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43 Galapagos Penguin Facts: Tropical Guide (Spheniscus mendiculus)

Posted in: Ecuador Animals, Ecuador Travel, Galapagos Animals, Galapagos Islands

Tropical penguins? Yes! In this post, you’ll learn 43 Galapagos penguin facts, including adaptations to keep cool, habits and habitats, when and where to see them, and more. Plus lots of photos and videos of this amazing warm water penguin.

Galapagos penguin
Travel tip: If you’re traveling to the Galapagos, you should bring a camera with a good zoom and a decent pair of binoculars. This will increase the odds of spotting and shooting penguins in the Galapagos.

Table of Contents

Guide to Galapagos Penguins

You’ve seen the memes. You’ve purchased the plushies. But how much do you really know about Galapagos penguins?

Can you distinguish them from others of their kind? Are you able to explain where they live and what they eat? Do you know how many of them are left in the wild?

If you’ve always wanted to know more about the native penguins of the Galapagos Islands, here are just a few Galapagos penguins facts to get you started.

Galapagos Penguin Overview

  • Latin name: Spheniscus mendiculus
  • Range: Galapagos Islands, with 90% living on Fernandina Island and Isabela’s west coast. They also live on Santiago, Santa Cruz (northern), Floreana, and Bartolomé Islands.
  • Population Status: Endangered
  • Height: 19 inches (49 cm)
  • Weight: 5.5 pounds (2.5 kg)
  • Diet: Fish, mullet and sardines. Occasionally crustaceans.
  • Physical features: Overall color is blackish-grey with a white underbelly. The Galapagos penguin has two distinctive features: 1) The black head with white loop outline running from above the eye, around the ear and back to the chin. 2) The upper chest has two black bands across the white belly.
  • Where it lives in the Galapagos: Rocky shores and coastlines with nearby land for nesting sites.
Penguin in Galapagos

43 Galapagos Penguin Facts

1. Which Galapagos Islands have penguins?

Are you planning a vacation to the Galapagos Islands? If you want to see the penguins, you’ll need to visit specific coastlines.

There are 21 islands in total, but only the following have penguin populations:

  1. Fernandina Island
  2. Isabela Island
  3. Santiago Island
  4. Bartolome Island
  5. Santa Cruz Island
  6. Floreana Island

Your best bet is traveling to Fernandina Island or Isabela Island (western shore). More than 90% of Galapagos penguins live in these two locations.

2. When is the best time to see Galapagos penguins?

Galapagos penguins are always active, so you’ll never have to worry about booking a vacation during hibernation season. You can take penguin tours year-round.

If you want to get the biggest bang for your buck, however, you should visit during the cool, dry months of June – November. Galapagos penguins don’t like the heat, so they’ll be more curious and playful when they aren’t stifling under the sun.

The second half of the year also coincides with higher breeding rates, so if you like to coo over baby penguins, this is your window!

3. Are Galapagos penguins really tropical penguins?

Yes. Galapagos penguins are called “tropical penguins” because they live in the tropics. The tropics include the area between the two latitude lines of the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn.

They’re also the only penguin species to live north of the equator. Most other penguins are found in colder, more remote places like Antarctica.

Additionally, Galapagos penguins face a lot of challenges in their sunny locale. They aren’t leisurely sunbathing and sipping pina coladas while the rest of their species shivers in the cold. They can really struggle to survive in their environment, and this is part of the reason they’re endangered.

4. What is the Galapagos penguins Latin name?

The scientific name of the Galapagos penguin is spheniscus mendiculus.

It’s actually Greek as opposed to Latin, and it means “wedge shape” (spheniscus) and “beggar” (mendicus). The latter probably comes from their tiny size and waddling steps.

Spheniscus mendiculus galapagos

Spheniscus mendiculus – Galapagos penguin

5. What other names does the Galapagos penguins have?

Galapagos penguins are sometimes called “jackass penguins” because of their loud, braying calls that sound a lot like a donkey.

This isn’t limited to their species, however; all four types of banded penguins share the nickname.

6. What does the Galapagos penguins look like?

Galapagos penguins are small birds with traditional black-and-white coloring.

