Humboldt Penguin Spheniscus humboldti


Justification of Red List Category
This species has undergone extreme population size fluctuations, (close to one order of magnitude) at major colonies in Chile. However, an overall reduction in the number of breeding colonies indicates that there is probably an ongoing, underlying rapid decline in numbers. It consequently qualifies as Vulnerable.

Population justification

Counts of moulting birds including mature and immature individuals, suggest an average population of 33,384 ± 2,372 individuals for Chile (Wallace and Araya 2015) and 10,855 ± 6,851 individuals for Perú (P. McGill pers. comm.).

Trend justification
Based on analysis of data in Ellis et al. (1998), Hays (1984, 1986) and from P. Majluf in litt. (1999).

Distribution and population

Spheniscus humboldti occurs along th e coastal zone from Isla Foca (5° 12´S) in Peru down to Isla Guafo (43° 32´S) in southern Chile. At least 49 breeding sites have been confirmed between Punta Aguja (5°47´S) and Isla Metalqui (42°12´S) in Peru and Chile, respectively (Ayala et al. 2004, Reyes-Arriagada et al. 2009). The global population is estimated at nearly 32,000 mature individuals with key colonies at Punta San Juan (3,160) and Isla Santa Rosa (3,490) in Peru, and Pan de Azúcar (1,600), Chañaral (14,000), Choros (1,860), Tilgo (2,640), and Pajaros I (1,200) in Chile. A vagrant individual was recorded in Alaska, although it likely was transported by boat (Van Buren and Boersma 2007).

Historically, the population suffered a severe decline starting in the mid-1800s due to the extensive guano harvest in Peru and northern Chile which removed the preferred nesting habitat (Murphy 1936). According to Johnson et al. (1965), the Humboldt Penguin occurred by the “hundreds of thousands” before the guano exploitation started. In the early 1980s, just prior to the 1982-83 El Niño event, the global population was estimated at 16,000-20,000 birds (Araya and Todd 1988, Hays 1986). After this El Niño event, numbers dropped to 5,000-6,000 individuals, but it is uncertain whether this reduction actually represented mortality or dispersal or a combination of both (Hays 1986, Araya and Todd 1988).

A current analysis of the population trend reveals high uncertainty in the quality of population numbers taken in the past three generations, with important deficiencies in the coverage of breeding sites and in the methodology employed to count penguins within and between the two countries (Simeone and Cárdenas unpublished). As a consequence interpreting the current trend of the population is problematic and further research is needed.

Evidence from satellite-tracked individuals suggests that part of the population migrate northwards during winter, between 600-1,000 km. This has been observed from colonies in northern Chile (Culik and Luna-Jorquera 1997) and southern Chile (Pütz et al. 2016). Based on band recoveries, Wallace et al. (1999) showed dispersal of penguins from a colony in central Chile, up to 600 km to the south and 80 km to the north. Recent geo-location sensor data for Peru indicates post moult movements from breeding individuals at Punta San Juan (15º22’S) southward up to the Magellan Region (49o 51'S) in Chile (Paredes et al. unpublished data).


Breeding sites It nests on islands and rocky coastal stretches, using a variety of nest types including guano and dirt burrows, surface nests, vegetation- and rock-covered scrapes, rock crevices, sea caves and under rocks at breakwater walls (Battistini and Paredes 1999, Simeone and Bernal 2000, Paredes and Zavalaga 2001). It apparently prefers to breed on slopes at high elevation sites where guano deposits are available for burrow excavation (Paredes and Zavalaga 2001).

Reproductive behaviour Breeding occurs year-round, but has two peaks, in autumn-winter (April through July) and in spring (August through December) with latitudinal shifts in dates between Peru and Chile (Paredes et al. 2002, Simeone et al. 2002, de la Puente et al. 2013).

Moult Birds moult mainly during January and February, but moult in juveniles is less synchronous (Simeone et al. 2002, Paredes et al. 2003, de la Puente et al. 2013).

Migratory range It is uncertain whether this is a migratory species, but a part of the population migrate after moult (March), with birds from Pan de Azúcar migrating over 600 km (Culik and Luna-Jorquera 1997b) and birds from Puñihuil over 1,000 km (Pütz et al. 2016) northwards from their colonies.

Diet Depending on locality, it feeds on a variety of fish species including Peruvian anchovy (Engraulis ringens), Araucanian herring (Strangomera bentincki) Silverside (Odontesthes regia), Common hake (Merluccius gayi), Inca scad (Trachurus murphyi), Garfish (Scomberesox saurus scombroides) and South American pilchard (Sardinops sagax). Diet also includes squid: Dosidiscus gigas and Loligo gahi (Herling et al. 2005).  

