Africa’s Last Penguins Linked To New Fossil Finds

Africa’s last species of penguin is in freefall, with its population collapsing so fast that it was redlisted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as an endangered species in 2010. Yet, according to new fossil finds from a site near Cape Town, South Africa, there were once as many as four species of penguins living in Africa.

The specimens are between 10 and 12 million years old, and they represent at least three extinct African penguin species, according to a paper published today in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. Co-authors Daniel Thomas and Dan Ksepka said that the sizes of the new species ranged from “a runty pint-sized penguin that stood just about a foot tall, to a towering species closer to three feet.”

So, if you only imagined penguins living in the cold and snow of icy Antarctica, get ready to adjust your thinking. Some penguins are fun-loving animals that can tolerate and even enjoy more pleasant climates.

The researchers don’t have enough information yet to figure out why the three species died out, but humans couldn’t have been to blame. By the time early modern humans arrived in the Cape Town area, they were already gone, leaving behind Africa’s last penguin, known to science as Spheniscus demersus and to many people in South Africa as the “jackass penguin.”

If you find the name impolite, it also has an alternate English name, the black-footed penguin.

By any name, the IUCN said that it’s under the gun from competition with human commercial fisheries, which wipe out their prey. Thomas noted that it has also been impacted by oil spills which foul the feathers.

When I visited Cape Town, I was told of a highly unusual sighting of a local pair of Black Eagles who had caught and killed a black-footed penguin to feed to their babies in the nest. I allegedly missed the show by only a few days. However, that’s a very rare event and not a serious threat to the last species of penguin in Africa.

[African penguins photo courtesy Stefan Thiesen and Wikipedia Commons]

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