Say “penguin” and the images that come to mind are of frost-covered penguin couples struggling to raise their chicks in sub-zero temperatures.
In fact, these aquatic flightless birds thrive in temperate — even equatorial — climates as well. For these temperate penguin communities, it isn’t the extreme cold of the Antarctic but the extreme sun and El Niño events that most affect their ability to survive and reproduce.
Biologist Dee Boersma has spent much of her career working with temperate penguins. This video features Boersma’s work with Galapagos penguins, which inhabit the legendary islands of the same name that lie some 600 miles off the Ecuadorian coast.
Galapagos penguins represent only one of the four temperate penguin species that Boersma studies. Her research also takes her to Argentina where she studies Magellanic penguins, South Africa to study African penguins, and Peru to study Humboldts.
Native to the west coast of South America, this species is named for the cold Humboldt Current that ensures the upwellingof nutrients from the ocean floor along the Peruvian and Chilean coast.
A professor at the University of Washington, Boersma also brings her college students to Woodland Park Zoo, in Seattle, where they can observe Humboldt penguins in person. The Humboldts that reside at this zoo are able to stay cool and healthy with help from an innovative “green” habitat featuring a geothermal heating and cooling system. Water is continually recycled and cleaned through a “constructed wetland” modeled on a natural ecosystem. Plant roots and microbes absorb the nutrients in penguin wastewater and return it, purified, to the system.
The green habitat is meant to spark visitors’ curiosity about techniques for using natural processes to live more lightly on the earth — techniques that can benefit animal and human communities alike. This simulated ecosystem also demonstrates how the health of any species is directly tied to the health of its habitat. Like the zoo’s captive penguin community, the world’s wild penguins can only thrive if the marine ecosystems they inhabit remain healthy and intact.
According to Boersma, “Penguins are ocean sentinels, telling us how climate variation, petroleum pollution, fishing, and habitat modifications are impacting penguins as well as humans. Penguins can be our ambassadors so that humans make better choices that improve the quality of life for penguins and people.”
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