Diverse ecosystems are healthy ecosystems and are made up of a diversity of species that are able to balance each other out, protect each other from diseases, natural disasters, food scarcity and more. Loss of diversity, usually as a consequence of manmade pollution or overexploitation, results in the collapse of the ecosystem as a whole. So how do penguins fit in?
(Banner image adapted from original photo by Paul Kelley [CC BY 2.0])
Sometimes an environmental condition is difficult to measure directly. For example, we might not be able to easily monitor the abundance of small fish, like anchovies, outside of their major migration period. An indicator species is one that is affected by one or more of these unobservable factors, in an observable way.
As we have already explored, African penguins are severely and noticeably affected by the depletion of their food source, so we can tell from the decline or growth of a penguin colony whether or not the local population of small fish, like sardines, is healthy too. The declining penguin numbers at Boulders Beach, for example, also indicates that local small fish numbers are in decline.
A keystone species is a species that has an oversized impact on maintaining the balance of its ecosystem. For example, a forest with one dominant tree type, or a small but common predator that keeps the herbivore population in check. Keystone species are important for conservationists because they make identifying animals to focus conservation efforts on easier, and by saving these species, they can often help many others.
Penguins, especially around Antarctica and on the Southern Ocean islands, are keystone species. They regulate the populations of small fish and crustaceans in the surrounding waters, that might otherwise overgraze on plankton and algae. Penguins also form a staple food for larger predators like orcas and elephant seals.
The final term that's commonly used in conservation is "charismatic megafauna", which basically means "big animals that are lovable enough that people will care enough to protect them". The panda is the best example of this, and because the panda is being protected its habitat that is filled with plants that the average person has never heard of, is protected too.
Penguins are undeniably charismatic - the perfect candidate to be the face of protecting our coastal ecosystems!
Follow the March of the penguin:
If you missed the QR code tour during your Two Oceans Aquarium visit and would like to catch up on the extra penguin information that was shared, you can do so here:
- What do penguins eat?
- African penguin colonies
- Microscopic threats to penguins: Parasites
- The bioaccumulation problem
- How to speak the penguin language
- How do we prepare food for the penguins?
- Penguins of Marion Island: The "other" African penguins
- Why do rockhopper penguins have crests?
- Biodiversity and penguins
- Penguins are predators too: How penguins hunt