What do you think of when you hear the word penguin? Me, I picture frozen windswept Antarctic ice floes, with penguins huddling as close as possible to keep out the cold, with a Morgan Freeman voice over to soothe the soul. What I don’t think of is Africa, which in my mind is a hot continent full of deserts and blazing savannah. Of course, that’s not all that composes Africa, but it’s the main thing I think of. But yes, there are penguins in Africa. Adorable, waddling penguins, known as African penguins.

These penguins live on a group of islands off the southwestern coast of Africa, and have a few mainland colonies in Namibia and South Africa. They form large colonies on rocky shorelines, spending most of the day hunting and staying on shore at night. They spend a fair amount of time swimming, and can travel up to 20 km an hour.

A cute African penguin. Notice the pink patch above the animal’s eye. By shi zhao – originally posted to Flickr as DSC_3327, CC BY-SA 2.0

African penguins look pretty much like… penguins. They’re black and white, with some spotting on their underside. The spotting patterns are unique to each penguin, much like a human’s fingerprint. The blank and white colouring is a form of camouflage for the penguin, though it only really works in the water. From below, the white underside of the penguin blends in with the light coloured surface, while from above the black backside matches the darkness of the ocean depths. One of the key features of the African penguin is a small pink gland above each eye. These help the African penguin deal with extra heat – when it’s too hot, blood flows to these glands to release as much heat as possible. All the extra blood flow makes the glands pretty red, so you can tell if it’s hot out by seeing how red an African penguin’s face is. Of course, they could just be embarrassed.

Though they breed in massive colonies, these penguins are monogamous, sticking together for life. Despite their fidelity to each other, the parents are fairly self-serving when it comes to raising chicks. If food supplies are low, the parents feed themselves, and will even let their children starve if it means they’ll miss a meal. Not a great parenting strategy, but at least the parents are very protective of the nestlings. They also take turns incubating the eggs, using a bare patch on their bellies that allows direct heat transfer from the parents to the eggs. So perhaps they are not such awful parents. Still, I feel like food should be a number one concern when taking care of children.

A mother penguin with her chicks. Adorable, aren’t they? Image By D. Gordon E. Robertson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Although they are often known as the boring African penguins, these guys have a few more exciting names, such as the jackass penguin. This refers to the loud braying noises the penguin is famous for. They have three distinct calls: the bray, yell and haw. The bray is used to attract mates, while the yell is a defence call, protecting territory from other penguins. The haw is used to communicate between partners while one is on land and the other is in the water. So I’m sure you can imagine what a noisy place an African penguin colony is. I’d love to go to one someday. Though maybe earplugs would be a good thing to bring along.

Cover image By D. Gordon E. Robertson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0