agree with Simone!! but you left an important element out of your hub..I'll bet you never knew this.

      Did you ever wonder why there are no dead penguins on the ice in Antarctica - where do they go? As you have explained the penguin is a very ritualistic bird which lives an extremely ordered and complex life. As you state the penguin is very committed to its family and will mate for life, as well as maintaining a form of compassionate contact with its offspring throughout its life.

      If a penguin is found dead on the ice surface, other members of the family and social circle have been known to dig holes in the ice, using their vestigial wings and beaks, until the hole is deep enough for the dead bird to be rolled into and buried. The male penguins then gather in a circle around the fresh grave and sing:

      "Freeze a jolly good fellow"

      "Freeze a jolly good fellow."

      "Then they kick him in the ice hole."

      You really didn't believe that I know anything about penguins, did you? :-) Great hub though I enjoyed reading it!!

    • htodd profile image


      7 years ago from United States

      Thanks Great articles..Nice

    • thooghun profile imageAUTHOR

      James Nelmondo 

      7 years ago from Rome, Italy

      Thanks Simone! The fact that they are preyed on by crabs is what creeps me out the most, imagine that!

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      7 years ago from San Francisco

      This Hub is so awesome. Poor Ben! He sure doesn't have it easy. And goodness, I would never have imagined that feral dogs and cats would be his biggest enemy (at least animal-wise)... how interesting! ...and depressing T_____T

    • thooghun profile imageAUTHOR

      James Nelmondo 

      7 years ago from Rome, Italy

      Thanks for taking the time Scribble! The impact of global warming is undeniable, especially in these fragile ecosystems where a hairs-breadth is all that keeps most species alive. I tried to avoid wandering off onto larger subjects and instead stuck with Ben and the world as he would see it!

      Thank you very much!

    • i scribble profile image

      i scribble 

      7 years ago

      I wondered if this article on the beloved penguin would be largely about climate change. Apparently not, but the footprint of man is still there, with the new problem of stray cats and dogs as predators. I think global warming is affecting the Antarctic penguins much more, at least so far. I'll check out your linked article about it. Very nicely written article.

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 

      7 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Fascinating penguinlore and a great look at the Galapagos. Great armchair voyage-- thanks

    • chspublish profile image


      7 years ago from Ireland

      It's really good to know abut these penguins struggling to survive the difficult conditions of these islands, not to speak of the damage by the cats.

    • thooghun profile imageAUTHOR

      James Nelmondo 

      7 years ago from Rome, Italy

      Thanks for taking the time to read the article Jacqui!

    • jacqui2011 profile image


      7 years ago from Norfolk, UK

      Wow. What a fascinating and interesting hub. Wonderful pictures too. Voted up and awesome.


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