On Friday morning, locals in South Africa came across a bewildering sight: dozens of endangered African penguins laying dead on a beach, surrounded by a sprinkling of dead bees. Just as they no doubt suspected, post-mortems of the seabirds revealed the presence of stings – it appears the colony was attacked by a swarm of angry bees.
South African National Parks (SANParks) reports that the bodies of 63 penguins were found along a beach in Simon's Town, near Cape Town, on September 17. The penguins were members of the Boulders African penguin colony who were featured in Penguin Town, a Netflix documentary series looking at the super-cute species' battle against extinction.
“Preliminary investigations suggest that the penguins died because of being stung by a swarm of Cape honey bees,” SANParks - Table Mountain National Park said in a statement.
A single dead penguin was also found on a beach in Fish Hoek beach, the next town over less than 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) away, and was found to have been stung multiple times.
A catastrophic blow to this population is the last the species needs. Under the IUCN Red List, the African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) is considered endangered and has experienced a rapid population decline in recent decades, largely due to food shortages from overfishing and climate change.
The bodies were taken to the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) who carried out a post-mortem of the penguins and took biological samples for testing. While no obvious injuries were discovered, post-mortems revealed that all the penguins had multiple bee stings. Biological samples were sent for disease and toxicology testing to rule out any other possibilities.
African penguins can be found along the coastal regions of South Africa, Namibia, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, and Mozambique. Although certainly on the small side, the species are sometimes known as jackass penguins, due to their loud, donkey-like bray. Stranger still, they also use similar “speech” patterns as humans to communicate.
In 2020, scientists studied the display songs of African penguins in captivity and found they communicate using shorter sounds for the sounds they use most often and longer vocalizations with more syllables for more complex messages – distinctly similar to linguistic principles found in human speech around the world.
It’s thought the African penguins are especially vulnerable to multiple stings from Cape honey bees due to their small stature, standing at just 60 centimeters (24 inches) tall and weighing an average of 2.2 to 3.5 kilogram (4.9 to 7.7 pounds). Nevertheless, it’s extremely unusual to hear of mass-sting events wiping out a significant portion of a wild animal population.