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Small populations are vulnerable to long-term declines, even where short-term censuses indicate increasing trends in numbers. Census data for the Galápagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus) collected between 1970 and 2004 provide evidence that despite year-to-year population increases detected in most of the annual censuses, the strong El Niño events of 1982-83 and 1997-98 were followed by population declines of more than 60% from which the species has yet to recover. Such large declines raise concerns about the future viability of the species because the frequency and severity of El Niño events are predicted to increase. We used the simulation software VORTEX to evaluate the potential effects of El Niño on the risk of extinction of the Galápagos penguin population and its four constituent subpopulations. Weak and strong El Niño events were treated as catastrophes, with varying frequencies, which simulated past, current and future effects on the penguin population. The "Current El Niño" scenario, based on the frequency of El Niño events recorded in the Galápagos between 1965 and 2004, indicated an approximately 30% probability of extinction within the next 100 years for the penguin population. More ominously, the species may be at a greater risk if the frequency of strong El Niño episodes increases only marginally. A probability of extinction greater than 80% was predicted when the current frequency (5%) of strong El Niño events was doubled (to 10%). The probabilities of extinctions were higher for each subpopulation treated individually, ranging from 34% for Isabela and Fernandina, 64% for Bartolomé-Santiago to 78% for the smallest subpopulation on Floreana. Sensitivity analyses identified survival of penguins during El Niño events and sex ratio as influential parameters. The estimates of extinction risk may be conservative as other threats associated with increased human activities on the islands may further compromise species persistence. © 2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Original publication




Journal article


Biological Conservation

Publication Date





138 - 148