Friday, December 31, 2010

Penguin Pal: Pebble II

This is Pebble II; she is a southern rockhopper with a blue bracelet on her right wing. She was hatched on December 15, 2008, at SeaWorld in Orlando, and came to the New England Aquarium in November of 2009. (To learn more on how we transported these penguins from Florida to Boston, click on this post.)

Pebble II

Pebble is named after Pebble Island. Pebble Island is the third largest island that makes up the Falkland Islands. It is one of the 22 areas in the Falkland Islands that is considered an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International. There are about 40 species of birds that live or breed on Pebble Island including southern rockhopper penguins, macaroni penguins, Magellanic penguins and gentoo penguins.

View Larger Map

In addition to being a southern rockhopper breeding island, Pebble Island was the site of a major conflict during the Falkland War in 1982. More recently Pebble Island was the first of the Falkland Islands to generate the majority of its electricity by using wind turbines. (To learn other ways you can reduce your energy usage, visit the live blue Initiative and click on the Blue List.)

The next time you are visiting the Aquarium try to find Pebble hopping around the rockhopper island. If you are visiting the Aquarium over the New Year holiday weekend, you will also be able to a representation of Pebble carved from ice in our penguin-themed First Night ice sculpture.

Look for Pebble in the First Night ice sculpture on the Aquarium Plaza! Her name is written in the ice.

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Penguins and Polar Bears

It seems everywhere you look it is hard not to be reminded that we are in the holiday season. [Check out our Thanksgiving post here!] Your local department store has been decorated in red and green since Halloween, greeting cards are arriving in the mail, and there are Christmas TV programs and commercials on all the channels. Amongst all this holiday spirit you have probably seen a few images of penguins and polar bears sharing the holiday cheer together.

Remember this Coca-Cola commercial? [View the full commercial on YouTube here.] Well, can you identify what is wrong with this picture!? Here's a hint: it is not the fact that penguins and polar bears don't drink soda pop.   

Even though they can live in similar types of habitats, you will never find penguins and polar bears living together in the wild.

Credits: photo on left by Ansgar Walk via Wikimedia Commons; photo on right by Aquarium Explorer in Residence Brian Skerry

Polar bears are found in the Arctic Circle region of the Northern Hemisphere. Penguins are found in the Southern Hemisphere ranging from the Galapagos Islands to the coast of Antarctica. They are separated by the warm waters around the equator.

The range of polar bears, seen in yellow 

You can see penguin species' distribution in orange

Now the next time you get a greeting card or see a commercial with penguins and polar bears together, you can impress your friends and tell them that even though it is very cute and a great advertising technique it is never something you'll see in the wild.

Happy Holidays from the Penguin staff!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

FAQ-Can penguins see underwater?

If you jumped into the water and opened your eyes everything would look blurry. That is because our eyes focus best in air, and not water. Since we are terrestrial animals this is not a problem. If we need to see underwater we can wear goggles or a diving mask. Goggles and masks help us see underwater by creating a little pocket of air in front of our eyes in addition to protecting our eyes from salt water or stinging chlorine.

No goggles needed for this African penguin.

But people? Goggles or a dive mask come in handy for seeing underwater.
Photo on left via Wikimedia Commons, photo on right is a diver in the GOT

Penguins are visual ocean hunters so they need to be able to see well underwater in order to catch fish and avoid predators.  But they also need to see well on land so that they can find proper breeding sites and protect and care for their eggs and young. If a penguins' eyes could focus only in air then they would be at a disadvantage when in the water, and vice versa.

Penguins have evolved a flattened cornea which refracts light less strongly then ours and strong eye muscles that can change the shape of the lens allowing for sharper vision underwater. These adaptations allow focus in air and in water!!!

This rockhopper penguin can see well underwater and on land!

In addition, penguins have a clear eyelid called a nictitating membrane that protects their eyes when underwater. 

These adaptations eliminate the need for penguins to pack goggles whenever they go to the beach.