Their overall color is black, including their faces and flippers. And they have two black bands that stretch across their white chests. They have a white looping line that curves around their eyes.

Galapagos penguin appearance

7. How tall is a Galapagos penguins?

Galapagos penguins measure between 19 – 21 inches in height.

They’re one of the smallest penguin species in the world. In fact, only the fairy penguin (Eudyptula minor) is tinier.

8. How much does a Galapagos penguins weigh?

The average weight of a Galapagos penguin is between 4 – 6 pounds. To put their small size into perspective, an emperor penguin can weigh 50 – 100 pounds!

9. Can Galapagos penguins swim?

Galapagos penguins are great swimmers, and they absolutely adore the water.

They’ll spend the night on land, but as soon as the sun comes up, they’ll start hunting, swimming, splashing and diving into the water from various heights. They might not come ashore until the sun has set.

Tropical Galapagos penguin

10. Can Galapagos penguins fly?

No. Galapagos penguins are flightless birds, so their wings are more commonly called flippers.

But don’t assume that flippers are useless just because they can’t support a penguin in the air! Their primary purpose is for balance.

This is why Galapagos penguins hold their flippers a few inches away from their bodies as they waddle; they’re maintaining their equilibrium.

Flippers are also helpful in the water. Galapagos penguins flap them for swimming in the same way that other birds flap their wings for flying.

11. How do Galapagos penguins survive on the equator?

It isn’t easy to be a penguin in the tropics, but the good news is that Galapagos penguins have evolved over the years to handle it better than southern birds.

Galapagos Penguin Adaptations: For starters, the small size of Galapagos penguins means that they have less surface area for heat absorption. They can also cool off faster on hot summer days; a quick dip in the water will bring down their core body temperature at a much speedier rate than a large, lumbering penguin.

Another advantage of the Galapagos penguin is that they have lower percentages of body fat. Cold-weather penguins are packed with warm, fatty insulation, but Galapagos penguins are smaller and leaner. They also have fewer feathers and more bare skin.

Galapagos penguin adapatations

12. How do Galapagos penguins keep cool?

Physical adaptations aren’t the only way that Galapagos penguins keep cool. They also have a number of tricks for thermoregulation. Here are two of their behavioral adaptations.

  • Panting: For example, since penguins can’t sweat, they’ll open their mouths and pant. It’s exactly the same as a dog panting in the summer sun, but it comes from a penguin instead.
  • Umbrella Pose: Galapagos penguins also have an iconic, camera-ready pose where they stretch out their flippers and hunch over their feet. This is done to shade them. Their little webbed feet have poor circulation compared to the rest of their body, so they trap more heat; shading them keeps them from absorbing too many of the sun’s rays.

Watch on YouTube

Galapagos penguin swimming

13. Are Galapagos penguins friendly or aggressive?

Galapagos penguins can be quite friendly towards humans. You won’t be allowed to land on their territory. And it isn’t legal to feed, touch or play with them, but you can swim with them if they approach you. Some of the penguins might be wary of you, but others will come right up to your snorkel mask like they’re saying “hello.”

On a few trips in smaller boats on Isabela Islands, we saw penguins hunting and swimming near by. They were timid but curious of us as we passed in the boat. Here’s our trip overview from our first Galapagos adventure. 

Swimming with Galapagos Penguins

Watch on YouTube

Galapagos penguins are pretty chill towards other members of their species as well. They’re gentle, docile birds that don’t often attack each other.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Galapagos penguins can clash over things like food and shelter, and conflicts are usually resolved by braying, pecking and chasing each other. They have tempers just like any other animal.

14. Do Galapagos penguins live in groups?

Yes. Galapagos penguins are social creatures that live in large communities. Adults will hunt together; juveniles will play together. Females have even been spotted nesting together.

Group of penguin

15. What is a group of penguins called?

There are many delightful names for a group of penguins. They vary depending on their location.

  • On land, they’re referred to as a colony, rookery, huddle or waddle.
  • At sea, they’re a raft.

16. How do Galapagos penguins catch their food?

The first thing to know about the hunting habits of Galapagos penguins is that they don’t stray far from home. Rather than foraging for miles and miles, they let the currents of the Galapagos Islands bring food to them.

