Thursday, September 30, 2010

Penguin Pals: Spheniscus II and Demersus II

Today I would like to introduce to you two of our African penguins. Here are Spheniscus II and Demersus II. Spheniscus has a purple and white bracelet on her right wing, and Demersus has a purple and white bracelet on his left. Sometimes we give mated pairs matching bracelet colors on opposite wings, but Spheniscus and Demersus are not a mated pair, they are actually sister and brother. Their parents are Good Hope and Peeko. Spheniscus hatched on July 28, 2006 and Demersus hatched four days later on August 1.

Spheniscus II

Demersus II

African penguins along with 15 other penguin species lay two eggs (king and emperor penguins are the only two species that lay one). Sometimes both eggs are fertile, sometimes only one and sometimes neither. If both eggs are fertile and hatch African penguin parents will make every attempt to raise both chicks.

Brother and sister before they were introduced into the penguin exhibit

Not only do Spheniscus and Demersus have matching band colors but their names match as well. Spheniscus demersus is the scientific name for African penguins. Translated spheniscus means little wedge, and demersus means to plunge, which discribes the penguins shape and diving behavior perfectly!


Monday, September 27, 2010

FAQ: Do penguins sneeze?

An important rule for anyone shipped wrecked or stranded on a deserted island is "no matter how thirsty you get DON'T DRINK THE SALT WATER." This is important for people because drinking salt water will actually dehydrate us.

Luckily for penguins that rule does not apply. Penguins have little to no access to fresh water and ingest salt water from the ocean while they are eating fish. To prevent them from getting dehydrated they have special salt glands located behind their eyes that can filter out the excess salt from their bloodstream. The salt then drips down their beak and drips out the nares (nostrils). As the penguins exhale or shake their heads the salt flies out. It sort of looks like they are sneezing, but they are actually expelling salt.

The next time you are at the Aquarium watch the penguins closely, especially after they have eaten, to see if you can see them expelling the salt. In the mean time check out this video of some of our penguins demonstrating the "salt sneeze."


Saturday, September 25, 2010

What's Happening: Molting video!

Penguins spend a lot of their time combing and fluffing their feathers, or preening. That's especially true when the penguins are molting! (Find everything you'd want to know about molting here, here and here.) See preening in action here in this quick video of a rockhopper penguin during its molt. Notice the crisp new feathers coming in under the few fluffy, old feathers!

- Andrea

Monday, September 20, 2010

Penguin Pals: Phillip

This is Phillip. She is a little blue penguin with a red bracelet on her right wing. Phillip was born on January 3, 1997, at the Melbourne Zoo in Australia. She came to the Aquarium in July of 1997.


Phillip is named after Phillip Island. Phillip Island is located off the south coast of Australia just 140 km (about 85 miles) away from Melbourne.

View Larger Map

Phillip Island is known for its "penguin parade". (Learn more about the penguin parade in this guest post from Peter Dann with the Phillip Island Nature Park!) Little blue penguins naturally will leave their burrows before sunrise to spend the day at sea foraging for food as the cover of darkness keeps them safe from land predators. As they return to their burrows at sunset, tourist at Phillip Island watch the hundreds or thousands of little blue penguins as they emerge from the surf and waddle across the beach back to their burrows. The Phillip Island Nature Park has set up designated viewing areas so tourist can get a once in a lifetime experience with no disruptions to the penguins and their breeding areas.

Penguin parade photos courtesy Phillip Island Nature Park

Phillip is one of our more successful little blue breeding females and has raised three chicks here at the Aquarium: Gur-Roo-Mul II, Lillico and Kororaa. You can find Phillip along with her offspring "parading" around the little blue penguin island at the Aquarium!

- Andrea

Friday, September 17, 2010

Penguin Pals: Tussock

This southern rockhopper penguin is Tussock. She has a yellow and black bracelet on her right wing (which indicates that she's a female) and was born December 6, 2006 at SeaWorld in Orlando.


She and six other rockhoppers joined the New England Aquarium colony in November of 2009. (Learn more about her journey here and see how the resident rockhoppers welcomed the new ladies here!)

Tussock is named after a type of grass found on many rockhopper breeding islands. Tussock grass, also known as bunch grass, is well suited to harsh environments. Unlike the grass in your front yard, tussock grass is not very pleasant to walk through. It is a tall, hardy grass that grows in dense clumps. Nesting within the grass gives the rockhopper penguins protection from both land and air predators as well as the elements. In fact gentoo penguins were once referred to as tussock penguins for their habit of nesting in tussock grass.

Take a look at these photos of rockhoppers nesting among the tussock grass taken by Caitlin while she was counting rockhopper penguins on islands off the tip of Chile.

Rockhopper penguins nesting in tussock

Look closely in this picture and you can see a person standing waist deep in the thick tussock grass.

In this photo you can see little paths worn away in the tussock grass from the rockhoppers traveling from the shoreline to their nests.

Click here to read more about Caitlin's adventure in South America.

- Andrea

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Penguin Pals: Sinclair II

This is Sinclair II. He is a male African penguin with a yellow bracelet on his left wing. His parents are Benguela III and Bird and he was born here at the Aquarium on July 10, 2007.

Sinclair is named after an African penguin breeding island off the coast of Namibia. It is located only 100 meters (just over 100 yards) off shore and is only 3 kilometers (about 1.9 miles) away from Plumpudding Island. Sinclair is Namibia's southernmost seabird breeding island.

