Saturday, August 23, 2014

Breeding: The Best Nest

For penguins an important first step to breeding success is having a proper nest. Among the penguin species you will find several different types of nest styles.

Many penguin species are considered surface nesters. This means they will collect materials and build a nest directly on the ground. The type of materials used to build the nest depends on the species and what is available. For example Adélie and gentoo penguins will collect rocks and pebbles, rockhopper penguins will use pebbles along with pieces of vegetation and even bones.

Gentoo penguins nest in a mound of pebbles | Photo: Brian Skerry, Aquarium Explorer in Residence

 Rockhopper nest

Some penguin species are considered burrow nesters. These penguins will dig burrows in the substrate (often seabird guano) or under vegetation, to protect their nest from the hot sun and avian predators.

African penguin burrows on Dassen Island

Once a burrow is made the penguins will then collect pieces of vegetation to line the nest. In some penguin habitats where suitable areas have been destroyed, humans have added artificial burrows to help promote breeding and  increase penguin populations.

Magellanics in burrow

Manmade burrows on Dassen

Another unique and well-known strategy is no nest at all. Emperor and king penguins do not build nests but instead hold their single egg on their feet to keep it warm.

Emperor penguins incubate on their feet, tucked under a fold of skin
Photo: Hannes Grobe/AWI via Wikimedia Commons

When we bring our breeding pairs behind the scenes we make sure they have the ability to build a nest that suits their nesting strategy. Since African and little blue penguins are burrow nesters we provide them with a burrow using a litter box top. We provide plastic aquarium plants to line their burrow nest. Building a nest it is a good sign that a mated pair is comfortable and ready to lay eggs.

Stay tuned for more about the breeding season behind the scenes at the Aquarium. Want to learn more about penguins right now? Head down to the Aquarium and dive into our Penguinology program! You'll learn about the secret world of penguins and some amazing facts about these birds living at the Aquarium. Plan a visit!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Breeding: Summertime Fun

To most people summer means no school, vacations, barbeques and going to the beach.  To the penguin staff it means breeding season.

Earlier this spring we brought four of our SSP-approved (meaning specifically chosen to produce a genetically healthy and diverse population) little blue penguin breeding pairs behind the scenes to start the breeding season. Just recently, seven of our SSP-approved African penguin breeding pairs joined the little blue penguins in our behind the scenes breeding area.

Little blue penguin pair behind the scenes

African penguin pair behind the scenes

Over the next few months we hoped these penguins will bond, lay eggs, and raise penguin chicks before they are returned to the exhibit. We have had very successful breeding seasons over the years and we are hoping for another successful breeding season this year.

Wishful thinking!

An “armful” of African penguin chicks from a previous breeding season; we are hopeful this year will be just as successful.

Check out these past blog post from past breeding seasons:

And check back often for updates from this year’s season!

A pair of African penguins behind the scenes in their burrow

Monday, August 4, 2014

Penguins in Peril: Introduced Predators

You have probably learned through school or even from watching the Disney movie The Lion King, that many organisms are interconnected to each other in an ecosystem through predator/prey relations (aka the Circle of Life).  On occasion non-native organisms are introduced into an environment, and can be disruptive to the ecosystem, as they compete with the native organisms for resources. These new neighbors are often called introduced, non-native or invasive species.

For example: lionfish are native to the Indo-Pacific and in recent years have been found in coral reef communities in the Atlantic Ocean. Since lionfish are excellent hunters and have no natural predators in the Atlantic, researches are seeing their population bloom while the populations of the native reef species are declining.

Lionfish in the Caribbean | Photo: Sarah Taylor via Bahamas Expedition blog 

As Europeans ventured around the world they often brought with them species from their homeland either intentionally or by accident. Penguins breed in isolated areas or on islands with little to no land predators. The introduction of non natives like foxes, rats, feral cats and dogs added land predators that penguins previously never encountered. These new species kill the adults, chicks and eggs of many penguin species like the little blue, Galapagos and African penguin. Over the years researches have seen penguin populations decline as a result of introduced predators.

Fox and penguin | Photo credit: Philip Island – Nature Parks Australia

Stay tuned to future blogs to see some creative solutions to help combat introduced predators.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Penguins around the world: Yellow-eyed penguins

The African, rockhopper and little blue penguins here at the Aquarium allow visitors to get to know three very interesting penguin species. There are 15 other interesting penguin species in the world just waiting for you to discover them. Over the next couple weeks, we will introduce more penguin species!