Foraging bahaviour Humboldt penguin are highly dependent on predictable food resources in coastal waters near its nesting sites (Taylor et al. 2002). Adults during the chick-rearing period forage within 20-35 km around the colony, while incubating birds may reach up to 72 km from the colony (Culik and Luna-Jorquera 1997, Culik et al. 1998, Chiu et al. 2011). It typically makes short, shallow dives within 30 m of the surface (Taylor et al. 2002). At Isla Pan de Azúcar, Chile, it was found that maximum dive depth was 53 m.

Population health Health surveys conducted on breeding adults from Punta San Juan showed that birds are in good condition. Haematology, plasma chemistries, and plasma mineral levels varied between years. Positive antibody titers for Chlamydophila psittaci (62%), avian adenovirus (7%; 1994 only), paramyxovirus-2 (7%; 1993 only), and Salmonella pullorum (7%) were found (Smith et al 2008). Sallaberry-Pincheira et al. (2015) detected Haemoproteus sp. in wild ranging Humboldt penguins at Punta San Juan but it is unclear whether Haemoproteus sp. sporozoites are able to infect and develop in penguin cells (see Levin et al. 2013; Valkiunas et al. 2014) and, until this has been conclusively demonstrated, it seems unlikely that these parasites pose a significant threat for their conservation (Vanstreels et al. 2016).

Pollution Humboldt penguins at Punta San Juan were evaluated for 55 important trace elements, including Hg [maximum Hg concentrations in serum (0.0056 ± 0.001 µg/g), whole blood (0.297 ± 0.0683 µg/g), and feathers (1.8 ?g/g dw)], but at levels generally not considered to cause health impairment. Plasma samples from the same animals were analysed for 31 polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) and 11 organochlorine (OC) residues using gas chromatography coupled to an ion trap mass spectrometer and for 15 polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) using gas chromatography high-resolution mass spectrometry. The detection rate for PCBs was 69%, with congeners 105, 118, 180, and 153 most commonly detected (M. Adkesson, unpublished data).   


El Niño and environmental variability The Humboldt Current System has alternating blooms and depletions of productivity triggered by El Niño-La Niña dynamics. During El Niño prey availability is reduced to penguins (Culik et al. 2000, Taylor et al. 2002) inducing nest abandonment and chick mortality (Paredes and Zavalaga 1998, Simeone et al. 2002). However, La Niña conditions improve food availability producing higher breeding success and chick survival (Simeone et al. 2002). Increased frequency and intensity of El Niño events will likely harm the Humboldt penguin by reducing its ability to recover fast enough, as it has been observed in the Galápagos penguin (Boersma 1998, Vargas et al. 2006).

Interaction with fisheries Industrial fisheries in Peru and Chile exploit the main prey species’ of penguins (sardines and anchovies). A study by Jahncke et al. (2004) demonstrated that the removal of forage fish is an important pressing threat to several seabirds in the Humboldt Current Ecosystem that may be hindering their ability to recover to pre-industrial fisheries population levels. Gill nets from artisanal fisheries regularly entangle and kill penguins both in Chile (Simeone et al. 1999, Wallace et al. 1999, Skewgar et al. 2009) and Peru (Majluf et al. 2002, J. Alfaro-Shigueto pers. comm.). Simeone et al. (1999) suggest that more penguins die in gill nets during winter, when birds are away from the colonies. In Peru, illegal use of explosives by fishermen has caused penguin mortality (J. Reyes pers. comm.), this also occurs in northern Chile although this seems to be infrequent (CONAF 2016). 

Alien species Rats (Rattus rattus and R. norvegicus) predate on unattended eggs at several colonies in north and central Chile (Simeone and Luna-Jorquera 2012) and also on chicks in Punta San Juan, Peru (S. Cárdenas-Alayza, pers. obs.). Feral dogs have been reported to kill adults at Pájaro Niño Island in central Chile (Simeone and Bernal 2000). Feral cats have been observed at some islands in Peru.

Problematic native species Andean foxes enter coastal reserves in Peru and prey on adult and juvenile penguins; gulls and vultures prey on unattended eggs and small chicks (M. Cardeña, pers. comm.).

Human perturbation penguin colonies are frequently visited by tourists and fishermen collecting seafood or seaweeds in northern Chile (Simeone and Schlatter 1998, Ellenberg et al. 2006, CONAF 2016) and Peru. Simeone and Schlatter (1998) reported considerable trampling of nests by unregulated tourists at Puñihuil Islands and by guano harvesters in Peru (P. Majluf pers. comm.). As the species is extremely sensitive to human presence, breeding success is significantly reduced at frequently visited sites (Ellenberg et al. 2006).

Habitat loss Historical declines resulted from over-exploitation of guano, which greatly reduced the availability and quality of nesting habitat (Coecker 1920, Murphy 1936). Removal of guano reduces the preferred substrate used by penguins to dig burrows (Murphy 1936, Duffy et al. 1984, Paredes and Zavalaga 2001), but guano miners also increase adult and egg mortality through direct harvest, trampling of nests, direct disturbance to breeding sites and by the introduction of alien species such as dogs and rats (Duffy et al. 1984).

