El Niño and the Galapagos Penguin: The Heat that Kills

He stands on the rocks, his back hunched awkwardly to shield his feet from the
relentless equatorial sun. His flippers are outstretched, catching the cool ocean
breeze. Reminiscent of man’s best friend, he pants, his beak hanging wide open.
He is trying to lose heat. This is the Galapagos penguin, the world’s
northernmost, and one of the most endangered species, of penguins.

His very existence on these islands is somewhat of an anomaly, given their
equatorial position. However, he is able to survive thanks to the Humboldt and
Cromwell Currents, both of which bring cold and nutrient-rich waters to the
archipelago (see image below). These currents are crucial to the lives of the
islands’ endemic species by creating an environment that is cooler than one
would expect for its latitude. But every two to seven years when El Niño occurs,
this balance is disrupted.

El Niño completely reverses the effects of the cool currents that bathe the
Galapagos Islands. Flows of warm and nutrient-poor water replace the Humboldt
and Cromwell currents, creating conditions in which many of the archipelago’s
endemic life cannot survive. Among these casualties lies the Galapagos penguin.

El Niño affects these birds in multiple ways. Firstly, the warm waters repress the
growth of algae and plankton, which feed the fish that the penguins depend on.
In severe episodes the fish populations crash, leading to mass starvation among
the birds. In the 1982/83 El Niño years alone, an estimated 77% of the Galapagos
penguins starved to death.

Secondly, the penguins’ future as a species is threatened. Galapagos penguins
only reproduce when sea temperatures around the islands drop below 24
degrees celsius, and in El Niño years the water is significantly warmer.
Furthermore, without food, they lack the energy to lay eggs and sufficiently care
for their young. Penguins have been noted to stop reproduction altogether
during particularly severe events.

Normally, one would expect the population to recover after these episodes. El
Niño, after all, is a natural phenomenon that has affected the Galapagos Islands
for millennia, and the birds have survived till the present day. However, recent
decades have seen a worrying increase in its frequency and severity. With
© Quasar Expeditions 2013
shortened recovery periods, in addition to rising global ocean temperatures and
the human pressures they face, the future of the Galapagos penguins is in doubt.
Research already shows that their population is in long-term decline, with a 30%
chance of extinction within the next 100 years.

This is why we need to act now. The Galapagos Conservation Trust runs the
Galapagos Penguin Appeal, a project that surveys the population of both the
penguins and flightless cormorants (another avian species endemic to the
archipelago). The data collected allows the Galapagos National Park Service to
map out conservation policies for these birds, thus raising their chances of
survival in an increasingly challenging environment. To see how you can help, go
here: http://www.penguinappeal.org.