The yellow eyed penguin gets its name from their characteristic, pale yellow eyes and the yellow band of feathers that wraps around their head. Their scientific name is Megadyptes antipodes which means the “big diver from the southern lands.”

Yellow-eyed penguin | Photo: Ville Miettinen via 

Yellow-eyed penguins are found off the southern coast of New Zealand and the sub-Antarctic islands of Auckland and Campbell. The yellow eyed penguin is the largest species of temperate climate penguins; standing at about 25-30 inches and weighing in between 12–18 pounds. The Maori tribes of New Zealand call the yellow eyed penguin hoiho which means noise shouter and refers to the shrill calls of the penguins.

A yellow-eyed penguin crying | Photo: Christian Mehlführer via

In addition to their unique appearance yellow eyed penguins are unique in the fact that they do not breed in large crowded colonies.  Unlike most penguin species that breed in very close proximity to their neighbors, yellow eyed penguins breed in the coastal forests of New Zealand and prefer to not be in eyesight of other breeding pairs.

Yellow-eyed penguins on the beach in New Zealand | Photo: Bartux via

Yellow eyed penguins are endangered, with only about 4000 individuals remaining. Deforestation is a major factor in their population decline. Their breeding habitats have been cleared to make pastures for livestock. The introduction of foxes and stoats (a weasel-like animal) in the early 1800’s also added extra pressure to a declining population.

To help protect these unique penguins many conservation groups (like this) have been set up throughout New Zealand and many of the yellow-eye penguins breeding areas have been made protected areas.

Stay tuned to the blog to learn more about other fascinating penguin species.

— Andrea

Love penguins? Get to know macaroni penguins in this previous post. Better yet, come visit the Aquarium to see three species of penguin up close! There's so much to learn about these amazing little birds, so don't miss our exciting summer program called Penguinology.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Guest Post | An uncooperative African Penguin: Part 6

Dr. Jessica Kemper is an expert and advocate for the endangered African penguin.  Formerly the head of Section for Namibia's Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources (MFMR) and responsible for the conservation management and rescue of the country's seabirds, Jessica now heads the African Penguin Conservation Project. She continues to research Namibia's dwindling penguin population to find ways to improve their conservation status and runs the Seabird Rehabilitation Center in Lüderitz. Population numbers for African penguins have decreased to just 55,000 today from an approximate 1.5 million figure in 1910.

In the conclusion to this series of posts about an uncooperative research subject, she shares a bit about the data collected during this episode of field research. Catch up by reading previous posts: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4 and Part 5 about one particularly difficult attempt to study African penguins in the wild. 

Epilogue: despite the sleepless nights our penguin caused us, she did provide us with valuable information. After we equipped her on February 23, 2009, she left the island at 7:40 am and headed in a north-westerly direction. She only arrived back at the colony 62 hours later, at 9:40 pm on Wednesday February 25, just before the device’s battery went flat. During the time she spent at sea, she travelled 184 km and ventured as far as 58 km from the island. This is quite an unusually long foraging trip compared to the other 53 foraging trips we recorded at Halifax Island so far, although trip lengths and distance covered can be highly variable. While at sea, our penguin dived 1479 times, or 24 times per hour. Her maximum dive depth was 71.2 m, not the deepest dive we have recorded so far, but still respectable.

Catching a logger penguin: crawling into the colony to catch a penguin wearing a logger.

Food appeared to be scarce around Halifax Island at the time, with chick condition generally poor and large numbers of chick mortalities due to starvation noticed all over the island. The data we collected that summer showed that the penguins at Halifax Island were working harder than usual to feed their chicks.

This is precisely the type of information we need in order to find ways to improve the tenuous conservation status of African penguins in Namibia. The information emanating from our project has been instrumental in defining the shape and size of Namibia’s first Marine Protected Area, the Namibian Islands’ Marine Protected Area (NIMPA), which includes Halifax Island and the surrounding waters. Our project continues to play a vital role in monitoring and evaluating the NIMPA’s effectiveness and I look forward to Katta’s visit next February.

Want to see penguins in person? Visit the Aquarium! It's the summer of Penguinology right now, so not only will you be able to observe more than 80 penguins, you'll be able to learn the most wild and surprising facts about these beloved birds. Here's where to start planning your visit.