Once they see something tasty in the water, it’s just a matter of grabbing it. One of their favorite hunting methods is to swim below a school of fish before darting upwards and catching a mouthful.

Not only does this maximize their caloric intake, but it also drives the fish closer to the surface and helps pelicans and other seabirds with their own hunting. In this way, Galapagos penguins play an important role in sustaining life in the Galapagos.

Galapagos Penguin hunting technique

Watch on YouTube

17. What do Galapagos penguins eat?

The main diet of the Galapagos penguin is fish. They like small species like sardines, anchovies and mullets. They might also feed on crustaceans.

tropical penguin

18. Do Galapagos penguins mate for life?

It’s possible. Galapagos penguins form monogamous pairs; researchers just don’t know whether these pairs are permanent or whether they last just a few seasons.

Mated pairs are pretty cute, however. They’ll groom each other’s feathers and pat each other’s flippers.

They’ll also engage in “bill dueling” where they rock their bodies back and forth and allow their bills to hit. It can look a lot like kissing, but since Galapagos penguins will do the same thing with non-mates to establish dominance, it’s called dueling instead.

19. How often do Galapagos penguins reproduce?

Galapagos penguins are opportunistic breeders. Since they can’t be sure when the currents will change or when the weather will get unseasonably warm, they breed whenever conditions are favorable for eggs.

This might mean reproducing 2 – 3 times per year; it might mean going several years without reproducing at all.

Cold water is essential for breeding. Galapagos penguins have good internal thermometers, and if the temperature of the sea is around or above 77°F, they won’t mate.

20. Do Galapagos penguin have a mating season?

Galapagos penguins can mate at any time of year, but their highest reproduction rates usually fall between two periods of April – May and August – September. The latter is linked to cooler, drier conditions.

21. At what age do Galapagos penguins lay eggs?

Females reach sexual maturity around 3 – 4 years old. Males take a bit longer, but they catch up to the ladies around 4 – 6 years old.

22. How many eggs does the Galapagos penguins lay? What do they look like?

Galapagos penguins lay one or two eggs at a time.

They’re large and white, and they take between 38 – 40 days to hatch. Mom does most of the incubating, but dad will contribute by guarding and shading the eggs from the sun.

23. What are young Galapagos penguins like?

Newborns are quite needy. They start chirping in their eggs before they’re even hatched, and once they enter the world, they’re hugely dependent on their parents for survival.

They need to be fed small fish as many as 20 times per day, and they can’t be left alone for a single moment for fear of predators. Mated pairs will usually trade off hunting duties while one of them stays to guard the nest.

Fortunately, young Galapagos penguins don’t stay this dependent for long. They mature quickly, and they’re ready to leave the nest within a couple of months.

A unique feature of juvenile Galapagos penguins is that they don’t have the signature black bands around their chests. It grows in later.

24. Do Galapagos penguins ever abandon their nests?

Yes. When tropical storms hit, Galapagos penguins are forced to abandon their nests and move to new locations to find food.

They’re completely dependent on island currents, so when a storm disrupts them, they have to find new currents or starve. Eggs and hatchlings can both get left behind.

25. Is the Galapagos penguin endangered?

Yes. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Galapagos penguins are endangered.

Their habitat is limited, and their population is on the decline. They aren’t breeding fast enough to replace the number of lost or killed individuals every year. They’re the most limited penguin species in the world.

The worst of the population drop happened in the 1980s. There was a massive El Niño event in 1982-83 that destroyed more than 80% of the Galapagos penguins; the scale of the storm was absolutely unprecedented, and it was considered one of the worst El Niño events in recorded history. It affected wildlife all over the world, but the Galapagos penguins got the worst of it.

Another terrible season for El Niño storms was 1997-98. Galapagos penguins lost an additional 65% of their population, and it was already small and struggling in the first place.

Today, Galapagos penguins have made a slight comeback thanks to conservation efforts. There are strict laws to minimize the risk of disturbing their environment, and wildlife experts are using all kinds of tricks and techniques to encourage breeding. For example, they’ve installed man-made nests with high-quality materials in prime mating spots.

At the end of the day, however, Galapagos penguins are still an endangered species.

