Saturday, October 30, 2010

Penguin Pals: Harlequin

Just in time for Halloween, I would like to introduce you to Harlequin. She is an African penguin with a purple bracelet on her right wing. She was born here at the Aquarium on November 8, 1992.

The word harlequin often refers to a color pattern that consists of irregular patches, usually gray, blue or black, on a white background. This word also refers to a clown. (Maybe some of you are dressing up as a harlequin for Halloween at the Aquarium!)

The four species of penguins in the Spheniscus genus are also referred to as the banded or Harlequin penguins. They include the African penguin, Galapagos penguin, Humboldt penguin and the Magellanic penguin. These four species all have similar coloration, with a black stripe across their chest and a white stripe around their eyes. The varied pattern of these stripes is how you can physically distinguish one species from another.

African penguin
Spheniscus demersus

Galapagos penguin
Spheniscus mendiculus

Humboldt penguin
Spheniscus humboldti

Magellanic penguin
Spheniscus magellanicus

Illustrations by B. Harmon

Come on down to see the penguins this weekend in your Halloween finest! Be sure to look for Harlequin, she'll be the one in the penguin "costume".

Have a happy and safe Halloween.
– Andrea

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Penguin Pals: Staten

Today I would like to introduce you to one of our southern rockhoppers. This is Staten; he has a gray bracelet on his left wing.


As you may have deduced from earlier Penguin Pal posts, all of our penguins have names that describe something about their species. A lot of the birds are named after islands where you can find penguins in the wild. Staten is also named after an island, but this island is not found in New York!

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Staten's namesake is an island is located in Argentina. It is eastern most island of the archipelago Tierra del Fuego.

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The island is called Isla de los Estados in Spanish and is Stateneiland in Dutch, after the Netherlands State-General or parliament. Staten Island was declared an Ecological, Historic, and Tourist Provincial Reserve, and is very isolated. The only permanent settlement is the Puerto Parry Naval Station, which is only manned by four marines at a time. In addition to southern rockhoppers, Staten Island is home to many species of sea birds and seals.

Come visit Staten at the Aquarium on a different island, rockhopper island in the Penguin Exhibit!

- Andrea

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

What's Happening: Do the Doodlebug

You may remember from a previous post that in our daily exhibit cleaning routine we scrub algae off the floor using a Doodlebug pad. You may be asking yourself, "What exactly is a Doodlebug pad?"

Daily scrubbing keeps the exhibit clean for visitors and especially these guys!

A Doodlebug pad is a scrub pad that comes in various colors; white, green and brown. Each color represents a different degree of coarseness. The white pads are the softest, very similar to a sponge. The green are coarser and the brown are the coarsest, similar to a Brillo pad.

Ah, behold the colorful assortment of Doodlebug pads.

We use brown or green pads to scrub algae that may grow on the exhibit floor. To remove the algae we place the Doodlebug pad on the bottom of our foot and use our foot to scrub back and forth.

It’s a great workout for you legs and it helps keep the exhibit looking great and algae free!

- Andrea

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Penguin Pals: Lüderitz

This is Lüderitz. He is a juvenile African penguin with a purple and grey bracelet on his left wing. He was born at the New England Aquarium on September 4, 2009. His parents are Alfred and Treasure II. (Meet his mom in this previous post!)

Lüderitz is named after a coastal town in southwest Namibia. In the early 1900's this town was know for its guano harvesting but is now an important conservation area. It is home to the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources which oversees the management of the seven penguin breeding islands off Namibia’s coast. (Many penguins at the Aquarium are named after these islands, learn more about these Aquarium birds here and here. There's even a penguin named Namibia! Meet her here.) In fact Halifax Island is just a stone's throw away from the town of Lüderitz.

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Lüderitz still has his juvenile feathers so if you try to find him in the exhibit he will have solid grey feathers on his head. (Learn how young penguins graduate to their grown-up feathers in this post.)

- Andrea

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Penguin Pals: Mercury

This is Mercury; he is an African penguin with a red and white bracelet on his left wing. He was born at the Aquarium on January 30, 1993.

He is named after Mercury Island which is 800 meters (about a half a mile) off the coast of the Namibian desert. It is a seven hour boat ride to the nearest town. Mercury Island is a small (at just over seven acres), steep, rocky island with no vegetation. It also is hollow. When the waves are rough and collide with the island, the whole place shakes, (hence its name).

