By: Leigh Ramon, Assistant Animal Curator
Getting ready to open a new exhibit with a species new to the zoo comes with a variety of preparations. There is a lot of work that goes into designing an exhibit perfect for Humboldt penguins! The zoo staff have studied other penguin exhibits and talked to the staff that work with them. We have researched what wild penguins do. We have worked with companies to design a state-of-the-art exhibit that functions well for the penguins, and the environment. And now it’s time to start bringing in the stars of the exhibit, the penguins!
Humboldt penguins are a temperate weather penguin species that is found along the Pacific coast of Chile and Peru in South America. The Humboldt Current brings nutrient rich waters to these regions, which in turn brings the fish that the penguins depend on to survive. They are counter shaded to evade predators as they hunt in the water. Meaning, their white bellies allow them to blend in with the light reflecting off the water’s surface to evade predators looking up from below; and their black backs allow them to blend in with the dark water beneath for those predators looking down on them from above. Orcas, great white sharks, and fur seals are their main predators in the water; whereas, desert fox and sea gulls prey on penguins and their eggs on land.
Proper care of penguins involves several considerations. Ahead of welcoming our new penguins into the veterinary building quarantine area, we made sure all of these needs were covered. Our building was equipped with 3 pools for them to swim and play in; mats to reduce the risk of foot lesions; air filters to ensure high quality air filtration; a scale; a mirror box to check the condition of their feet; vitamins; and of course, a freezer full of fish! Each penguin eats about 2 pounds of fish a day! To tell them apart, the penguins have different colored arm band, so individuals can be identified. The penguins are hand fed twice a day, which gives the keepers an opportunity to look them over and get to know them as individuals.
As the penguins become more comfortable, we start training sessions. They are trained to get on the scale and on the mirror box to keep close track of their weight and check for foot problems. They are also desensitized to a metal detector. Metal objects (like coins) are shiny like fish and can be mistakenly eaten when seen in the pool. These objects can make the penguins quite sick. For preventative purposes, once the penguins are on exhibit they will be checked daily with the metal detector to ensure any metal object that has been ingested is caught quickly. We currently have a group of six penguins and will be adding more to the flock in May for a total of 15 penguins! Please take a look over the construction fence to see the building of their new home in action. Once the construction is done, we will allow them an acclimation period in the exhibit before the exhibit officially opens. That will ensure they feel comfortable in the space, and they will be ready to show off their amazing attributes both on land and in the water! As they get more and more comfortable in their new surrounds, we plan to add public feedings so you can get a closer look at our feathered friends! The penguins look forward to meeting you this summer!