Black, White, and Pink All Over

The Humboldt penguin, or Spheniscus humboldt, shares its name with the chilly Humboldt Current, which flows north from Antarctica along the Pacific Coast of South America.

Photograph taken from

The Humboldt penguin was discovered between 1830-1832 by German naturalist and physician, Franz Julius Ferdinand Meyen.  Meyen took part in an expedition to South America and discovered the penguins in Peru. After writing their description, he decided to name it for his countryman, Alexander von Humboldt, who had reported seeing this penguin while in Peru, but had never formally described it.

The Humboldt Penguin lives in South America along the Pacific Coast. It is found on the rocky areas around the shores in both Chile and Peru. Surprisingly, unlike other penguins, Humboldt penguins enjoy the warmer climate.  Therefore, since Chile and Peru tend to have warm temperatures all year round, these penguins do not engage in the migration process.


Photograph taken from

Photographs taken from

Although females are seen to be slightly shorter than males, the physical appearance of these penguins is basically the same for both the males and females. They are medium-sized penguins about 28 inches long and weigh about 9 pounds. Additionally, they have a layer of fat in the middle that serves to protect them from the cold. One way to easily recognize them is by the one black band of feathers across their chest, the lack of feathers on their legs, and by the splotchy pink patches (found around their eyes, base of the bill, feet, and underside of their wings). Surprisingly, the pink doesn’t come from their feathers. Rather, the pink pigment is simply a result of bare skin patches. Since these birds live in a warmer climate, having these bare skin patches serves as an adaptation by helping keep them keep cool.


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Humboldt penguins’ torpedo-shaped bodies allow them to quickly cut through the water. ( In other words, their body shapes are designed for moving efficiently. Shockingly, Humboldt’s can reach speeds of 30 miles per hour! They use their wings to help them swim, and their webbed feet to steer underwater. In addition, their webbed feet help them turn in tight curves to escape predators. In addition, their bones tend to be denser than those of flying birds which help them dive to greater depths. Like all birds, penguins have feathers, but their feathers are modified to help them “fly” through the water. Their feathers are waterproof and keep out the cold.


Like previously mentioned, females and males aren’t really that distinguishable from one another. However, another way one can distinguish the difference between the two sexes  is by observing their behaviors. Although both sexes are very social and protective within their colony, an exciting research is currently taking place today. Scientists have recently discovered that each penguin has an intricate sound for communication that allow the penguins to recognize each other as independent beings through sight and sound. 

The Humboldt penguin loves to eat anchoveta. Anchoveta are small fish that thrive in the cold waters off the South American coast. Furthermore, they also like to eat squid and crustaceans. Interestingly, they do not have to drink water. The reason why they do not have to drink water is because, they take in seawater as they swallow their prey. However, like all penguins, they have a special gland that removes salt from their bodies after the intake of saltwater. 

Photograph taken from

Photos taken from

Unfortunately, the numbers of Humboldt penguins have been declining since the mid-19th century. Although there are many reasons as to why, one of the biggest impacts has been disruption by human activity. For instance, the penguins dig eggs into the layers of dried guano (poop) left from seabirds, but this guano has been used as a fertilizer by miners in South America. These miners harvest the guano down to the bare rock. In effect, this leaves many coastal areas scraped completely clean. Therefore, leaving the penguins with nothing to burrow into which prohibits them from hatching offspring. In addition, the fishing industry has significantly impacted the availability of the penguin’s food and has led to penguin’s becoming entangled in their fishing lines. Finally, these penguins are prey for other species. For example, in the ocean, leopard seals, fur seals, sea lions, sharks, and killer whales all prey on these penguins. 


Photograph taken from

In conclusion, according to the IUCN Red List, the Humboldt Penguin is considered to be very vulnerable. The numbers aren’t low enough for it to be considered as threatened or endangered, but like previously stated, the numbers of these penguins have been declining since the mid-19th century. However, many have taken action to reverse this trend. For instance, Chile has had a 30-year ban on the hunting and capturing of these birds since 1995. In Peru, guano mining in the reserves is limited, and those who do mine must sign a contract to protect the penguins. Finally, the Saint Louis Zoo has sent staff to help monitor the mining in the reserves and is taking other great conservation efforts to save these birds.

Photograph taken at the Brookfield Zoo (photo by me)



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