African penguin
African penguin calling African penguin

Animal Facts

  • Scientific Name

    Spheniscus demersus

  • Animal Type

    Birds

  • Diet

    Cape anchovy, other small fishes

  • Size

    26.5 inches (68 cm)

  • Relatives

    Humboldt penguin, Magellanic penguin, Galápagos penguin and other penguins; Order Sphenisciformes

At the Aquarium

The colony of African penguins in our Splash Zone exhibit is a must-see on any visit. These stout little birds are endlessly entertaining as they preen, feed, sleep, waddle and swim. There are several mated pairs, and each of our penguins has a name—you can spot them by the identification bands on their wings!

All of the birds are part of a Species Survival Plan for threatened African penguins. The program, managed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), aims to help with the genetic health of wild African penguin colonies. The Species Survival Plan manages more than 800 African penguins throughout the 50 AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums.

Most of our penguins came from the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans, arriving in 2005 for the debut of Splash Zone. Other penguins in our colony came from other zoos and aquariums. One of those is Bee, short for Bumblebee, who hatched March 23, 1999, and came to us from the Memphis Zoo in 2010. Bee and her mate, Geyser, are the biological parents of Maq, one of the chicks hatched at the Aquarium.


Natural History

Not all penguins live in snow and ice—African penguins live in cold currents along the coast of South Africa. They're agile and graceful under water. Using their wings as flippers and their feet as rudders, they "fly" through the water fast enough to chase down schools of cape anchovy and other small fishes.

To keep warm in the cold water, African penguins have a double layer of insulation: densely packed feathers over a soft layer of down. On land, they face the opposite problem; they can overheat in hot sun. To keep their cool, they pant and pump blood to parts of their bodies with less insulation—their wings, faces and feet—where excess heat can escape.


Conservation

In Africa, African penguin populations have undergone a steep decline in the past century. As recently as the early twentieth century, breeding pairs numbered nearly one million—but by 1956, the population plummeted to around 141,000 pairs. Today, it's estimated that around 25,000 breeding pairs exist in the wild. African penguins are considered endangered, as their population has been reduced by over 97 percent in the last 100 years. If additional conservation actions aren't taken, the penguin population is likely to continue to decline at this alarming rate.

We can help African penguins in the wild by protecting the ocean habitats these animals depend upon—and by choosing ocean-friendly seafood. Although all penguins are protected from hunting and egg collecting, many, including the African, face threats from oil pollution, habitat loss, introduced predators and overfishing.


Cool Facts

  • Penguins make good parents. They often keep the same mate for life, and both parents take turns incubating the eggs and feeding and protecting their chicks. 
  • Wild penguins eat close to 14 percent of their body weight each day. For a 150-pound (68-kg) person, that would be like eating 21 pounds (9.5 kg) of food a day!


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