Classification and Range
Humboldt penguins belong to the family Spheniscidae which includes about 18 species of penguins. There are three species of penguins in this genus: S. demersus, S. magellanicus and S. mendiculus.
Humboldt penguins are found along the coast of Peru and Chile in the Humboldt current. This current flows northward along the west coast of South America, bringing low salinity and nutrient-rich water from Antarctica.
The Humboldt penguin lives on rocky mainland shores, especially near cliffs, or on coastal islands.
15-18 inches (38-45 cm)
Approximately 9 pounds (4 kg)
Approximately 20 years in the wild; up to 30 years at zoos
In the wild: Fish, especially anchovies, herring and smelt.
At the zoo: Live trout, smelt and herring with vitamins added.
Humboldt penguins can breed at any time of the year. Sexual maturity is reached between 2 and 7 years old. Nests are made in caves, cracks or holes and occasionally in more open sites such as rocky shore. Humboldt penguins usually dig burrow-like nests among piles of guano (accumulated droppings of sea birds) which forms in caves and along cliffs. Females lay one or two eggs and the incubation period is approximately 40 days. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs. At times, only one chick survives because hatching is staggered and one chick may be smaller than another. When food is scarce the parents feed only the larger chick and the smaller chick quickly starves.
Chick care begins with parents alternating jobs of sitting with the chick and hunting for food. After about two months, the chick is left alone during the day while both parents hunt for food. Chicks are born with greyish brown, downy feathers then molt into completely grey feathers when they fledge. Humboldt penguin chicks fledge at about 70-90 days. Approximately one year after chicks fledge, they molt into adult feathers. Adult penguins have a white front and a brownish-black back and head. They also have a dark stripe across the chest and a white mark circling above each eye and forward around the neck.
Humboldt penguins are social animals, living in relatively large colonies, where communication is important. Colonies are beneficial because they provide collective defense against predators. Unlike Antarctic penguins that huddle together in large groups to stay warm, Humboldt penguins have no need to do this because of the warm, temperate climate in which they live. Instead, to warm up or cool down, Humboldt penguins seek the security and comfort of their nesting burrows. Humboldt penguins, like all penguins, are monogamous. Mated penguins can recognize one another through vocal and visual mechanisms within the colony. Parents and offspring can also recognize each other easily using sight and sound. Each penguin has a unique voice which allows its mate and offspring to recognize it.
Born to Swim
Humboldt penguins have a body made to swim. Using their strong wings, they "fly" underwater, usually just below the surface, at speeds of up to 17 miles per hour (10.56 kmph). They steer with their feet and tail. Their feathers are stiff and overlap to waterproof and insulate their body. Dense feathers also protect the penguin in winds of up to 60 miles per hour (96 kmph). Humboldt penguins, like all penguins, can see easily underwater and on land. Also, these birds have a supraorbital gland which enables them to drink salt water in addition to fresh water. The gland withdraws excess salt from the penguins' blood and excretes it in a concentrated solution which dribbles down the bill. In zoos, Humboldt penguins usually live in fresh water and as a result the gland is dormant. Living only in fresh water does not affect the penguins' health.
Location at the Zoo
Woodland Park Zoo's Humboldt penguins are on exhibit in a brand new, environmentally friendly exhibit mimicking the rocky, arid coastline of their home in Peru. The new exhibit is located on the north end of the zoo near the Rain Forest Food Pavilion.
Humboldt penguins are an endangered species. It is estimated that 10,000-12,000 survive in the wild. These population figures do not take into account the El Niño of 1997-98, which had a devastating effect on Humboldt penguins. During El Niño periods, cool, nutrient-rich waters warm, forcing prey species of fish to go elsewhere in search of food. As a result, penguins die of starvation. The primary reason Humboldt penguins are endangered is due to humans. The guano in which Humboldt penguins make their nests is a valuable fertilizer used in agriculture. Humans disrupt the penguins by removing and destroying the guano during nesting season. Humboldt penguins also must compete with the offshore fishing industry in Peru and Chile and they often get caught in fishing nets and drown. Other threats to Humboldt penguins are oil spills, humans collecting their eggs for food, disturbances caused by tourists and researchers, and introduced predators such as rats, cats and dogs.
Woodland Park Zoo participates in the Association of Zoos & Aquariums' (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP) for the Humboldt penguin. This program works to increase the number of healthy captive Humboldt penguins. Woodland Park Zoo also works to educate the public about Humboldt penguins and this is the first step to conservation. We also support the Humboldt penguin conservation project in Punta San Juan, Peru. About 230 Humboldt penguins survive in captivity in North America.
How You Can Help!
The effort to save endangered Humboldt penguins requires cooperation and support at the international, national, regional and individual levels. You can help in this cause. Join and become active in Woodland Park Zoo and other conservation organizations of your choice. Please do not buy products made from wild animal parts. Contact your elected representatives and express your views about conservation of endangered species and wild habitats.
Contact Woodland Park Zoo at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how you can support conservation efforts at the zoo. Learn other ways you can help conserve wildlife and the habitats they require for survival by visting our How You Can Help section.
Sources and Suggested Reading
Davis, Lloyd S. and John T. Darby. 1990. Penguin Biology. Academic Press, Inc., San Diego, CA. 467 p.
Cheney, Cynthia. November 1998. The Current Situation of the Humboldt Penguin in Chile and Peru: a Report From the Population and Habitat Viability Analysis Meeting, Part 1. Penguin Conservation, pp. 4-9.
del Hoyo, Josep, Andrew Elliott and Jordi Sargatal. 1992. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. 696 p.
Love, John. 1997. Penguins. Voyageur Press, Stillwater, MN. 72 p.
Zoobooks. 1993. Penguins. Wildlife Education Ltd., San Diego, CA. 18 p.