March of the Fossil Penguins

Fossil penguin discoveries and research

Tragedy for Rockhopper Penguins

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One of the most severe crises for penguin conservation in recent memory is occurring right now.  An cargo ship has run aground off the Tristan Da Cunha islands, spilling oil and soybeans into the sea.  Thankfully, the ship was not an oil tanker.  Still, the amount of spilled fuel is massive – about 800 tons have leaked.  This has led to an absolute tragedy for penguins and other seabirds that nest on these islands.  Thousands of birds are expected to die from being oiled, which prevents their feathers from effectively waterproofing them or leads to poisoning as they attempt to clean themselves.  The problem is exacerbated by the remote location of Tristan Da Cunha.  The island group is located about 1500 miles from South Africa, making it logistically difficult to send in equipment and personnel for oil containment and wildlife rehabilitation efforts.

Oiled Northern Rockhopper Penguins. Photo by Trevor Glass, Tristan da Cunha Conservation Department. Click image for original post.

Ironically, the soy beans could be more deadly than the oil in the long term.  If rats have stowed away in the cargo and make it onto the island, they could wreak havoc among the nesting birds.  Currently, their are no rats on the islands and the bird species that breed there would be vulnerable to an unfamiliar threat.  So far, no rat sightings have been confirmed on the islands but naturalists will be setting up traps and keeping a close watch to forestall rodent landfall.

Eudyptes moseleyi, the Northern Rockhopper Penguin, is the primary penguin victim of the spill.  The Northern Rockhopper is an endangered species and has a large population (about 20,000 penguins) in the spill zone. Three species of rockhopper penguins currently inhabit the southern oceans.  The  Northern Rockhopper is easily distinguished from the Eastern Rockhopper and Southern Rockhopper by its  larger size, much longer golden head plumes, and the pattern of coloration on its flippers.  If you have ever visited the New England Aquarium in Boston, you can easily distinguish the big, cranky Northern Rockhopper from its smaller co-geners.  DNA evidence from a study by Jonathan Bank’s team indicates that Northern Rockhoppers are the oldest lineage of rockhopper penguins.


If you would like to support seabird rescue and clean-up activities, The Ocean Foundation has set up a special fund:

Nightingale Island Disaster Penguin and Seabird Rescue Fund

You can read more about the disaster here:


Banks J, van Buren A, Cherel Y, Whitfield JB. 2006. Genetic evidence for three species of rockhopper penguins, Eudyptes chrysocome. Polar Biology 30: 61–67.

Written by Dan Ksepka

March 24, 2011 at 3:36 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. […] birds, including some penguins.  It seems like penguins cannot catch a break from wrecks, after a wreck off the Tristan Da Cunha islands earlier this […]

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