Historically, penguins were hunted for their meat, feathers, fat and eggs. Plus, their droppings (guano) were highly valued as garden fertilizer. Layers of clay-like guano, hundreds of feet deep, were removed, depriving temperate penguins of nesting burrows. Penguin populations never fully recovered from these activities. Today there are new threats to penguins, and many species are in danger.
Big oil spills are horrible events. The Treasure oil spill put nearly 40,000 penguins at risk. But, perpetual small leaks, illegal dumping and poor regulations are actually much greater threats to penguins and other marine life.
Oil tankers are designed to travel the open seas fully laden with oil, and they would be dangerously unstable with empty holds. In order to counteract this risk, empty oil tankers will pump ocean water into their holds. This ballast water provides the necessary weight to allow the ship to move safely to its next port, where it should pump the water from its tanks in order to prevent it from polluting the sea.
This process is highly regulated, but unevenly enforced, and many tankers empty their tanks directly into the sea before entering port. Illegal dumping saves the ship some time, and often some money, but it puts local marine life at significant risk. The ballast water is contaminated with oil from the ship’s hold. No oil spill has occurred, but an oil slick has been created. This unsavory practice is all too common, and extremely difficult to prevent. As a result, oil slicks are a nearly constant feature near many of the world’s
Oil kills penguins. It coats their feathers, leaving them without much-needed insulation. Penguins then ingest the toxic oil when they attempt to clean their feathers. The swallowed oil can cause stomach lesions and may depress their immune systems. The oiled penguin is helpless to save itself. Being rescued and cleaned is their only hope.
In many parts of the world, penguins nest on the same beaches where people work, play or relax. In the past, penguins would lose when penguins and people wanted to use the same stretch of beach or scrub habitat. Today, penguin nesting habitats are beginning to be protected, although habitat loss remains a significant threat for many of the world’s penguins.
In recent years, as commercial fishing has become more efficient, people have been catching and eating more fish than ever before. Commercial fishing has depleted some fish populations to such a degree that there are sometimes not enough fish left to feed penguins and other fish-eating marine animals. This is a particular problem near popular penguin breeding sites. There, hundreds or thousands of adult penguins may be concentrated for weeks or months, fishing heavily to feed themselves and their growing chicks.
Most birds can escape to the safety of the air if a predator threatens, but flightless birds can only walk, run, waddle or swim away from their predators. Because of this, flightless birds have a long and tragic history of extinctions following the introduction of nonnative predators or competitors. Many flightless birds evolved on small, predator-free islands, and have no natural defenses. Such was the case for the dodo, which survived barely 200 years past its discovery.
Today, introduced predators are threatening many penguin species. On New Zealand, introduced rats steal little blue penguin eggs and newly hatched chicks, while foxes, dogs and cats stalk adult penguins. In New Zealand and elsewhere, scientists and conservationists are working on the nearly impossible task
of finding ways to control or remove introduced species.
Global climate change may result in shifting ocean currents, rising temperatures, melting ice caps and a myriad of other threats to penguins and other creatures. Antarctica’s penguins—which have been largely spared most other human-caused threats—may suffer the most from climate change. These birds like the cold. They need the cold.
Emperor penguins, the lovable stars of the blockbuster March of the Penguins, rely on the shrimplike krill for the majority of their diet. These krill, in turn, rely on sea ice, which leads to greater algae production. Less algae is produced in summers when the sea ice shrinks due to rising temperatures. Less algae leads to less krill, which means hungry penguins and starving chicks.
How people can help penguins
Penguins are cute and lovable. But, as much as we adore them, many penguin species are facing multiple threats in the wild. And, people are a big part of the problem. Thankfully, people can also be a big part of the solution.
Take care of the oceans
The world’s oceans are all connected and no matter where we live, our daily actions have an impact on them. Help keep the oceans clean by disposing of your trash properly, and picking up litter on the beach or in the street.
Help slow climate change
Global climate change may cause temperatures to increase, ice caps to melt and ocean levels to rise. Help slow climate change by reducing your daily energy use and driving less often.
Make a donation
By supporting the New England Aquarium, you support penguins and conservation efforts here and around the world.
Sponsor a penguin
Sponsor a penguin through our Proud Parent Animal Adoption Program. For more information, call 617-
The Aquarium relies on volunteers to help feed our fishes, care for our penguins and educate our visitors. For more information see our Volunteering section or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-973-5235.
Share your knowledge with others
When you introduce your friends and family to penguins, you are helping by sharing your knowledge with others. Bring a friend or family member to visit the penguins at the Aquarium. Talk with your friends about the threats facing penguins and other sea creatures. And stay informed about conservation efforts.
Other conservation measures
Currently all 18 species of penguins are legally protected from hunting and egg collecting. At least 10 of the 17 species are considered at risk. The Antarctic Treaty was signed by 12 nations in 1959 and reauthorized in 1991 to protect Antarctica and preserve its living resources. The treaty makes it illegal to harm, or in any way interfere with, a penguin or its eggs. Every penguin specimen collected with a permit must be approved by and reported to the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research. Education and
awareness programs play a significant role in conservation. Many aquariums, zoos and other organizations are constantly educating people about penguins.