A few weeks ago was International African Penguin Awareness Day, when we waddled to raise awareness for the plight of the African penguin. The African penguin is in grave danger of extinction by 2035 if we don’t act now. Let’s look at the African penguin’s crucial role in the ecosystem.
Firstly, what are ecosystems and indicator species?
An ecosystem is a web of life forms within a particular geographic area: plants, animals, organisms, and even climate that work together in symbiosis. Every aspect of an ecosystem depends on the other, directly or indirectly.
For example, an African penguin is part of the ecosystem within Boulder’s Beach, Simonstown, and helps to keep the balance as both predator and prey. As indicator species, they play a critical role in measuring the health of their ecosystem.
Indicator species are sentinels of ocean health – this means that the overall condition of the penguin population reflects that of the ecosystem. So, the presence, absence, or abundance of the African penguin reflects the surrounding environmental conditions and any changes in stability.
Indicator species can aid in understanding the location and variability of marine resources. For example, a lack of their chief prey (sardines) due to overfishing is one of the reasons for the African penguins going extinct. Not only do the penguin colonies indicate the status of their prey species, but they also provide insight into the health of other marine predators.
What do African penguins do in their ecosystem?
The African penguin’s role in the marine ecosystem has numerous facets.
- By hunting in the sea and returning to their colonies on land, the penguins transfer important nutrients from terrestrial to marine ecosystems. This keeps myriad populations in robust condition.
- African penguins keep the sardine and anchovy populations healthy by selecting smaller fish or those with poor body condition.
- During hunting, the penguins herd shoals of fish to the surface, providing easy opportunities for other seabirds like gannets to catch.
- African penguins are also a food source for predators like sharks, orcas, and seals, playing a role in these species’ preservation. On land, kelp gulls, African sacred ibises, and rats prey on eggs and chicks.
What would happen in the ecosystem if the African penguin went extinct?
The African penguin is Africa’s only endemic penguin species. Their extinction would have far-reaching knock-on effects on the ecosystem. As indicator species, their extinction would infer that the other species within their ecosystem are weakening – for example, without penguins, seals and other predators would have to adapt to different food sources or face population decline.
Furthermore, the African penguin colonies in Boulders Beach and Betty’s Bay are huge drawcards for South African ecotourism. Their extinction would mean significant economic collapse, including job losses in conservation.
The African penguin is a unique and charismatic part of the South African ecosystem. This iconic species has an intrinsic value in South Africa, and #NotOnOurWatch will it go extinct.
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