We do not maintain a permanent station in the Galápagos and due to travel expenses, are only able to visit twice a year. The Galápagos penguin’s reproductive cycle is based on weather conditions, making it difficult to predict when they’ll breed, so we rely on reports from tour guides and tourists to know whether the penguins are reproducing, molting, or migrating around the island(s). This is where you come in! We seek your help in determining where the penguins are, the size of the population, if/when they are breeding and molting, and their overall body condition. By sharing the pictures you take during your travels you can help us evaluate the condition of the penguins, and shape how we move forward in the conservation of this endangered species.
Darwin never saw penguins during his visit to the Galápagos Islands. These small penguins tuck themselves away in lava tubes and rocky crevices, often escaping the human eye. Penguin eggs were found on the islands in 1906, and a few nests were discovered in the 1950’s and 1960’s. It wasn’t until 1970, that Dr. Dee Boersma, then a young graduate student starting her dissertation studies, discovered Galápagos penguins were breeding at several sites on the islands. Boersma did the first head count of penguins around Fernandina and Isabela in 1970, and another count in 1971. Both years she counted more than 2,000 penguins. In 1972, an El Niño event caused reproductive failure for Galápagos penguins and crashed the population of seabirds in Peru and Ecuador. Following El Niños in 1984 and 1988, the head count of Galápagos penguins was under 500. While the frequency and intensity of El Niño events are increasing with climate change, the reverse trend is true for La Niña events. During a La Niña event, an upwelling of cool, nutrient rich water carries high quality food up into penguin foraging areas. As a result of this increased productivity, penguin reproductive success is highest during these periods. Changes in these weather events are the leading cause of the Galápagos penguin decline. The Galápagos penguin is the rarest of all penguin species and categorized as Endangered on the IUCN Red List because of their small, restricted population. Although exact population numbers have never been determined, the current population is likely somewhere between 1,500 and 4,700 penguins, suspected to be about half of what it was in the 1970’s (Boersma et al. 2013).
Another contributing factor to the Galápagos penguin population decline is the lack of high-quality nest sites. Managing oceanographic conditions is impossible, however a low-cost means of addressing nest-site limitations and increasing reproductive success is possible. Over the last 40 years, many of the natural sites where penguins used to breed have disappeared. They have eroded, collapsed, flooded, or been taken over by marine iguanas. In the 1970s Boersma found a pair of penguins breeding in the open. They laid their eggs on the lava where there was no shade. Each day they became too hot to incubate their eggs, so they deserted them and returned in the afternoon when it was cooler. Their eggs were soon cooked. Boersma reasoned that if she built high-quality nest sites for the penguins, more penguins would have an opportunity to breed when conditions were favorable. Creating shaded nest sites in the lava was an inexpensive, simple intervention to increase Galápagos penguins’ breeding and reproductive success.
Our organization, the Center for Penguins as Ocean Sentinels led by Dee Boersma, teamed up with the Galápagos National Park and Godfrey Merlen and began building nests in 2010. With funding from Lucille and David Packard Foundation, Galápagos Conservancy, Disney Conservation Fund, and other individual donors, we built 120 nests. We return to the islands twice a year to check and maintain these nests and to record how many penguins we see on each island. This data gives insight into the health and well-being of the penguins and their use of constructed nests.
Garcia Borboroglu, P., & Boersma, P. D. (2013). Penguins: natural history and conservation. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.