Penguins have evolved many other amazing adaptations. The Penguin Blog is the place to learn about penguin ears and penguin knees. You can even see what scientists think prehistoric penguins looked like!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Volunteer Appreciation Night

On any given day the penguin exhibit can have up to 6 volunteers helping us out, which adds up to over 40 volunteers coming in each week. During the last year our penguin volunteers logged 13,000 hours. You will find Aquarium volunteers helping out in almost every department —from animal husbandry, to visitor education and even our volunteer office! The total number of hours donated by all Aquarium volunteers is 100,250. That is the equivalent of one person working an 8 hour day, five days a week for 48 years!

Some volunteers are students who want to gain experience in the animal husbandry field, some are retirees looking for something interesting to do, and all are passionate about the oceans and the animals that live in it.

Each year we set aside a night to show all our volunteers how much we appreciate all the hard work they put in at the Aquarium each week. At the Volunteer Appreciation Night the volunteers are treated with good food, music, and raffle prizes.

Snacks for all! (photo credit Megan Sampson)

Giving out prizes. (photo credit Michelle Semler)

What a pair of winners!

We also highlight volunteers who have obtained volunteering milestones. Here are some photos of some of our volunteers that received awards for volunteering over 1000 hours.

Karen is all smiles accepting her award from Aquarium president Bud Ris (left) and another long-time Aquarium volunteer. (photo credit: Megan Sampson)

Kim (photo credit: Megan Sampson)

Sarah (photo credit: Megan Sampson)

Anthony (photo credit: Michelle Semler)

This is Marcia H.

Photo credit: Megan Sampson

She has been a volunteer at the Aquarium since 1985, splitting her time between the Education and Penguin departments, and logging 9,711 hours! All of her hours educating the public has paid off as Marcia gives one of the best penguin presentations around!

The Volunteer Appreciation Night is always a great event. Our volunteers work so hard throughout the year and deserve a night to be recognized and have some fun.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

FAQ-Do penguins have ears?

When you look at a penguin's head you can see their eyes, their beak, even a tongue if they open up. But you will not see any ears. [You won't see any knees either, but they're there! Check out this post on penguin knees.] So you may ask "Do penguins have ears?"

Even though you don’t see any ears, doesn't mean they are not there!

In fact, they do have ears that are located on each side of their head. But they do not have external ear flaps. Their ears are just holes and are covered by feathers. The absence of external ear flaps gives the penguins a more streamline shape and minimizes drag as they swim through the water.

No external ear flaps reduce drag as the penguins zoom through the water.

Even though you cannot see their ears doesn't mean they do not hear well. Penguins have very specialized hearing above and below the water. They can recognize individual penguins by their voices. Parent penguins returning from foraging trips can pick their mate and chicks out from among hundreds or even thousands of other penguins on the island — just by their voices!

While watching these videos of several penguins vocalizing at once try to recognize the different penguins based on their calls. If you were a penguin you could!

- Andrea

Thursday, November 25, 2010

What's Happening-It's another penguin day on "Turkey Day"

It is Thanksgiving and while most people are thinking about turkey, a dedicated group of staff and volunteers are thinking about another type of bird...Penguins!! Even though the Aquarium is closed to the public we still came in to feed the penguins and clean the exhibit.

When you think of Thanksgiving a lot of things come to mind; "giving thanks", pilgrims, football, the Macy Parade and of course food! Here at the Aquarium we are definitely thinking a lot about food.

Food for the penguins, and snacks for the volunteers

Derek is excited to prep the fish for the penguins on Thanksgiving

Amanda feeding Sea-Cat

On Thanksgiving we usually do an abbreviated day so once all the penguins are feed and are sleeping off their dinner, everyone can be out in time for Thanksgiving dinner. Just hope we didn't fill up on all our snacks.

Sleepy penguins

Refueling on snacks before we head back in for the second feed.

