How Oil Spills Affect Penguins

Oil spills are large-scale disasters with far reaching consequences. When an oil spill occurs, all living organisms that rely on the land and sea are negatively impacted. In terms of penguin populations, an oil spill can bring devastation in many ways. In fact, an oil spill could potentially hasten the extinction of an entire species, such as the endangered northern rockhopper penguin. Let’s examine a recent oil disaster to provide a glimpse of the negative ways that such an event threatens penguin survival.

Nightingale Island

On March sixteenth 2011, a cargo ship carrying crude oil and soy beans ran aground on Nightingale Island in the remote British South Atlantic region. This wreck released over 800 tons of toxic fuel oil into the pristine sea waters. While this spill was considered relatively small, the devastation it rendered to area wildlife was enormous. Sadly, this spill could hasten the rapid decline of an already endangered species of penguin, the northern rockhopper.

The remote area where the accident occurred is home to over 200,000 penguins. This territory contains nearly half of the world’s population of northern rockhopper penguins, a species that has been endangered for many years. Scientists have watched the northern rockhopper penguin population decline 90 percent over the past 50 years. It was reported that thousands upon thousands of penguins were coated in oil due to this oil spill, putting the northern rockhopper and other bird species in grave danger.

Another concern from this particular oil spill was the potential introduction of rodents to the island. The island was formerly rodent-free. However, rats from the ship wreck could potentially come ashore, introducing a rouge predator to the island and threatening the survival of the local bird population. It was feared that rodents could prey upon the penguin eggs and raid the nests of other bird species on the island. It is clear to see the disastrous ripple effect that such an oil spill can cause.

Devastating Effects to Land, Sea and Wildlife

Without question, the environmental impact of an oil spill is enormous. The sea is contaminated exposing fish and other marine life to deadly poisons. This contamination enters the food chain, as contaminated fish and plants are consumed by other wildlife, including penguins. Marine life that does survive may face reproductive problems, growth problems, and other health issues such as cancer. Again, a ripple effect takes place which threatens future generations of these birds.

Erosion and Scarcity of Penguin Nesting Grounds

The land is impacted when the oil reaches the shoreline. Erosion of the shoreline occurs as the oil picks up rocks and other sediment, creating a thick sludge that washes ashore. This threatens the area that penguins depend on for nesting and resting. Nests are abandoned and left open to scavenger prey and the elements.

Health Consequences to Penguins

Surviving birds may be severely injured with oil coating their skin and feathers. Crude oil is comprised of dangerous chemicals such as hydrogen sulfide and benzene, which is toxic and burns the bird’s skin. The sticky oil is heavy and affects the buoyancy of the bird. This makes it difficult for the bird to swim and move about freely. When the penguin begins to preen its feathers in an attempt to remove the oil, the toxic material is ingested, causing damage to the bird’s internal organs and sometimes death. In some cases red blood cells can be damaged, the liver may be impaired, and other body systems such as the circulatory and respiratory systems may be severely damaged.

Reproductive repercussions may take place as birds may be too ill to breed, or have internal damage that affects the breeding process or how many eggs the bird may lay. It is clear to see that when the adult survival of the penguin population is compromised, it affects the replacement of the next generation of birds.

Saving the Penguins

When an oil spill occurs, rescuers are faced with the task of safely capturing the surviving birds. They must assess the immediate health needs and then try to save the birds. In the case of the Nightingale Island spill, it was estimated that thousands of penguins would not be expected to survive. As one can imagine, the rescue work is no small task. The birds are often in poor shape and dehydrated. They are also in extreme stress. If the penguin has ingested oil, it is given medicine to help neutralize the toxic effects of the deadly crude oil. With care, the penguins are re-hydrated and fed (if they are able to eat). If the bird is strong enough to be cleaned, the process of washing takes place. However, in some instances the stress of cleaning can often be too much for the bird to handle.

Birds that are able to be cleaned are pre-washed in a hot water and dish soap solution. Implements are used to aid the cleaning process such as scrub brushes, tooth brushes, and syringes. After the birds are carefully washed and dried, they are contained in holding pens. In the case of Nightingale Island, the penguins were placed in large pens to prevent them from returning to the oil stained ocean.

Future Survival of the Species

Without question, oil spills have a huge impact on our environment. The plight of the northern rockhopper penguin and its survival on Nightingale Island illustrates how serious of an impact that oil spills have on penguin populations. Sadly, there have been many other oil spills that have affected penguins in the Southern Hemisphere of the world. Mankind can certainly make a difference by preventing such negligent disasters from occurring in the first place. Environmental awareness and the prevention of future oil spills will help preserve the habitat of these fascinating and beautiful birds.


Scientific American 

Austrailian Maritime Safety Authority