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  • Antje Steinfurth

Happy Penguin Awareness Day!

It is Penguin Awareness Day, a day not to celebrate how undeniably cute they are but to create much needed awareness of their precarious conservation status!

Penguins are the second most threatened family of seabirds after albatrosses, with over half of the world’s species under threat of extinction due to a number of cumulative threats both on land and at sea. Crested penguins constitute not only the largest genus but also the most threatened group with 6 out of 7 species listed as Vulnerable or Endangered (the seventh is listed as Near Threatened) – so almost all of them are at risk of extinction.

The northern rockhopper penguin (Eudyptes moseleyi) is found in the temperate South Atlantic and southern Indian oceans, breeding on just seven islands between 37 - 40° S. Approximately 90% of the global population is found in the South Atlantic, breeding at the Tristan da Cunha archipelago and Gough Island with the remaining 10% at home in the French Southern Territory islands of Amsterdam and St. Paul in the southern Indian Ocean.

Breeding locations of the northern rockhopper penguin in the South Atlantic and southern Indian Ocean

The species’ restricted breeding range, combined with a dramatic population decline of 90−99% since the 19th century, has led to its IUCN classification as Endangered (1). The causes of the population’s ongoing decline however are not fully understood, but changes in the marine environment due to increasing sea temperatures and reduction or displacement of prey (both likely linked to climate change), diseases (2) and oil pollution (3) are key suspects.

The northern rockhopper penguin is listed as Endangered by the IUCN

The species’ vulnerability was strikingly evident when the cargo ship MS Oliva ran aground off the north-western coast of Nightingale Island (in the Tristan da Cunha archipelago) on 16th March 2011 (4). Approximately 1500 tons of fuel and heavy crude oil escaped from the ship, encircling Nightingale and nearby Middle (or Alex) Islands, the breeding sites of almost half the world’s northern rockhopper population, or pinnamin as they’re known locally. An estimated 20,000 birds died.

Even though the oil spill had nothing to do with past population declines, and the aftermath of the oil spill is still unknown, what the catastrophe did highlight was that just one single catastrophe could prove disastrous to the global population.

The increasing number of ships passing close to the archipelago each year creates a growing risk of chronic oiling as well as further catastrophic spills. An Oiled Wildlife Preparedness and Response Plan for the islands has since been produced that will help the Tristanians to respond swiftly if a disaster should strike once again.

Regular surveys carried out by the Tristan Conservation Department in the Tristan da Cunha archipelago and by our team on Gough have been providing invaluable data which allow us to estimate annual population numbers. However, these are of little help identifying and understanding processes that are driving population trends and dynamics, which is crucial for any effective protection and management of a species (5,6).

Northern rockhopper penguin colony on Gough Island

So, in 2012 a joint conservation initiative was launched between many different institutions and organisations. Using a mixture of traditional observation and high-tech tracking tools we aimed to shed some light on this then still surprisingly unknown species and to bring some valuable insights into the foraging and breeding ecology of the penguins.

In March 2016, further funding was awarded by the UK Government’s “Darwin Plus” Overseas Territories Environment and Climate Fund, coinciding with the fifth anniversary of the oil spill, and Project Pinnamin – preserving northern rockhopper penguin on Tristan da Cunha, was born (7). More info.

Results of our work provided scientific evidence for important marine areas for penguins within the waters around Tristan da Cunha (the Exclusive Economic Zone) and contributed to the process that ultimately led to the announcement of the recently declared Marine Protection Zone (MPZ) around the islands in November 2020. The newly established MPZ encompasses a huge body of water surrounding the islands is now the fourth largest fully protected marine reserve on the planet. This ambitious decision by the Tristan da Cunha Council and community shows how a local commitment can have truly global implications, ensuring a sustainable future for wildlife and people. More info.

A close up of northern rockhopper penguins!

While science and research undoubtedly play a key role in the conservation of species, habitats and ecosystems, it needs everyone to take an increasingly active part in ensuring effective protection for our planet’s biodiversity. Penguins depend on healthy oceans so we challenge you, on Penguin Awareness Day 2021, to think about how you can contribute as individuals to help secure the future of these charismatic birds e.g. by reducing the use of single use plastic and in general minimising the amount of waste we create, by choosing only sustainable seafood, reusing items more than once and recycling items instead of throwing them away. Let us know your ideas in the comments below!

