Featured Creature: Rockhopper Penguin

Photo by Martin Zwick

What creature is named after a unique talent, is famous for a cool ‘hairdo,’ and stands out from the rest of the relatives?

The Rockhopper Penguin!

Photo by Jack Salen

Not all penguins live on ice

Scientists are still debating how many species of Rockhopper penguins exist, but generally there are three: Southern, Northern, and Eastern. Despite the lack of consensus, all Rockhoppers are known for one great skill: hopping rocks! Well, more like climbing rocks. The penguins use their strong claws and sharp beaks to grip onto the wet rocks as they hurry to get away from the ocean crashing against the shoreline. The waters around sub-Antarctic islands are some of the roughest in the world, making Rockhoppers one of the few brave animals to take on this feat.

Southern rockhopper penguins grow up to be about two feet tall, and don’t weigh more than a few pounds. Their small bodies allow them to be agile in the ocean and on land, whereas other penguins tend to be less graceful on land (Sorry other penguins! We’re sure you have other talents).

The best romance since Romeo and Juliet

Rockhopper penguins mate for life, so the first thing they do when they arrive on shore after months of living in the ocean is belt out their signature calls only recognizable by their partners. Rockhoppers have assertive personalities, and this trait shines during mating season. They will not hesitate to slap others with their flippers over nesting sites, mating rites, and food. Aside from being aggressive towards other pairs, Rockhoppers show their affection to their fuzzy brown chicks and partners by preening and braying. You can witness both behaviors in this video:  Here!

Fish Feast

Rockhopper penguins can dive 100 metres deep (about 328 feet) and can stay underwater for several minutes. To stay warm in the freezing cold waters of the South Atlantic Ocean, Rockhopper penguins rely on an inner layer of fat, a layer of down, and an outer layer of waterproof feathers. 

On their dives, Rockhoppers hunt for small fishes, krill, squid, mollusks and small crustaceans. Meanwhile, they are on the lookout for their predators- fur seals, sea lions, and sometimes orcas. Thankfully, while on land, Rockhoppers don’t have to worry about these predators. Still, they remain on high alert for Brown Skuas (a large seabird) and other animals who enjoy Rockhopper omelets. However, as mentioned before, these penguins refuse to go down without a fight, and their beaks and claws will be used as weapons when necessary.

Photo by Martin Zwick

How are human activities impacting Rockhopper Penguins?

Although humans have decreased their hunting of Rockhoppers and the harvesting of their eggs in the past few decades, these penguins are increasingly vulnerable to extinction. Introduction of outside species and pollution threaten the health of the Rockhoppers’ environment. These two threats lead to a wide array of diseases that spread rapidly throughout tight-knit nesting colonies numbering in the hundreds of thousands. 

As our oceans absorb more heat, warmer waters and shifting winds cause some ocean currents to change course. When ocean conditions change, especially as drastically and as quickly as they currently are, marine species have difficulties adapting. This negatively impacts the entire marine food web, and specifically leads to a decline in Rockhopper prey populations such as krill, other crustaceans and squid. The impacts of climate change, combined with overfishing and oil spills, can lead to empty oceans- ones that cannot sustain future Rockhopper Penguin generations.

Fortunately, as awareness and policies spread for sustainable fishing practices, Rockhopper populations have the opportunity to recover. See what hop-pens when we advocate for other species?