Magellanic Penguin Spheniscus magellanicus


Justification of Red List Category
This species has fluctuated in numbers in different parts of its range, but overall moderately rapid declines are thought to have been sustained. As a result, it is listed as Near Threatened.

Population justification
The world population is estimated at between 1.1 and 1.6 million pairs: about 900,000 along the Argentinian coast, at least 100,000 in the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) and a minimum of 144,000 pairs and a maximum guess of 500,000 pairs in Chile (Boersma et al. 2013, 2015). Population trends vary among colonies and regions. The trend for 43 of the 66 colonies of Argentina that represent 70% of the estimated global population indicates a rate of decline approaching, but not exceeding, 30%.

Trend justification
Overall population declines are thought to have been moderately rapid during the past three generations (27 years).

Distribution and population

Spheniscus magellanicus breeds on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of South America, in Argentina (at 66 sites), Chile (at least 31 known locations but detailed complete surveys are necessary), and the Falkland Islands (Malvinas, at least 100 locations) (Woods and Woods 1997, Ellis et al. 1998, Boersma et al. 2013, 2015). In the Atlantic Ocean, most individuals in the winter migrate north to northern Argentina, Uruguay, or southern Brazil, exceptionally to northern Brazil (García-Borboroglu et al. 2010, Stokes et al. 2014). Magellanic Penguins in the Pacific Ocean are less migratory, but some travel as much as 1000 km north (Skewgar et al. 2014, Pütz et al. 2016) and are rare nonbreeding visitors to Peru (Zavalaga and Paredes 2009). Vagrants have been found as far north as El Salvador (O. Komar in litt. 2007), and south to Avian Island (67°, 46'S) on the Antarctic Peninsula (Barbosa et al. 2007), as well as Australia and New Zealand. 

Along the Argentinian coast, there are no consistent population trends in the 66 colonies. In southern Atlantic Patagonia, at the southern part of their distribution on Bahía Franklin, Staten Island, numbers increased from 500 pairs in 1998 to 1,600 pairs in 2010, reaching 2,300 pairs during the last survey in 2015, similar to Martillo Island where population increased 15% in a 20-year period (Raya Rey et al. 2014, Raya Rey unpubl. data). Numbers from Observatorio Island (around 105,000 pairs) have not been updated since the last survey performed in 1995 (Schiavini et al. 2005). In Santa Cruz Province, Argentina, the population seems to be stable during the last 30 years, with eight colonies increasing and nine declining (E. Frere pers. comm. 2016). In northern Patagonia (Chubut Province, Argentina), which is the stronghold of the known global population, trends are mixed. The largest colonies are declining in the southern part of northern Patagonia; Punta Tombo has declined 37% since 1987 (Rebstock et al. 2016) and Isla Leones, Isla Tova and nearby big colonies have declined more than 50% (Boersma et al. 2013, 2015, Pozzi et al. 2015, P. Garcia-Borboroglu pers. comm. 2016). The breeding population has expanded north since the 1960s, with new colonies established and growing rapidly (Schiavini et al. 2005, Boersma et al. 2013, Pozzi et al. 2015). In Argentina, the San Lorenzo colony on the Peninsula Valdés increased from a few pairs to 134,000 pairs and more new colonies were established since 2000, expanding the northern breeding range (Schiavini et al. 2005, Pozzi et al. 2015). 

Although little is known about the population size in Chile, 31 breeding sites are known; the 14 breeding sites that have been surveyed hold 144,000 pairs, so the Chilean population is presumed much larger than that (Boersma et al. 2015). The population trend in Chile is unknown, but colonies in the north of the range and in the Juan Fernández Islands seem to have been abandoned (Boersma et al. 2013, 2015).

In the Falkland Islands (Malvinas), the historical population estimate was 100,000 pairs at 41 breeding sites (Croxall et al. 1984). Later, Woods and Woods (1997) reported 76,000-142,000 pairs at about 100 breeding sites; however, Croxall et al. (1984) was reported as a minimum, and it is not thought that these changed numbers represent a true increase in the population size. On the other hand, it was also reported that the colonies on the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) have declined by almost 50% since the 1980s, but data are insufficient to substantiate this (R. Woods in litt. 1999, Pütz et al. 2001). Since 1999, burrow occupancy at two sites in the islands fluctuated annually with no clear trend (Stanworth 2015).