26. How many Galapagos penguins are left in the world?

The Charles Darwin Research Station estimates that there are around 1,500 Galapagos penguins left in the world.

Less than 1,000 are mature adults that are capable of breeding.

27. What threats face the Galapagos penguin?

The worst threat to Galapagos penguins is tropical events. As already mentioned, they can completely destroy Galapagos penguins and their way of life.

Another issue is habitat loss. Global warming has resulted in everything from eroded beaches to flooded caves, and Galapagos penguins are quite picky when it comes to the temperature of their water and the placement of their nests. They’ll go without breeding rather than accepting sub-optimal conditions.

Human destruction has also played a part in the decline of the Galapagos penguin. They get caught in nets meant for fish; they get poisoned by oil spills and other forms of pollution; they get preyed on by pets and parasites that aren’t a natural part of their ecosystem.

This is one of the reasons why Ecuador has put such heavy laws in place for protecting Galapagos penguins from tourists.

28. How long do Galapagos penguins live?

Galapagos penguins live around 15 – 20 years. They’re all wild, so there are no lifespans in captivity that can be compared to this.

29. Do Galapagos penguins lose their feathers?

Yes. Like many birds, Galapagos penguins will periodically shed their feathers and grow new ones. It’s called molting.

Something unique about Galapagos penguins is that they molt all of their old feathers during a brisk two-week period. Most birds shed a few feathers at a time over the course of several months, but Galapagos penguins have a “catastrophic molt” where they lose all of their feathers at the same time.

Another fun fact: Galapagos penguins will only molt when they have enough body fat to sustain them for two weeks. They won’t go into the water during this time, so they can’t hunt. They have to go hungry when they’re molting.

30. What eats a Galapagos penguins? Predators and Threats

Lacking in claws, fangs or hooves, Galapagos penguins are preyed upon by several different species.

  • By air, they’re vulnerable to owls and hawks.
  • In the sea, they’re hunted by sharks, seals, sea lions and killer whales.
  • On land, crabs and snakes will come after their eggs.

Cats and dogs can be issue for Galapagos penguins. These pets aren’t native to the Galapagos Islands, but they were brought over by human explorers and settlers, and some have formed feral populations.

32. How do Galapagos penguins defend themselves from predators?

Since they live in groups, Galapagos penguins use their numbers to scare away predators. They’ll surround a potential threat while braying, pecking, advancing and flapping their flippers aggressively.

Galapagos penguins also have a natural sort of camouflage when they’re swimming underwater.

  • From below, predators will only see their white bellies blending into sunny, shallow water
  • From above, predators will only see their black backsides blending into deeper, darker water.

The best way to survive an attack is to prevent it from happening in the first place, and the dual colors of the Galapagos penguins increase their odds of survival.

33. What is the Galapagos penguins call?

You might not think of penguins as chatty animals, but Galapagos penguins have several distinct vocalizations:

  • Braying. This is what gives them the “jackass” nickname. Braying is usually a series of three or more high-pitched noises that are used in quick succession.
  • Hawing. Haws are contact calls to other penguins. They’re most common between mothers and children.
  • Courtship calls. Courtship calls are used during mating season. Both males and females will take part; sometimes, they’ll even perform duets.

34. Do Galapagos penguins carry disease?

Galapagos penguins are highly susceptible to diseases brought in by humans and foreign animals. Since they live on isolated islands, they have no immunity when people expose them to cats, dogs, birds and rodents that carry parasites and viruses.

The most dangerous disease currently faced by Galapagos penguins is avian malaria. It’s eradicated almost a dozen species in Hawaii, and if it gains a stronghold in the Galapagos Islands, it could prove to be a fatal hit to the already-vulnerable population.

35. How fast can Galapagos penguins move?

On land, Galapagos penguins are notoriously slow. They waddle around with short legs and extended flippers, and they don’t win any races against other animals.

In the water, it’s an entirely different story. Galapagos penguins can reach speeds up to 22 mph (35 km/h) when they’re hunting. They’re very agile swimmers, and they can change course and direction with ease when they discover a passing school of fish.

