Flying Through Water
Penguins are flightless birds that are built to “fly” through the water. They have streamlined, torpedo-shaped bodies and wings that have been reduced to strong, stiff flippers that help them propel rapidly through the water. They have webbed feet and legs that are set far back on the body, and their legs and tail are used like rudders for steering as they swim. Diving down to catch fish, Humboldt penguins can stay under water for up to 18 minutes and they can swim 11-15 mph.
Can You See Me Now?
Despite differences in size, all penguin species have similar coloration, with black feathers on the back and white feathers on the front. This counter-shading is a form of camouflage that is crucial in avoiding predation and catching prey. From above, the dark coloration helps them blend into the blackness of the ocean water, but from below the lighter color helps them blend into the bright surface of the ocean.
A Fine Feather Coat
Although Humboldt penguins live in a relatively warm region off the coast of South America, the ocean waters further offshore are cold. The penguins have three layers of short feathers that overlap like shingles on a roof, making them waterproof. They also have a well-defined layer of fat to helps keep them warm. However on shore they can get very hot. They have an extensive area of bare pink skin at the base of their bills that helps them to radiate heat and cool off.
IUCN Status: Vulnerable
The Humboldt penguin population has been steadily declining for the past 50 years and only about 6,000 breeding pairs remain. Major threats to their survival include a reduction in the food supply due to commercial fishing and the effects of the periodic El Nino weather patterns. When fish stocks are reduced or the warmer currents push fish further away from shore, penguins must swim further from the rookeries to forage for food. By the time they return to the nesting sites, they may not be able to regurgitate food for the chicks. Penguins also get entangled in fishing nets and drown. One of the most significant threats has been the reduction in available nesting sites due to guano harvesting for fertilizer. Peru now has limits on guano mining in protected penguin breeding areas. The final threat is predation of the eggs and the susceptible chicks. Conservation projects are underway to protect Humboldt penguins. Denver Zoo participates in the Species Survival Program to breed these endangered birds in captivity to maintain the species.