Northern rockhopper penguins on Nightingale Island, Tristan da Cunha

Did you know?

  • There are 18 species of penguins on Earth.

  • They are called the ‘100 degrees birds’, as they can be found breeding under the equatorial sun (40 degrees) to the polar regions (-60 degrees).

  • They are countershaded i.e. dark on the dorsal (back) and white on the ventral (belly) so neither predators nor prey see them The dark back blends in with the dark ocean depths when viewed from above and the light belly blends in with the glistening surface of the sea when viewed from below.

  • Penguins DO have knees - you just can’t see them!

  • Penguins go through one complete moult per year to replace their entire set of feathers. During this time they need to stay on land and fast which, depending on species, can last for up to a month.

  • It is still being debated whether there are 2 or 3 species of rockhopper penguins.

  • The northern rockhopper is one of five penguin species listed as Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) - this means they are at a very high risk of extinction.

  • The northern rockhoppers’ claim to fame is possessing the longest crest of any penguin.

  • Unique features of crested penguins are the extreme egg-size dimorphism (they lay a small ‘A egg’ and a larger ‘B egg’) and obligate brood reduction i.e. they lay two eggs but raise only one chick. This still remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in the animal kingdom: why would one lay two eggs when one only raises one chick?



1 BirdLife International (2018) Eudyptes moseleyi. IUCN Red List Threat Species 2018: e.T22734408A132664126. https:// T22 7 34408A132664126.en (accessed 1 Nov 2019)

2 Jaeger A, Lebarbenchon C, Bourret V, Bastien M, Lagadec E, Thiebot JB, Boulinier T, Delord K, Barbraud C, Marteau C, Dellagi K, Tortosa P, Weimerskirch H 2018. Avian cholera outbreaks threaten seabird species on Amsterdam Island. PLoS ONE 13(5): e0197291.

3 Steinfurth A, Oppel S, Dias MP, Starnes T, Pearmain EJ, Dilley BJ, Davies D, Nydegger M, Bell C, Le Bouard F, Bond AL (2020) Important marine areas for the conservation of northern rockhopper penguins within the Tristan da Cunha Exclusive Economic Zone. Endangered Species Research 43:409-420.

4 Ruoppolo V, Woehler EJ, Morgan K, Clumpner CJJPR (2013) Wildlife and oil in the Antarctic: a recipe for cold disaster. Polar Records 49: 97−10

5 Cuthbert R, Cooper J, Burle MH, Glass CJ, Glass JP, Glass S, Glass T, Hilton GM, Sommer ES, Wanless RM, Ryan PG (2009) Population trends and conservation status of the Northern Rockhopper Penguin Eudyptes moseleyi at Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island. Bird Conservation International 19(1): 109-120.

6 Robson B, Glass T, Glass N, Glass J, Green J, Repetto C, Rodgers G, Ronconi RA, Ryan PG, Swain G, Cuthbert RJ (2011) Revised population estimate and trends for the Endangered Northern Rockhopper Penguin Eudyptes moseleyi at Tristan da Cunha. Bird Conservation International 21: 454–459.

7 RZSS (Royal Zoological Society of Scotland), BAS (British Ant arctic Survey), CEBC-CNRS (Centre d’études bio lo giques de Chizé−Centre national de la recherche scienti fique), RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), TAAF (Terres australes et antarctiques françaises), TCD (Tristan da Cunha Conservation Department) (2018) Northern rockhopper penguin Eudyptes moseleyi action plan 2017−2027. RZSS, Edinburgh


To keep up to date with all the latest news please follow our Gough Island Facebook and Twitter pages, or contact us on email: Acknowledgement The Gough Island Restoration Programme is being carried out by the RSPB in partnership with Tristan da Cunha, BirdLife South Africa, the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries in South Africa, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, Island Conservation, and Landcare Research. The programme is part-funded by the RSPB, the UK Government, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and other generous individuals and organisations.

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