From all of the penguins and the penguin staff "Happy Thanksgiving"


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Penguin Pals: Benguela III and Agulhas III

The next two penguins I would like to introduce to you are Benguela III and Agulhas III.

First up: Benguela. He has a pink and yellow bracelet on his left wing and he was born here at the Aquarium on May 23, 2001. He is currently paired with a penguin named Bird (yellow and pink bracelet on the right wing). Together they have been successful in raising four penguin chicks here at the Aquarium: Sinclair II, Pikkewynne, Dyer III and Pilchard.

Benguela III

Bird and Benguela

Now, Agulhas was born on June 7, 2010, and his parents are Seneca and Isis. He has an orange and grey bracelet on his left wing and still has his juvenile feathers (solid grey feathers on his head).

Agulhas III

I wanted to introduce these two penguins together because they are both named after ocean currents that flow around the southern coasts of Africa. The cold Benguela current flows north and northwest in the South Atlantic Ocean along the west coast of South Africa, while the warm, south flowing Agulhas current flows from the South West Indian Ocean along the east coast of South Africa. Both currents supply nutrient rich water an area of high productivity, which supplies food like pilchards for the African penguins that breed along the west coast of South Africa and Namibia and the southeast coast of South Africa.

Map of major ocean currents found on RED arrows indicate warm currents, while cold currents are displayed in BLUE.

Recently the paths of these currents have shifted farther away from shore resulting in the penguins' food source moving farther away from their breeding areas. As a result parent penguins may not be able to return from foraging with enough food to sustain themselves and their chicks waiting to fed in the nest. Not only do these currents support the African penguin population but they are important to many other marine organisms, from sharks and seals to the inhabitants of coral reefs along the coast of Mozambique. This shift in the currents will have a major effect on many marine ecosystems and could be attributed to global climate change. To learn about things you can do at home to help stop global climate change, check out the live blue™ Initiative or peruse these links.


Saturday, November 20, 2010

FAQ: How many people does it take?

Over the past few months we have talked a lot about the penguins at the New England Aquarium (that is, African, rockhopper and little blue penguins), but you can't forget the group of staff and volunteers that take care of all the penguins each day. So, how many people does it take to take care of the penguin exhibit?

Our food prep room crowded with volunteers and staff getting the penguins' food ready for the first feeding of the day.

It takes a whole team of staff, interns and volunteers to care for our penguins and their exhibit every single day of the week. From twice-daily feedings to scrubbing the rock islands to vacuuming the floors, there's a lot to do! So on any given day, you'll find at least two staff members plus up to another six volunteers wading in the penguin exhibit.

Scrubbing and rinsing the rock islands

Feeding the penguins, bon appetit! Note the clipboard in the foreground used to keep notes on how much fish each bird eats.

To be a penguin volunteer you must be at least 18 years old and able to come in once a week for at least six months, this is to give you enough time to learn all the birds' names (our readers have met a lot of our penguin pals already!) and pick up the skills needed to take care of them. Our volunteers work side by side with the staff for all the daily chores from food preparations and doing laundry to cleaning the exhibit and feeding the penguins.

Vacuuming the penguin exhibit

Cleaning the underside of one of the rock islands

Stay tuned to meet penguin staff members Heather, Paul, Caitlin and Andrea.

To learn more about how to become a volunteer, click here. And very soon you can learn what it is like to volunteer in the penguin exhibit, straight from one of our very own volunteers.

We could not be able to take care of the 85-plus penguins if it wasn't for the great group of people who come in day after day, week after week to help us take care of the penguins.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Update From The Field: Goblins, Tubenoses and Chicks

New England Aquarium Senior Penguin Biologist Caitlin Hume is working with Project Puffin on Matinicus Rock, a tiny island 20 miles off the coast of Maine. The project teams conduct puffin population censuses, feeding studies and band chicks in order to recognize them when they return to the island as adults.