Magellanic Penguins forage only in the oceans and breed on land in a variety of island and mainland coastal habitats (Garcia-Borboroglu et al. 2002). They use intertidal and beach habitats to avoid excessive heat at colonies (Pozzi et al. 2013). At sea, they typically remain over the continental shelf in Argentina (Stokes et al. 1998, Boersma et al. 2002, Boersma and Rebstock 2009, Raya Rey et al. 2010, 2012, Rosciano et al. 2016), but may forage in deep waters off the relatively narrow shelf in Chile and in the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) (Pütz et al. 2002, Raya Rey et al. 2013, Pütz et al. 2016). They dive up to ~100 m, but more often only to a few dozen metres. They may be seen foraging in shallow water close to the shore, but more often forage out of sight of land. Penguins tracked by satellite and global location sensor tags during incubation typically foraged more than 100 km, and sometimes as much as 600 km from various colonies in Argentina (Wilson et al. 2005, Boersma and Rebstock 2009, Boersma et al. 2013, 2015). Even when provisioning chicks, adults forage hundreds of kilometers from the colony (Boersma and Rebstock 2009, Boersma et al. 2009). Breeding habitats include scrublands and grasslands in Argentina, tussock grass in the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) and temperate forests in Chile. Individuals show high site fidelity, with nearly all birds returning to the colony in which they hatched, and most adults using the same nest site year after year (Boersma 2008).


The primary threats currently faced by the Magellanic Penguin are oil pollution, fisheries interactions, and climate change. In the 1980s and early 1990s, oil pollution was estimated to kill more than 20,000 adults and 22,000 juveniles every year on the Argentinian coast (Gandini et al. 1994, Boersma 2008). This likely included some members of the Falklands population wintering on the Argentinian coast (Pütz et al. 2000). This threat is now much reduced in some areas of the Magellanic Penguin’s range, such as the Chubut Province, which now experiences mortality of less than 100 individuals every year (P.D. Boersma and E. Frere pers. comm. 2016). However, chronic oil pollution and mortality still occurs off Brazil, Uruguay, northern Argentina and Chile (Garcia-Borboroglu et al. 2006, 2008, Matus and Blank 2008). Future petroleum extraction is under consideration offshore of the Falkland Islands (Malvinas), Patagonia and Uruguay, which would likely increase mortality. Southern Magellanic Penguin colonies are subject to disproportionately high mercury levels for their trophic level (Brasso et al. 2015). Birds from the northern Punta Tombo colony have been found to have much lower mercury levels (Frias et al. 2012). Detrimental effects have not been found, but mercury exposure could be a long-term or synergetic threat.

It is known that this species interacts with fisheries, through bycatch mortality in gillnets, trawls and purse-seines along the coast of South America (Gandini et al. 1999, Tamini et al. 2002, González-Zevallos and Yorio 2006, Skewgar et al. 2009, Schlatter et al. 2009, Yorio et al. 2010, Cardoso et al. 2011, González-Zevallos et al. 2011, Marinao and Yorio 2011, Seco Pon et al. 2013, Marinao et al. 2014, Suazo et al. 2014, Boersma et al. 2015, Suazo et al. 2016, L. Tamini pers. comm. 2016) and potential reduction of prey resources (Boersma et al. 2015), but population trends in response to these threats have not been quantified. Fisheries reduce prey for penguins; the hake fishery in Argentina collapsed due to overfishing during the 90’s (Alemany et al. 2013). A potential expansion of the Argentinian anchovy fishery might impact breeding penguins. Fisheries in northern Argentine Patagonia may be having an additional effect, as bycatch includes anchovy and juvenile hake, which are an important part of the species's diet (Frere et al. 1996, Gandini et al. 1999, Scolaro et al. 1999, Wilson et al. 2005). Further, fisheries for anchovy and sprat, both considered “underexploited” stocks, may be developed in Argentina and Brazil (Sanchez et al. 1995, Skewgar et al. 2007, Carvalho and Castello 2013).

