The Galapagos penguin is a unique species of penguin that bucks many of the trends we have seen in our other penguin fact articles. These small birds are the only penguins that live on or near the equator, and they have adapted to the warm tropical climate.
Although they have fewer predators than other penguins, they face unique challenges that come with life in the Galapagos Islands. In this article, we’ll share 16 interesting facts about Galapagos penguins that will change how you see these adorable creatures.
1. They are the most northerly penguin
The Galapagos Penguin is only found in the Galapagos Islands, an archipelago of 127 islands that lies around 1000km from Ecuador. The Galapagos Penguin is the most northerly of all the penguin species since the Galapagos Islands just straddle the equator.
Unlike other penguin species which tend to travel long distances outside of breeding season, Galapagos penguins do not leave the Galapagos islands, although they may move between the islands.
The below map (taken from our guide to where penguins live) shows just how far north they live compared to the other species.
2. Galapagos penguins have a lifespan of 15-20 years in the wild
Despite their small size, the lifespan of a Galapagos penguin in the wild is estimated to be between 15-20 years old.
On average, penguins have a lifespan of around 20 years so this is about average.
In captivity, penguins can live for much longer. Typically, penguins in zoos or aquariums live to around 30 years old. However, there have been documented cases of penguins living to 40 in captivity.
3. You can identify them by their white soul patch beard
Like other species, Galapagos penguins are black and white, the purpose of this is for camouflage in the water.
Penguins are white on their ventral (belly) and black on their dorsal (back). When seen from below, their white belly blends with the lighter surface waters above, and when seen from above, their black back creates good camouflage against the darkness of deeper waters below1 (source:H.M. Rowland, The Royal Society B Biological Sciences, Issue 364, 2008).
Galapagos penguins are members of the banded penguins family and are visually very similar with the notable black band that runs around the edge of their white bellies.
You can identify a Galapagos penguin from other banded penguins because they are much smaller and they have a unique tuft of white feathers on their chin, directly beneath their bill (think of it like a white soul patch beard).
4. The Galapagos penguin is the second smallest species of penguin
These tiny creatures are just 50 cm (19″) tall, making them the second smallest species by height. Only the Little Penguin is shorter at 40 cm (16″)2 (source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Birds: The Definitive Reference to Birds of the World, C. M. Perrins).
They are also one of the lightest, weighing up to 2.5kg (5.5 lbs)3 (source: Seaworld). The below graphic shows how their size compared to the other species, see our guide to how big are penguins to learn more.
5. They have no set breeding season
Food availability in the Galapagos Islands is unpredictable so Galapagos penguins have adapted accordingly. They do not have a set breeding or molting season, instead, they can do this any time of year.
They can molt up to two times per year and can breed in any month, occasionally up to three times a year, or in a bad year they may skip breeding altogether.
This is very different behavior to other penguin species which typically have breeding and non-breeding seasons.
6. They are very faithful to their partners
Penguins are monogamous which means that they will have only one partner per breeding season with both the male and female playing vital roles in raising offspring.
Although some species of penguin may choose a new mate in the next breeding season (this is called a penguin divorce), Galapagos penguins are very faithful and usually stay with the same mate and often take the same nest too.
7. They are shallow divers compared to other species
It’s pretty well-known that penguins are good at swimming and diving with species such as the emperor penguins able to dive to depths as deep as 500m.
However, this species is an exception. Galapagos Penguins are shallow divers, typically only diving to depths of around 6m and for less than 1 minute at a time. Almost 90% of the time they spend at sea is at depths shallower than 6m5 (source: Penguins: Natural History and Conservation).
This doesn’t mean that they can’t dive deeper when they want to. Galapagos penguins have been recorded as deep as 52m and dive up to 3 minutes, although these are rare6 (sources: Journal of Experimental Biology and Penguins: Natural History and Conservation).
8. They are the rarest penguins, with only 1,200 left in the wild
With a population of just 1,200, Galapagos penguins are the least common type of penguin and make up just 0004% of the total number of penguins worldwide which is 30-31 million7 (source: IUCN). This number is continuing to decline.
9. Galapagos penguins are endangered
With such a small population, you won’t be surprised to learn that the Galapagos penguin is endangered. It’s one of five species of endangered penguins along with Yellow-eyed Penguins, Erect-crested Penguins, African Penguins, and Northern Rockhopper Penguins.
