Many people think of penguins as being Arctic creatures, but in fact, the majority of these flightless birds are found in temperate to tropical regions of the world. Several species of penguins can only be found in one location in the world, such as Galapagos penguins, African penguins, and the endangered Humboldt penguin. Named for the cold ocean currents in which it resides, the Humboldt penguin lives and nests along the rocky shorelines of Peru and Chile. One of the most curious things about the Humboldt’s habitat is that it is comprised of guano — in other words, their own and other seabirds’ excrement. The guano hardens over time, making it hardly indistinguishable from common coastal soil, but provides the perfect medium for the penguins to burrow into and lay their eggs.
Sadly, these incredibly efficient animals are under threat from the usual suspects that plague many endangered marine species: habitat degradation, destructive fishing practices, climate change, and ocean acidification. The Humboldt penguin isn’t the only one who finds guano to be valuable; the high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen in guano make it an excellent fertilizer, which has led to substantial harvesting of the very place these marine birds call home — the only place they call home.
Fortunately, the people of South America care about the fate of this small population, whose numbers are estimated to be as low as just 3,000 individuals. With the assistance of the Saint Louis Zoo in Saint Louis, Missouri, a program is being implemented for biological study of Humboldt penguins, establishing breeding reserves, and educating the public about their plight and their importance to ecosystems along Peruvian and Chilean coastlines. Here’s a great video that explains a bit about Humboldt penguins and the work being done to ensure their legacy continues on.
Image via Martin Pettitt