In some areas of Chile, eggs and adults are collected for human consumption and adults are taken for bait (Suazo et al. 2013, Boersma et al. 2013, Trathan et al. 2014, Boersma et al. 2015). The introduction of feral dogs and other invasive species in the breeding colonies have resulted in local extirpations (Suazo et al. 2013), but population level declines have not been quantified. Egg-collection occurred in the Falklands and local sites in Chile in the past. Tourism may also disturb individuals at breeding colonies when not well managed (Boersma 2008). 

Climate change has been reported to have an impact on Magellanic Penguin colonies as increased precipitation at some nesting colonies wets chicks, increasing mortality from hypothermia, as well as causing nest burrows to collapse (Boersma 2009, Boersma and Rebstock 2014). Climate models show precipitation will increase over much of the species’ range, lowering reproductive output of many colonies (Boersma and Rebstock 2014). Decreasing breeding synchrony interacted with climate change to increase the part of the season when chicks are vulnerable to wetting (Boersma and Rebstock 2014). Indirect effects of climate change through changes in prey populations or availability are completely unknown. Many of the threats have low impacts on the population when considered singularly, but likely have additive effects.

Conservation actions

Conservation Actions Underway

Many non-governmental organizations, academic institutions, and individuals’ work on the conservation of Magellanic Penguins, and data from many studies have advanced conservation. Tanker lanes were moved 40 kilometers farther offshore along the coast of Chubut in 1997. This added to improvements at port loading facilities, which greatly reduced the number of oiled penguins in that area (Boersma 2008). The Management Plan for Punta Tombo is in place but has not yet been effectively implemented by Chubut Province authorities. The Argentine government has created new marine protected parks along the coast that include some penguin breeding areas and fragments of foraging areas (Patagonia Austral, Isla Pinguino, Makenke and Monte Leon). Specifically, a new UNESCO Biosphere Reserve will help give protection to 20 colonies (Garcia-Borboroglu et al. 2015) and a new Marine Protected Area (MPA) for the largest colony has been designated in Argentina (Boersma et al. 2015, Garcia-Borboroglu et al. 2015). Unfortunately, many of the parks lack effective planning and/or implementation. As MPAs are in general ineffective for the protection of highly mobile species such as penguins (Boersma and Parrish 1999), protection of penguin populations requires new conservation tools (Boersma et al. 2002, 2007, Garcia-Borboroglu et al. 2008; Yorio 2009, Stokes et al. 2014, Boersma et al. 2015). CADIC-CONICET is working together with the Tierra del Fuego government on the management plan for the Staten Island reserve and the intention is to include marine protected regions based on the tracking studies (Rosciano et al. 2016).

Tracking studies are underway in the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) to identify areas of conflict between penguins and the developing hydrocarbon industry (http://www.south-atlantic-research.org/research/current-research/the-gap-project). Also, tracking studies and interaction with fisheries are under development around Staten Island.

Conservation Actions Proposed

Conduct population censuses and determine the ratios of juveniles to adults in Argentina, Chile and the Falkland Islands (Malvinas). Monitor effects of fisheries in breeding and wintering areas. Reduce bycatch and oiling incidents. Place or improve design of marine protected areas in wintering and breeding areas. Eradicate introduced predators from islands with colonies. Reduce impact of tourism at breeding colonies, for example by controlling unrestricted visits and defining appropriate visiting hours. Prepare contingency plans for emerging diseases, or fires.


Text account compilers
Clay, R.P., Taylor, J., Calvert, R., Lascelles, B., Martin, R., Garcia Borboroglu , P., Moreno, R., Pearmain, L., Sharpe, C.J.

Frere, E., Nisbet, I., Boersma, P., Ruoppolo, V., Garcia Borboroglu , P., Yorio, P., Harris, S., Tamini, L., Komar, O., Simeone, A., Raya Rey, A., Woods, R.W., Stanworth, A., Rebstock, G.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2020) Species factsheet: Spheniscus magellanicus. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 05/07/2020. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2020) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 05/07/2020.