A Good Year for Galapagos Penguins

October 5, 2017

By guest authors Dee Boersma, Godfrey Merlen, and Caroline Cappello.

Our research team from the University of Washington visited Galapagos in July 2017 to study the rare and endangered Galapagos penguin. On each of our twice-yearly trips, we check Galapagos penguin nests for signs of breeding and determine the body condition of adult and juvenile penguins. In 2010, the project built 120 artificial penguin nests by stacking plate lava or digging small lava tunnels out of scoria lava. Our goal is to provide breeding opportunities for penguins. Because their ability to breed is linked to the unpredictable availability of food, we want to make sure that, when breeding conditions are good and food is abundant, all the penguins have a high-quality nest site to keep their eggs safe and cool.

A constructed nest on Fernandina Island

One of our constructed nests on Fernandina Island

The nutrient-rich Cromwell Current that flows eastward into Galapagos heavily influences food availability for the Galapagos penguin. During El Niño events, this current slows and the flow of nutrients to the islands is disrupted. The 2015-2016 El Niño was not as devastating for the Galapagos penguins as the El Niños of 1972-73, 1982-83 or 1997-98, but we found no penguins breeding. In 2016, we counted over 300 penguins and only one was a juvenile. The adults were skinny and coated with green algae, a sign that they had been spending lots of time in the water looking for food and little time out of the water drying their feathers.

Happily for the penguins, a La Niña followed El Niño in 2016-2017, and brought cool, nutrient-rich water into the western archipelago, supplying the seabirds of Galapagos with lots of fish to eat. During our visit in February 2017, juvenile penguins, blue-footed boobies, and pelicans were common.

Penguin body conditions

(Left) During El Niño, February 2016: a skinny penguin, coated with algae
(Right) During La Niña, February 2017: a plump penguin in good body condition

In early July 2017, we set off aboard Godfrey’s ship, RATTY, for Bartolomé, Isabela, and Fernandina Islands to see what the penguins were up to. We hoped to see more juveniles, a good indication of successful breeding over the last six months. We were eager to see if the penguins were nesting and if they were using our constructed nest sites. Life in Galapagos is dynamic, and we never know what we will find.

Penguin breeding area and field boat

(Top) Penguin breeding areas and (Bottom) Ratty – the boat we use to get to them

We found a penguin breeding bonanza! Similar to our trip in February, about 45% of the penguins we saw in July were juveniles, indicating successful breeding in the previous months. The penguins were in good body condition; they were plump and many looked as though they were ready to breed or molt. We also found 11 active nests (two constructed and nine natural). In these nests, we found penguins in many stages of breeding — we saw courting adults, clean and white newly laid eggs, older and dirtier eggs just about to hatch, eggs that were hatching as we checked the nest, young chicks peeping for food, and big chicks left home alone. All the active nests were in Elizabeth Bay, Isabela.

Penguin in a constructed nest

A Galapagos penguin incubates two eggs in our constructed nest, July 2017

The research team

Tired and sweaty, but Dee, Godfrey, and Caroline were thrilled to see the penguins in good condition, July 2017

Once back in Puerto Ayora, we presented the results of our trip to naturalist guides and national park officials. During our presentation, Aura Banda Cruz, a naturalist guide, spoke about the Galapagos penguin photo library she has developed over the last two years. Through photos she and other guides have taken during tourist cruises, she has identified several individual penguins by the distinct black spots on their chests (like freckles) and their scars. She named one juvenile Miti (short for “mitad” in Spanish, or “half” in English) because of the scar from a healed shark bite that extends across his belly. We are excited to be able to follow these individuals through time. By including tourists, guides, and locals in following these individuals’ lives, we hope to learn more about penguin behavior and their natural history and ultimately inform conservation efforts.

Miti the penguin

Miti in Tagus Cove, Isabela on (Left) in November 2016, and (Right) in December 2016

The breeding we saw in July was promising, but the number of penguins is likely half of what is was before the 1972-73 and 1982-83 El Niños. Nevertheless, the recent breeding bonanza provided a much-needed boost to the population. With another La Niña predicted this autumn, we hope the breeding will continue into 2018. With support from Galapagos Conservancy, we will return to the islands next February to check nests, look for Miti, and share our findings with locals, tourists, and our supporters. 

The team: The research team has traveled to penguin breeding areas twice a year since 2010 to check constructed nests and study the penguins. Dee Boersma is a professor at the University of Washington, Seattle, where she holds the Wadsworth Endowed Chair in Conservation Science and directs the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels. She has studied Galapagos penguins since she began her dissertation research on Fernandina Island in 1970. Caroline Cappello is a PhD student at the University of Washington studying the ecology and conservation of Galapagos and Magellanic penguins. She began her work with Galapagos penguins in 2015. Godfrey Merlen is a conservationist, natural historian, boat captain, and Director of Sea Shepherd’s Galapagos office. He has lived in Galapagos since the 1960s and received the Disney Conservation Hero Award in 2015 for his conservation work in the Islands. This project is a collaboration with Galapagos National Park (permit no. PC-47-10 through PC-63-17).

Photos © Dee Boersma, Godfrey Merlen, Caroline Cappello, Aura Banda Cruz, and Greg Aranea.

Galapagos Conservancy has been supporting the Dr. Boersma’s project to increase the Galapagos penguin population since 2013.

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  1. Delighted to read a good story. The world is full of gloom and pessimism.
    We are going to cruise the Galapagos Island and hope to see many juvenile penguins. Will it be possible to tell the juveniles from the adults in the first half of November 2017/

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