Galapagos Penguins and El Nino
I decided to shift focus from African wildlife this week to a species endemic to the Galapagos Archipelago that may be at risk of extinction due to climate change: the Galapagos penguin. This penguin occurs further north than any other, made possible by cold ocean currents that travel north along the South American coast.
The productivity of the marine environment surrounding the Galapagos Islands is incredible. Clouds of fish, sea lions, sea turtles, and the white-tipped reef shark are common sights for the snorkeler or scuba diver. The islands also attract thousands of nesting sea birds that feed on the ocean’s bounty. The Galapagos penguin’s inquisitive behaviour, their red eyes, and their donkey-like braying call are unforgettable. Several approached within six feet of us while snorkeling, and to within arms reach of our inflatable “pangas”, which was too close for my 200 mm lens to focus. The astonishing abundance of the Island’s marine wildlife is difficult to put into words.
The upwelling of cold ocean currents that draws nutrient-rich water from the depths drives this amazing food chain. Since the abundance of prey fish depends on these nutrients, disruptions of these currents due to El Nino events also leads to famine for other marine animals, such as the Galapagos penguin. The penguin’s breeding and survival strategies have likely evolved with disturbances created by occasional El Nino events over thousands of years. Nevertheless, an increase in the frequency of El Nino is believed to be an effect of climate change, which may result in the extinction of this species. For example, during particularly strong El Nino events that occured in 1982-83 and 1997-98, a 60% decline in the Galapagos penguin population was observed (Vargas et al. 2007). Penguin populations have not yet recovered, and more frequent El Nino events like these are projected for the future. The Galapagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus) is listed as Endangered by Birdlife International.
To see more photos, or purchase prints, please visit my gallery at http://bhealyphoto.zenfolio.com/.