Penguins on the Equator

Penguins on the Equator

Courtesy of Casey Allen, Unsplash

Picture yourself somewhere in the tropics, shading beneath a lush green tree, warm golden sand between your toes, turquoise waters lapping the shore. Look under the water, you’ll see amazing corals and shells, fish of all sizes shimmering past, and penguins. Wait, what? Penguins?

Yes, it’s true, there are penguins who live out their days in the tropical seas. Off the west coast of Ecuador, South America, there is an archipelago of islands known as the Galápagos, and there, mostly on Fernandina Island and the west coast of Isabela Island, you will find the sleek and small Galápagos penguin. The northernmost tip of Isabela crosses the equator, which means that it is the only penguin in the world found in the northern hemisphere.

These diminutive beasts, mostly black with a white belly and white bands that reach around their necks, shoulders and faces, are one of the smallest species of penguin, (the first being the aptly named Little penguin) growing to a maximum of 50cm / 20inches tall, and weighing in at around 4.5kg. This small size helps them survive the tropical climate, because truth is they actually don’t like the hot weather all that much.

Riding the storm

But firstly: how did they get there? When we think about penguins, the majority of us tend to associate them with the icy wastes of Antarctica, but actually only a handful of the 18 species of penguin tolerate that environment: it turns out that not many penguins like ice either.

Galapagos Penguin Swimming. Courtesy of Andrew Skujins, Pixabay.

Most of the other species live scattered in far more hospitable climes across the southern hemisphere. Penguins are thought to have evolved from birds that preferred the abundant food found in the waters off the coast of Australia and New Zealand, land masses created when the supercontinent Gondwana fragmented.

Developing flippers instead of wings and other adaptations to best catch this food, some species would have then moved with the continental drift and populated the western edges of the southernmost tip of South America. It is believed by many that the penguins now found in the Galápagos were carried north and west from the area known as Chile, up along the coastal waters either by a series of cataclysmic storms, or by something called the Humboldt Current.

The only penguin in the world found in the northern hemisphere.

This oceanic superhighway brings cold, low-salinity water up from the Antarctic and runs up the entire western coast of South America, extending some 1000 kilometres offshore. When it reaches the Equator, it displaces the warmer surface water and joins the CromwellCurrent, a similar mechanism that flows eastward along the equator.

Galapagos Islands. Courtesy of pen_ash, Pixabay.

When these two forces hit the volcanic islands, they force an upwell”, which brings nutrients from the deep, creating one of the most resource-packed marine ecosystems in the world.

It is this natural phenomenon that makes it possible for an animal like the penguin, more suited to cooler waters than baking hot sun, to survive the tropical environment: a happy medium of temperatures is created that also brings vast amounts of krill, crustaceans, fish and shrimp that the Galápagos penguin feasts on. If you look at just where the currents flow, you’ll find that the population spread of these small penguins correlates exactly.

The arid plan

All well and good that the water is the ideal environment, but what of the stifling humid air, and that hot burning sun? Is it paradise for them? Well, it turns out that even though it lies slap-bang on the equator, the Galápagos archipelago has a relatively mild climate, peculiar to that part of the world.

Temperatures there usually range between 15–28 °C. Courtesy of peterstuartmill, Pixabay.

Temperatures there usually range between 15–28 °C (59–82 °F), and the landscape is surprisingly mostly barren except in the highest parts where the rainfall – usually in the form of afternoon showers – has established vegetation; there is often mist and low cloud.

When Captain George Vancouver alighted there from the HMS Discovery in 1795, he famously remarked that it was “The most dreary barren and desolate country I have ever beheld...”

But it is this unique quality that brought Charles Darwin there forty years later, realising that this bizarre mix of location and conditions could possibly bring some certainty to his theories, for where else are you more likely to find such diverse examples of life?

Male adult Galápagos penguin swimming. Courtesy of Charles J.Sharp, Wikimedia Commons.

For the penguins, despite the relatively temperate waters, it can still be a bit much. Over time, they have developed their own ways of keeping cool. The most obvious is to go for a swim, cooling off in the remnants of the cold from the south, but Galápagos penguins have also developed the ability to pant, much like a dog.

Birds have no sweat glands and need to regulate heat by opening their beaks, evaporating moisture across the surface of their airways, but these penguins do actively pant, visibly so. When the sun does get too much and the mists haven’t yet rolled in, they will hide in the crevices and small caves of old lava flows and displaced rocks to keep cool in the shade.

The Galápagos archipelago has a relatively mild climate.

They also stretch out their flippers to expose the unfeathered parts of their skin and lose heat that way, but they must ensure that they protect their exposed feet from burning in the sun, so they also hunchover. This gives the penguin a slightly contorted odd look about them, as if they have been caught mid-bow to some unseen audience.

The shifting wind

Despite potentially being able to breed all year round due to the climate, these penguins have to contend with great losses simply because of where they live: volcanic islands of course have their own attendant risks, but whereas the penguins who reside thousands of miles away in the Antarctic only have to watch out for sea predators, Galápagos penguins have to contend with crabs, snakes, rats, hawks, and short-eared owls on land, and sharks, seals, and sea lions in the water.

But climate change is now the number one threat these penguins face. El Niño weather events weaken the upwelling mechanisms in the ocean and are therefore catastrophic for the Galápagos penguin.

Western Galapagos Islands from space. Courtesy of Nasa, Wikimedia Commons.

A new category of El Niño has been identified after years of study, showing that these types of events have become more prevalent in the last few decades than at any time in the past four centuries. Numbers dropped so low after the events of 1982-1983 and 1997-98, where 77% and 65% were lost from starvation respectively, that they were placed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Endangered and earning them the unwanted label of rarest penguin species in the world.

Conservationists do stress that even when “normal” weather returns and resources flow again, there are still the man-made factors piling on the pressure. Illegal hunting, the long-ago introduction of invasive species like rats, cats and dogs now in overspill, oil pollution of the seas and overfishing cripples their numbers from all the other angles.

Nest in place

However, there is the occasional silver lining, not necessarily one that we concur with – chiming in with many other observers across the world, the coronavirus pandemic has actually benefited animals, especially these penguins: tourism, that busy, loud and often careless human activity, has for now all but evaporated allowing the penguins to, for want of a better word, “thrive” in relative peace, their nest sites undisturbed.

A remarkable increase from the previous year’s count.

At the last major count in late 2020, numbers stood at around 1,940, the highest they have been for years, and a remarkable increase from the previous year’s count of 1,451, given that these penguins usually only raise one chick.

Galapagos penguin juvenile. Courtesy of Aquaimages, Wikimedia Commmons.

The unprecedented slowing down of the world happily coincided, for the penguins at least, with El Niño’s adverse sister event, La Niña, in October and November 2020. Literally meaning ‘little girl’ to the other’s ‘little boy’, during La Niña conditions, upwelling intensifies, bringing nutrients above once more, which increases phytoplankton growth. Krill and crustaceans love phytoplankton, penguins love krill and crustaceans.

For a couple of months at least, these penguins perhaps felt that they were indeed living in paradise.

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