View Larger Map

In addition to seabirds, Sinclair Island also has a large colony of southern fur seals which were hunted until the 1980's when they became a protected species. (The Aquarium has 6 Northern fur seals that are native to Alaska, learn more about this species here!)

Each African penguin has their own unique spot pattern on its chest. Sinclair's spot pattern is very unique. He has such a high concentration of spots that half his chest is black! The interesting thing was that as a juvenile he had very few spots on his belly so we were surprised when he went through his first adult molt to his adult feathers and had all those spots!

Sinclair behind the scenes as a juvenile

Sinclair in the exhibit with his adult plumage

The next time you are visiting the Aquarium, try to identify Sinclair by his unique spot pattern. He should be easy to spot!

- Andrea

Monday, September 13, 2010

What's Happening: The First Molt

This is a coming of age story. As penguin chicks fledge, they loose their downy feathers for their first set of waterproof feathers. At this point they are considered juvenile penguins and for most species of penguins their juvenile feathers are a different color or pattern than the adults.

Here are some pictures of juvenile African and southern rockhopper penguins compared to adults.

Juvenile African penguins

Adult African penguin

Juvenile rockhopper penguin

Adult rockhopper penguin

When a juvenile penguin is between a year and a half to two years old, they will go through their first molt. (Click here and here to learn more about how adult penguins molt!) This molt is unique because the new feathers that grow in will have the adult color pattern. For us, it is exciting to see how the penguins will look "all grown up".

Robben's juvenile feathers

Robben mid-molt

Robben all grown up!

Pebble's juvenile feathers

Pebble mid-molt

Pebble's adult plumage

- Andrea

Saturday, September 11, 2010

What's Happening: Feeding notes

In the video we posted earlier, you may have noticed me taking some notes. That's how we keep track of how much each bird eats at each feeding.

The plastic tablet is a handy way to do that. Next to each penguin's name, we use a pencil to mark how many fish they eat. We transcribe this information to official paper copies, once we are dry, along with any observational notes that should be part of each penguin's personal records. The best feature of this tablet is it doesn’t matter if it gets wet!

Tablet in the water

Transcribing information to permanent paper copies

- Andrea

Sunday, September 5, 2010

What's Happening: Exhibit Cleaning

How often do we clean the exhibit? Every day.

This is a major undertaking and could not be done without the help of all the awesome volunteers and interns that come in each day to help.

Penguin cleaning crew

Every morning after the penguins are fed, each of the six fiberglass islands need to be cleaned. First all the penguins that are standing on the island need to be escorted into the water. This ensures the penguins are getting some swimming time each day and also makes it easier for us to clean the islands, since the penguins can be very territorial and would probably try to bite us as we clean near them, not to mention that we want to keep them away from the disinfectant we use to scrub the islands.

Once all the penguins are in the water we hose off the islands with fresh water trying to remove all the loose guano (penguin poop).

Hosing off the island

Scrubbing the islands

The next step is to scrub the islands with a veterinary disinfectant. It looks a little soapy but it is safe for the birds and us to use, and it will disinfect the islands. We scrub every inch of each island making sure we get into every nook and cranny. The whole time we are cleaning the islands we need to make sure that the penguins stay off, which you can see in this video is sometimes easier said than done.

While the islands are getting cleaned someone is using an underwater vacuum to vacuum the bottom of the entire exhibit.

We also will scrub the algae off the bases of the islands, the underwater lights and the floor, using an assortment of brushes and a scrubbing pad called a Doodlebug. (Sometimes we even do a little Doodlebug dance! Check back again soon to find out what we're talking about.)

An assortment of brushes

This cleaning process takes between two-three hours every morning. It may seem redundant to get in the next day and clean the exhibit again. But a clean exhibit is a healthy exhibit for the penguins.

- Andrea

Friday, September 3, 2010

Penguins Are Masters of Disguise

Why do penguins look like they are wearing tuxedoes?

I was asked this question when I was in second grade as a creative writing assignment. I came up with a fanciful story about a penguin who was invited to a wedding for his friend the polar bear (I know now that penguins and polar bears don’t live together, but think of it as a destination wedding). So he got all dressed up in a tux and had a great time dancing the night away. On his walk home he fell through a hole in the ice into the icy cold water. He got out unfazed (he’s a penguin of course he didn’t mind the cold water) and continued home.

Once home and being so tired from a night of dancing, the penguin just flopped into his bed with his tux still on. He woke up the next morning to find he couldn’t get his tux off; it had frozen to him overnight. The penguin was so worried that his friends would make fun of him but the exact opposite happened. All the other penguins thought he looked so cool that they all started putting on their tuxedos and jumping into the icy water. Before long the entire colony was wearing their tuxedos permanently.

Now this is a very cute story, and I got an A, but exactly why do penguins have black and white feathers, making them look like they are wearing tuxedos?

Their feather pattern is a form of camouflage called countershading, which is used to help them hide them from predators as well as their prey in the water. Countershading works from above by blending the penguin's black back into the dark ocean bottom and from below by blending the white belly into the bright surface of the water.

Watch as our penguins swim over a black mat on the bottom of the exhibit, the black feathers blend in so well they seem to disappear!

This is such an effective form of camouflage that you will find it utilized by many aquatic animals with darker colors on their back and lighter colors on their fronts, including many animals that you will find in the Aquarium. The next time you are at the Aquarium try to find examples of countershading!

- Andrea