36. What is the habitat of the Galapagos penguins?

Galapagos penguins live among the rocky little caves and ledges created by cooled lava. Of course, they spend a majority of their time in the water.

Galapagos penguin habitat

37. Where do Galapagos penguins nest?

Galapagos penguins make their nests in the cracks and crevices of lava rocks. When sand is available, they’ll dig a burrow for extra protection.

Some Galapagos penguins add leaves, twigs, rocks, sticks and pebbles to their nests, but there doesn’t seem to be a reason for this. Researchers have suggested that it could be a decorative thing*. They do it for the aesthetic!

*Boersma, P. (1976). An ecological and behavioral study of the Galapagos Penguin. Living Bird. 15. 43-93. 

38. Where can I see the Galapagos penguins?

You’ll need to travel to the Galapagos Islands to see the Galapagos penguins. They’re a highly protected species with strict rules and regulations put into place by the Ecuadorian government.

You can’t even walk in the area where Galapagos penguins live; you’re only allowed to observe them from a distance via a boat or cruise ship. You can swim with them, but you have to be a certain distance away from the coastline, and you can’t climb on any rocks where they might be standing or hunting. Contact is strictly forbidden.

The silver lining is that tourism is a thriving industry in the Galapagos Islands, so as long as you obey the law, you’re welcome to observe the penguins as much as you’d like. There are all kinds of wildlife tours that will take you to see them. There are even dedicated penguin tours that will sail around their hot spots.

More reading: 4 Reasons to Visit Galapagos Islands

39. What is the smallest penguin?

The smallest penguin in the world is the little blue penguin (a.k.a. fairy penguin). It measures 12 – 13 inches and weighs 3 – 4 pounds.

By comparison, Galapagos penguins measure 19 – 21 inches and weigh 4 – 6 pounds. They aren’t massively bigger, but they do have an edge over the little blue species.

40. What penguins are found north of the equator?

Galapagos penguins are the only penguins to be found north of the quarter. They’re special that way!

Why are there penguins at the equator?

Watch on YouTube

Galapagos penguin Isabela Island

Galapagos penguin in the waters off of Isabela Island

41. Can I adopt a Galapagos penguin?

Yes. Organizations like the Galapagos Conservation Trust will facilitate “adoptions” of Galapagos penguins, Galapagos sea lions, Galapagos giant tortoises, Floreana mockingbirds, and hammerhead sharks.

It’s a nice way to help the local populations by contributing a little money to the cause, and you’ll get cool updates in the mail about your adopted animal. As a bonus, you can truthfully tell your friends that you’re saving the Galapagos penguin!

42. Are other species known as Galapagos penguins?

In “The Galapagos Penguin in Captivity”, a paper from 1927 (view pdf), the Spheniscus humboldtii is identified as the Galapagos Penguin. It says that the species arrived at the New York Aquarium in 1915 from southern Chile. Today, this Latin name actually refers to the Humboldt penguin – a similar but distinct species to the Galapagos. Today, the Latin name for the Humboldt is Spheniscus humboldti – ending in just one “i”.

This confusion continues today. Some photos online identify Humboldt penguins as Galapagos penguins at Loro Parque, a huge zoo in the Canary Islands, Spain.

43. Can I see Galapagos penguins in a zoo?

From what I can tell, there are no Galapagos penguins in zoos anywhere in the world.

In fact, it is uncommon to find any Galapagos species in a zoo. The exception is the Galapagos tortoise which we’ve seen at Zoo Miami. I’ve heard that Galapagos sharks are in some aquariums but I haven’t be able to confirm this.

Galapagos penguin facts

Learn more about other Galapagos Islands animals

Happy Feet, Happy Heart

There’s a lot to love about Galapagos penguins. Between their silly waddles, friendly natures and pint-sized figures, they can quickly become some of your favorite animals.

Have a question or maybe a fact to share? Have you seen Galapagos penguins in the wild? Let me know in the comments.

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Meet the Author

Dena Haines is co-editor of GringosAbroad - Ecuador's largest blog for expats and travelers. She is a travel blogger and content marketer. She is also co-founder of ClickLikeThis (GoPro tutorial blog) and Storyteller Media (content marketing for travel brands). Work with GringosAbroad.

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