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Extinction Countdown


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Sunday Species Snapshot: Jackass Penguin

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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jackass penguinThese popular penguins have faced a lot of threats in recent years that have put them on a dangerous path.

Species name: African penguin (Spheniscus demersus), a.k.a. the black-footed penguin or the “jackass” penguin for its donkey-like braying sounds. (The nickname has nothing to do with the penguin’s personality.)

Where found: Coastal southwest Africa, including South Africa and Namibia and the Penguin Islands, which as you might guess were named after their black-and-white denizens.

IUCN Red List status: Endangered. Previously listed as “vulnerable to extinction,” they were upgraded to “endangered” in 2010 due to a rapid population decline of nearly 70% over the past decade.

Primary threat: Lack of food, primarily due to commercial fishing, has been the driving cause for the African penguin’s decline. In addition some fish species have shifted their habitat further west, putting them out of the penguins’ range. Beyond food supplies a number of other factors have affected penguin survival, including oil spills, human disturbance of rocky nesting sites or egg collection, invasive cats, diseases and competition with other species. In other words, it’s kind of tough to be an African penguin these days.

Previous Extinction Countdown articles about this species: The most notable articles covered the strange saga of the supposedly gay penguins brought to Toronto Zoo in 2011. It turned out they were just friends. Going back to 2010, I wrote about a type of facial recognition software that could be used to identify individual penguins and help to monitor their populations.

Notable conservation programs: SANCCOB (the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) helps rehabilitate penguins and other seabirds that have been caught in oil spills and conducts research into seabird diseases. BirdLife South Africa does great work in the region on a lot of different fronts. A number of zoos have ongoing breeding programs (Tampa Zoo hatched a chick in August, and Maryland Zoo celebrated four hatchlings in September and October).

Multimedia: You can hear the distinctive “jackass” braying of an African penguin in this short video (shot, notably, before they were listed as endangered):

Photo by Matt MacGillivray via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Penguinluv 3:22 pm 11/18/2013

    Sad another penguin is in danger of extinction. Going to Antarctica this past year was truly an eye opener, even in the Falkland and South Georgia Islands

    Link to this

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