During my time on Matinicus Rock I was lucky to be on the island during one of the three Leach's storm petrel burrow checks of the season. The storm petrels had already become a fast favorite of mine due to the purring and goblin like cackling noises that they make as they leave their burrows for the night.

You won't see much in this video, it was taken in the dark of the night after all. But listen carefully!

Storm petrels are the smallest of all the seabirds, only about 8 inches long from bill to tail. They are nocturnal during the summer breeding months, only leaving their burrows at night to hunt for fish.

Adult Leach's storm petrel

They dig burrows deep underground where they lay a single egg, and the Project Puffin researchers go into those burrows three times a season to check on the contents. Earlier in the season island supervisors, Nathan and Caroline, had marked burrows with numbered popsicle sticks in a plot about 30 feet by 15 feet on the west side of the island.

Getting to the burrows is yet another challenge of the island. Hundreds of storm petrel burrows are crowded into the few areas of sod on the island, so just getting to a burrow you are trying to check involves stepping very lightly and distributing your weight to avoid collapsing any of the number of burrows in the ground below. Once you have sufficiently straddled all the neighboring burrows and located the burrow you are going to check, you stick your hand into the narrow, tunnel like burrow and contort your body to follow the curves in the tunnel until your whole arm is underground all the way up to your shoulder!

Checking a storm petrel burrow
Photo credit: David Vonk/Caroline Poli

You know you've reached the main chamber when you feel the small twigs and grasses used for nesting material. If there is an adult in the chamber you will feel their soft feathers or a little nip of disapproval, and if you are really lucky you will find one of the most ridiculously cute chicks in all of the bird world!

Leach's storm petrel chick

After two days work, we had checked over a hundred storm petrel burrows. Unbanded adults and chicks big enough to wear a band were banded so that they can be recognized when they return to the islands in the years to come. Equal parts uncomfortable and exhilarating, storm petrel grubbing was definitely one of the overall highlights of my stay on the island!

More updates from Matinicus Rock ahead, with puffins - I promise!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Breeding Season Wrap Up

Our behind-the-scenes breeding rooms which were once filled with our African penguin breeding pairs and their chicks are now empty. As the last two penguin chicks join the rest of the colony on exhibit we realize that we have completed the most successful breeding season on record for the New England Aquarium—eight breeding pairs successfully raised 11 chicks!

Our newest additions are:
Quoin II with a blue and brown bracelet on his left wing
Unombombiya with a red bracelet on his left wing
Agulhas III with an orange and grey bracelet on his left wing
Algoa with a pink and with bracelet on her right wing
Dyer III with a yellow and green bracelet on her right wing
Pilchard with a pink and black bracelet on her right wing (Remember Pilchard? She sports the winning name from our Penguin Naming Contest!)
Hout with a blue and pink bracelet on her right wing
Geyser II with a red and black bracelet on his left wing
Vondeling with a pink and brown bracelet on his left wing
De Hoop with a green and grey bracelet on her right wing and
Table Mountain II with a brown and white bracelet on his left wing

(Stay tuned to future blogs to see why we picked each bird’s name!)

The months of hard work were definitely worth it and the penguin staff would like to thank all of our co-ops, seasonal part time staff and volunteers. We could not have done this without all of them.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about our African penguin breeding process over the past few months as much as I enjoyed sharing it with all of our blog readers.

The next time you are at the Aquarium definitely watch all of our new juvenile penguins as they find their place in our penguin colony.


Get caught up on the breeding process with these previous posts:
Breeding: Playing Match Maker (discover how penguin biologists ensure healthy breeding pairs)
Breeding: A Romantic Getaway (the penguin parents pair off)
Breeding: Candling (learn how staff monitors the chicks growing inside the eggs)
Breeding: Breaking Out! (all about the chicks hatching)
Breeding: Chicks Weighing In (see what a daily check-up is like for the chicks)
Breeding: Tubby Time (watch a penguin chick practice swimming for the first time)