​We all love African penguins - they are definitely one of the favourite animals here at the Two Oceans Aquarium! These little jackasses as noisy, cantankerous, curious and mischievous, but they are also at great risk of extinction. In celebration of Penguin Awareness day, here are 50 facts about these precious birds, and a few ways you can support them too!

  1. African penguins truly mate for life. 80-90% of all African penguin couples will stay together for their entire lives.
  2. They are an indicator species - the decline in African penguin numbers is directly related to the overfishing of lesser-appreciated species like anchovies and sardines, and to climate change.
  3. Their scientific name Spheniscus demersus means "diving wedges".
  4. They used to be called jackass penguins because they make a braying sound like a donkey.
    The classy "braying" sound of African penguins is scientifically known as an ecstatic display song, and it's the sound a single penguin makes to attract a mate.
  5. They have pink glands above their eyes that they can send blood to to help cool down in the summer heat. The hotter a penguin is, the pinker its eyebrow glands become.
    The pink glands above African penguins' eyes helps them cool off in the hot southern African summer.
  6. They are most closely related to the Humboldt, Magellanic and Galapagos penguins of South America.
  7. Although they look chubby, the maximum weight of an African penguin is about 4kg.
  8. The black spots on their chest and belly are unique to each penguin and are the main way humans learn to tell the penguins apart.
    The pattern of spots on the chest and belly of each African penguin is completely unique. It helps them to identify each other, and it's how our penguin keepers learn to tell them apart.
  9. Male African penguins are larger and have longer beaks than females.
  10. African penguins lay two eggs at a time.
  11. The black and white colours of the African penguin are a form of countershading camouflage, and also allow them to easily coordinate movement with each other underwater.
  12. Before human interference, African penguins only ever made colonies on islands. Famous colonies like Boulders Beach and Stoney Point are modern arrivals.
  13. There were more than 4 million African penguins in the 1800s. Today there are only about 50 000.
  14. South Africa and Namibia are the only countries with African penguin colonies.
  15. The deepest dive and breath-hold for an African penguin is 130m for 275 seconds.
  16. Their preferred food is sardines, but because of overfishing, they are being forced to change diets.
  17. Their nesting season is March to May in South Africa and November to December in Namibia.
  18. They dig nests in guano or sand and try to use the shade of bushes when possible to protect their eggs.
  19. Both parents share the responsibility of incubating the eggs, taking turns over a 40-day period.
    Being an African penguin parent is tough - it's all about keeping the eggs cool during the day. Credit: Ken and Nyetta [CC BY 2.0]
  20. Once a chick has hatched, it joins a creche with other chicks while the parents go out to hunt.
    A group of juvenile penguins is called a creche. Credit: Craft0logy [CC BY-NC 2.0]
  21. When an African penguin has gotten its first waterproof feathers, it will leave its colony for about two years. They usually return home for their final moult into adulthood, but may join another colony, or start their own one!
    The grey plumage of sub-adult African penguins is distinctly different from that of their parents. Credit: Flow Communications
  22. Cape fur seals are the main predators of African penguins, but human activities have brought them into closer contact with land predators like caracals, domestic dogs and mongooses.
  23. African penguin eggs were once considered a delicacy in France, and their export led to the decimation of several of the largest penguin colonies.
  24. The wreck of the MV Treasure, a Panamanian bulk carrier, in 2000, spilled oil between Robben Island and Dassen Island - oiling over 19 000 penguins in South Africa's two largest penguins colonies. The massive collaborative effort to save these birds, and relocate almost 20 000 other penguins to safer areas set the standard for modern seabird rehabilitation.
  25. African penguins where the first penguins described by European explorers, with a crew member of Vasco Da Gama describing ones seen in Mossel Bay on 25 November 1497 as "there are birds as big as ducks, but they cannot fly and bray like donkeys."
  26. Penguins have flattened corneas, so light doesn't bend when it passes thought them underwater and cause their vision to blur when diving (like yours do if you open your eyes underwater).
  27. Penguins have nictitating membranes -  third eyelids that keep the saltwater out of their eyes when swimming.
  28. African penguins are classified as "charismatic megafauna", which is the scientific way of confirming that they are adorable.
  29. Penguins can see ultraviolet light.
  30. Penguins never need to drink fresh water. They swallow seawater and sneeze out the excess salt!
  31. Penguins can only taste sourness and saltiness!
  32. Humans have actually decoded the language of African penguins, and you can learn to understand it here.
  33. Penguins don't fart.
  34. When a penguin moults, they cannot enter the water for about three weeks while they grow new feathers - they go hungry the entire time and survive off of their body fat.
  35. African penguins live 10 to 27 years in the wild.
  36. To swim faster, penguins "porpoise" by leaping out of the water as they swim. Penguins can jump many metres doing this, but the strongest human swimmer, Michael Phelps, could probably only jump about 40cm
  37. There are currently 28 wild African penguin colonies.
  38. In the past, colonies like Dassen Island were home to over a million African penguins. Today there are about 50 000 - in total.
    The African penguin colony of Dassen Island as seen by the naturalists of the Valhalla when visiting the island in 1908. Credit: Michael Nicoll
  39. Breeding penguins will swim 20-60km from their colony to forage, whereas single penguins might swim up to 100km away.
    Credit: Rennett Stowe [CC BY 2.0]
  40. The penguin colonies on Robben Island and at Stony Point and Boulder's beach are all formed from the descendants of "refugee" penguins that fled Dyer Island in the 1970s and 1980s when the anchovies were overfished in the area.
  41. The IUCN Red List classifies African Penguins as Endangered and notes that their population is rapidly declining with no indication of improvement.
  42. African penguins can swim about 20km/h, whereas the top human athletes can only manage sustained swims of about 8km/h.
    Credit: Imtiaz Ahmed's Photography [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
  43. Penguins that remain on land during the day will stand with their backs to the sun to prevent their fins and faces from becoming too warm.
  44. African penguins have a much narrower range of hearing than humans do, but are much more sensitive to specific frequencies than we are. This allows them to pick out the calls of their chicks and mates with ease in a noisy colony.
  45. African penguins are one of the smaller penguin species in the world, sandwiched between the smaller Galapagos penguin and larger Snare's penguin.
  46. African penguins swim faster as they get closer to the shore, as this is where they are most likely to encounter fur seals.
    Penguins and fur seals are both pretty clumsy on land, so they are safe from each other in this environment... but in the water it's a different story. Credit: johnomason [CC BY 2.0]
  47. About 19% of all African penguins alive today are as a direct result of the rehabilitation work of SANCCOB.
  48. Birdlife South Africa, together with partners, is investigating the viability of establishing new penguin colonies on South Africa's Southern Coast, where it's thought that there is a higher food abundance. Measures being tested include artificial nests and "decoy penguins" to make migrating juveniles feel more at home.
  49. We don't know why, but African penguins love the scent of lavender - which is great because it keeps pests out of their nests (and our Senior Penguin Keeper says you're always welcome to drop off some lavender cuttings at the Aquarium - just not in a plastic bag).
  50. Finally - you can help African penguins simply by sharing your love for them and reminding your friends that they are facing extinction. Encourage others to support sustainable seafood (use the WWF SASSI list here in South Africa) and show your support to SANCCOB, the Dyer Island Conservation Trust and Birdlife South Africa.
Credit: nprkr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Want to help? Here's how:

The situation of the African penguin is dire, but it's not impossible for them to recover with immediate intervention. Here's what YOU can do to help: 

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