Industrial development The coastal and marine area around the major colonies in northern Chile (29-30°S) is currently threatened by the construction of coal-fired power stations (Cárcamo et al. 2011). An industrial mega port has been approved in the bay close to Punta San Juan, the largest colony for Peru (P. Majluf, pers. comm.).

Human consumption In northern Chile, eggs are collected for local consumption and birds are killed for use as fish and crab bait

Pollution So far, pollution has not been reported as a threat to these penguins. However, there is the potential for oil spills affecting some colonies. In central Chile, two major oil spills occurred in the period 2015-2016, threatening the colony at Cachagua which contains 800 mature individuals. Oil spills should be considered a potential threat.

Conservation actions

Conservation Actions Underway

Colonies in Peru and Chile are monitored regularly. In January 2010, the Peruvian government established the Guano System National Reserve (Decreto Supremo 024–2009-MINAM) (Ministerio de Ambiente 2012, This network of headlands, capes, and islands harbours Humboldt nesting sites and protects major foraging areas around them. The San Fernando National Reserve (established in July 2011 by the Decreto Supremo 017–2011-MINAM) is also a major site for penguins. Monitoring and removal of rodents has recently begun at Punta San Juan (S. Cárdenas-Alayza, unpub.). Recently, the Chilean Forest Service eradicated rabbits from Isla Choros in northern Chile, and they have developed an Action Plan (CONAF 2016) for the species aiming to improve its conservation in the country and particularly within the protected area network. Currently, the National Zoo in Santiago (Chile) is successfully developing an ex-situ programme by raising chicks from neglected eggs taken from wild populations. Recently, the Shimonoseki Marine Science Museum (Japan) succeeded in artificially inseminating female penguins from frozen sperm (K. Ueda, pers. comm.).

Conservation Actions Proposed

Currently, population estimates for Peru and Chile are determined by different methods and this prevents comparisons and estimates of the global population. Therefore a consolidated census methodology for both Peru and Chile should be established. Determine the optimum survey times and methods for assessing the population size of the species in both countries (e.g. define whether censuses of breeding or moulting birds [or both] should be conducted for the species). Quantify the impact of identified threats on distribution, abundance, and breeding success. Identify and quantify the impacts of climate change on population size, distribution, and breeding success. Determine basic life history parameters at strategic colonies along the species's distribution including juvenile dispersal and survival, breeding success and population size. Identify critical areas for conservation, both inland (breeding) and at sea (foraging) and monitor strategic colonies to detect changes in abundance and how colonies behave during periods of food abundance and scarcity. Determine whether the fluctuations in numbers observed during El Niño are caused by mortality, dispersion or a combination of both. Generate relevant information for industrial fishery management and policy (define catch quotas and fishery bans based on ecosystem parameters) and monitor targeted prey species. Generate a baseline of health parameters across the species's distribution. Assess whether the current MPA system effectively protects penguins, and establish further MPAs around strategic colonies to secure feeding grounds of penguins, at least during the breeding season. At colonies where MPAs already exist, enforcement should be coupled with management plans and measurable objectives so that conservation practitioners can monitor the efficiency of MPAs and adapt to changes as necessary. It is urgent to reduce bycatch in gillnets along the entire distribution of the species. The industrial anchovy fishery is a threat to Humboldt penguins, so total allowable catches should be set based on trophic and oceanographic models that include ecological parameters and a precautionary approach, reducing fishing pressure during El Niño years. Implement a sustainable guano harvest method in order to minimize disturbance at the breeding colonies and better preserve nesting habitat. Continue eradication of invasives, particularly rats. Develop educational programmes on fish and seabird conservation for adults and children to better understand economic and conservation trades-offs with human well-being. 


65 cm. Medium-sized, black-and-white penguin. Black head with white border extending from eye around ear-coverts and chin, and joining on throat. Blackish-grey upperparts. Whitish underparts with black breast-band extending down flanks to thigh. Fleshy-pink base to bill. Juvenile has wholly dark head (greyer on sides and chin) and lacks breast-band. Similar spp. Magellanic Penguin S. magellanicus has broader white stripe on head and has more than one breast-band.


Text account compilers
Benstead, P., Butchart, S., Calvert, R., Capper, D., Clay, R., Cárdenas, S., Hatchett, J., Lascelles, B., Moreno, R. & Simeone, A.

Daigre, M., Luna-Jorquera, G., Adkesson, M., Amaro, L., Bernal, M., Bussalleu, A., Cardeña, M., Colchao, P., Cárdenas, S., Figueroa, J., Flores, M., Guillermo, E., Jaime, M., Knauf, G., Luyo, P., Majluf, P., McGill, P., Quispe, M., Roca, M., Schneider, T., Simeone, A., Valqui, T. & Zavalaga, C.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2018) Species factsheet: Spheniscus humboldti. Downloaded from on 21/09/2018. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2018) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from on 21/09/2018.