African penguins are very sociable animals. Adults form bonds for life and groom each other regularly, strengthening this bond.
Penguins are the most expert birds in the water. They have adapted to this way of life by having a streamlined shape, a layer of insulating blubber and feathers for warmth. Their wings are modified as flippers for 'flying' under water. They are also counter shaded, with a light colour belly and dark back, which helps to camouflage them from predators whilst in the water.
African penguins are marine carnivores and mainly eat small fish, krill, squid, and crustaceans. Their streamlined bodies make them very effective hunters, enabling them to reach a speed of 20kph when diving for prey. In the wild, the can dive more than 100m below the water's surface.
Whilst you would usually associate penguins with cold climates, the African penguin is found in warmer climates, preferring temperate waters, craggy coastlines and off-shore islands in the wild. They are found on the coasts of South Africa and Namibia.
There are a total of 18,000 African penguin breeding pairs left in the wild. This is a dramatic fall in numbers since 1900 when an estimated 2 million birds could be found. This 97.5% drop in population means these penguins are now classified as Endangered.
A number of factors have contributed to this rapid decline in numbers. Commerical enterprises are forcing many of these birds to nest on the surface, where they are more vulnerable to predatory gulls. Over-fishing has reduced their food supplies and egg harvesting has reduced their reproduction success. Oil pollution is also a major threat to this species.
We work with a local conservation and rehabilitation centre in South Africa which rescues orphaned penguin chicks, nurses them back to health and reintroduces them back into the wild. In December 2014 Bristol Zoo launched an urgent appeal to help save an unexpected influx of chicks rescued by this local centre. Find out more about how we are helping to save this species by clicking here >
At the end of the breeding season, penguins go through a rapid and severe moult, during which they lose all their old feathers and grow in new ones. In the wild, penguins are unable to swim during the moult, so they cannot go hunting for fish. In preparation, penguins put on lots of weight. That all explains why, if you visit Bristol Zoo Gardens between April and June, you may see several of the penguins looking scruffy, chubby, hiding in burrows and reluctant to go into the pool. But within a month, they will have a fine new suit of feathers.
You can find our African penguins in the Seal & Penguin Coasts exhibit, next to Monkey Jungle and opposite the pygmy hippos.
We are open! Pre-book your timed tickets nowBook now
We are open! Pre-book your timed tickets now