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Increasing the Galapagos Penguin Population through Artificial Nests
Dr. Dee Boersma, University of Washington
Galapagos penguins are the rarest and most endangered penguin species in the world, and the only penguins found at the equator. The population experienced drastic reductions during the 1982-83 and 1997-98 El Niño events, experiencing a total decline in numbers of approximately 60%. The Galapagos penguin is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Unlike most cold-water penguins, they have several adaptations that allow them to tolerate the warmer climate of Galapagos. The penguins’ breeding success is closely linked to environmental conditions. When the currents that feed Galapagos are cold and full of sardines and other small fish, the penguins will molt, breed, and feed their nestlings. When water temperatures increase and food becomes scarce, such as during El Niño events, the penguins cannot get enough to eat. They stop breeding and abandon their young. The long-term goals of this project are to reverse the decline of the Galapagos penguin population, and to strengthen the population so that it can better withstand more frequent and intense El Niño events, which are occurring more due to global climate change.
One of the reasons for the endangered status of the penguins is limited nesting options. Many nests (small caves or crevices in lava) used 40 years ago either no longer exist, are used by marine iguanas, or get periodically flooded. In an attempt to rebuild the penguin population, Dr. Dee Boersma of the University of Washington and her research team built 120 high-quality, shady nest sites in 2010. The nesting sites, constructed of stacked lava rocks or tunnels dug into the slope, were built in primary penguin nesting areas — on Fernandina and Bartolomé Islands, and off the coast of Isabela on the Mariela Islands in Elizabeth Bay.
Dr. Boersma’s team conducts monitoring trips two to three times per year to evaluate the status of the penguin population and determine if the constructed nest sites do, in fact, increase their reproduction and reproductive success when food is available.
At the end of El Niño in 2016, Dr. Boersma counted over 300 penguins, but only one juvenile. The adults were skinny and coated with green algae, indicating that they had been spending lots of time in the water looking for food. Then, during the monitoring trips in 2017-2018, the team found numerous juvenile penguins (nearly 60% of all penguins observed) in good condition, indicating a successful breeding season. Penguins were using both constructed and natural nests. The favorable conditions may result in the first population increase in years.
Since the program began, nearly a quarter of all penguin breeding activity observed has been in constructed nests. In some years, in the Mariela Islands, constructed nests have accounted for up to 43% of penguin breeding activity.
Dr. Boersma and her team have recommended that the Galapagos National Park create a marine protected area in Elizabeth Bay, as the area around the Mariela Islands represents the highest density breeding area for Galapagos penguins. Providing special protection for this area will also benefit many other species of seabirds, marine mammals, and fish. Dr. Boersma also recommends creating a second Penguin Conservation Zone around Bartolomé Island.
Dr. Boersma has established the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels, with a focus on Galapagos and Magellanic penguins. Visitors to Galapagos can help by uploading photos of penguins and providing date and location. As this database grows, it helps Dr. Boersma’s research team to determine when penguins are molting and track when juveniles appear in the population. To learn more about the project and to submit photos, click here.
Blog Article: September 2018, An explosive trip to Isabela: New potential nesting sites for Galapagos penguins by Caroline Cappello, Godrey Merlin and Dee Boersma
Blog Article: October 2017, A good year for Galapagos penguins by Dee Boersma of the University of Washington
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