They are impacted by the unintentional effects of fishing such as getting caught in nets and by non-native animals bought to the Galapagos islands by humans (including rats, cats, dogs, and mosquitos).
The increasing occurrence of ENSO events due to climate change is also going to impact them. ENSO (El-Nino Southern Oscillation) is a recurring climate pattern that causes changes in wind, temperature, and rainfall across the region they live in. It can affect sea conditions and food availability for penguins8 (source: IUCN), ultimately impacting their survival.
10. They mostly eat schooling fish but will eat anything they can
Galapagos penguins have a different foraging behavior to most other species. They are opportunistic, which means that they will eat whatever they can get their hands on.
The diet of a Galapagos penguin is mostly cold-water schooling fish, such as anchovies, pilchards, sardines, and mullet. However, they are also known to eat crustaceans, young pelagic fish, cephalopods (such as squid), blennies, and damselfish.
See our full article for more information about what and how penguins eat.
11. They might team up with other seabirds to hunt fish
Galapagos penguins like to forage for food near the coast and may do so alone or in small groups. They are also known to forage with groups of other seabirds including flightless cormorants, brown pelicans, brown noddies, boobies, and Audubon shearwaters9 (source: K.L. Mills, The Condor, Vol. 100, Issue 2, 1998, pp.277–285).
This is known as a multispecies feeding flock and the presence of penguins in such groups increases the duration of feeds by keeping prey near the surface.
12. The predators of Galapagos penguins are owls, hawks, snakes, and crabs
The natural predators of Galapagos penguins on land are short-eared owls and barn owls. Galapagos hawks, snakes, and sally lightfoot crabs may also prey on eggs and vulnerable chicks. However, in general, predation is rare10 (source: Penguins: Natural History and Conservation).
Introduced predators are also a threat to Galapagos penguins. Domestic cats and dogs may prey on adult penguins whilst rats might prey on the younger hatchlings.
13. They pant like dogs to stay cool in the heat
Being the most northerly penguin comes with some challenges. Mainly the fact that they need to be prepared for warmer air temperatures of more than 40°C (104°F) whilst still foraging in cooler waters between 15-28°C (59-84°F)12 (source: P.D. Boersma, The Biology of Penguins, pp.101-114).
Luckily, Galapagos penguins can change their behavior and have several adaptations that allow them to deal with these conditions. Firstly, they are one of the smallest penguins which means that they have a higher surface area, allowing them to release heat faster. They also have less body fat and fewer feathers than other species.
Penguins cannot sweat, so instead, Galapagos penguins pant as a way of releasing body moisture and using up body heat, it’s similar to what dogs do.
As for their behavior, they are smart at avoiding the heat/ They build their nests in the shade and tend to avoid being in the sun during the hottest parts of the day. When they are in the sun, you might also spot them being hunched over which is a way of keeping their feet out of the direct sun.
14. They nest in caves and hollows left behind by lava
Galagos penguins typically nest in lava tubes (underground hollows left behind by lava flows) or caves and crevices formed by rocks and lava plates.
This is where the female will lay the eggs and the two will incubate them. They will use sticks, feathers, bones, and leaves to make the bottom of the nest more comfortable13 (source: P.D. Boersma, et al, Galapagos Penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus), 2013).
15. Males and females share parenting duties
Parenting duties are shared between both males and females, starting with incubation. Males and females take turns incubating the eggs which can take up to 42 days, during this time, both parents stay in the nest14 (source: P.D. Boersma, et al, Galapagos Penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus), 2013).
Unlike other penguins who leave their chicks in a large group called a creche, once Galapagos penguin chicks are born, they remain in the nest until fledgling. During this time, parents will forage for food and bring it back to the nest. In the earlier stages, parents may take turns guarding the nest until they are old enough to be left alone.
After around 60 days, the chicks are finally ready to leave the nest. Although, they may still return to their parents to ask for food.
16. They can drink seawater thanks to a special salt gland
Like other species, Galapagos penguins have a super orbital gland, also known as a salt gland. This is found at the top of their skull, close to their eye, and allows them to reduce salt levels in their blood.
As creatures that spend most of their lives at sea or around coastal areas of the Galapagos islands, they tend to ingest lots of salt water, especially when consuming food such as fish which they swallow whole.
Since their kidneys are inefficient at processing salt, this dedicated gland allows them to collect excess salt and discard it as water droplets by sneezing or shaking their head15 (source: Britannica).