Mercury Island supports the largest Namibian colony of African penguins, and the third largest worldwide with up to 10,000 penguins. It is also an important breeding island for other species of seabirds including the endangered Bank cormorant and the Cape gannet.

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Mercury Island is managed by the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources, Namibia, and is permanently staffed. Fresh water and food are only supplied twice a year. Until very recently there was no electricity, only candlelight. Since February 2001, the staff house is powered by solar panels.

- Andrea

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Penguin Pals: Namibia II

Let me introduce you to Namibia II. Namibia is an African penguin who was born here at the Aquarium on June 1, 2008. Her parents are Good Hope and Peeko.

Namibia is named after the African country of Namibia. It is located along the southwestern coast of the continent, just north of South Africa. There are nine islands off the west coast of Namibia that are African penguin breeding islands. Some of these islands include Mercury Island, Ichaboe Island, Possession Island, Roast Beef and Plum Pudding islands, Halifax Island, Sinclair Island and Neglectus Island.

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Some of these island names may sound familiar to you as they are the names of penguins in previous Penguin Pal post. Stay tuned to learn about more penguins that are named after Namibian islands.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Penguin Pals: Diego

The penguin I would like to introduce you to today is Diego. Diego is a southern rockhopper with a green bracelet on his left wing. He was born at SeaWorld in Orlando on December 4, 2007.

Diego is named after a small group of islands named the Diego Ramirez island group. These islands are found in southern Chile in the Drake Passage, about 100 km (60 miles) south of Cape Horn, and hold the title as being the southernmost point of the South American continent. The islands were first sighted by Captain Marco Ramirez in 1619 and were named after Diego Ramirez, a member of the expedition.

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Even though the land area of these tiny islands is only about 1 km (0.4 square miles, so tiny they don't even appear on the map!), they are important breeding areas to many seabird species including black-browed albatross, shy albatross, grey headed albatross, southern giant-petrels and of course southern rockhoppers.

Diego captures the adventurous spirit of the explorers that found those remote islands 400 years ago. He is always swimming, exploring every corner of the exhibit. In the morning we can usually find him on one of the other penguin islands and he often cries out, letting everyone know where he is.

Watch as Diego hops into the water and goes off to explore the rest of the exhibit.

This Columbus Day weekend, come by and explore the Aquarium yourself! Make sure to say hello to Diego.

- Andrea

Friday, October 8, 2010

Project Puffin, Update From The Field: The Rock, Moe and 200 Tern Fledgers.

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.

Atlantic puffin: photo credit Hanno

After three hours and two boats rides, Matinicus Rock and Lighthouse that would become my home for the next few weeks, finally appeared in the distance. David, a bird keeper from Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo, and I were rowed ashore with dry bags heavy with food and supplies. The island supervisors, Caroline and Nathan, came down to meet us at the boat ramp along with Alex, another biologist from the National Aquarium in Baltimore who had already been on the island for a week. Everyone grabbed a bag and we headed up to the house. Once at the house we got settled in the surprisingly comfortable living quarters. I even had my own bedroom.

My lighthouse bedroom

Alex gave us a tour of the area, highlights of which were a climb to the top of the light tower, the composting toilet with view of puffins and an introduction to Moe, the island's very own ghost who calls the decommissioned second light tower his home.

"Moe's lighthouse"

In addition to Atlantic puffins, Matinicus Rock is also home to common and Arctic terns, razorbills, Leach's storm petrels, black guillemots, laughing gulls, common eiders and even a few Manx shearwaters--the only known colony in the United States. Project Puffin monitors the health and population numbers of all the species on the island, and our first major task was to find and band 200 Arctic tern chicks before they completely fledged and figured out that they could just fly away from us. Arctic terns are delicate looking at first glance, but don't let them fool you, these are some tough seabirds. Arctic terns migrate over 20,000 miles from Antarctica every year!

Arctic tern

Their chicks hide in the vegetation as a way to protect themselves from all the hungry gulls flying above, so you really had to search every blade of grass.

Can you find the tern chick hiding in the grass?

Once you found one big enough to be banded you put a flag down where the chick was hiding, to make sure that you returned it to its proper home when you were done. All the while the Arctic tern parents were zooming about, dive bombing our heads and angrily yelling at us for getting to close to their nests, sounding like the machine gun noises you would make as a kid playing cops and robbers.

When it wasn't being used to mark a nest, I stuck my flag in the back of my hat so that the terns attacked it instead of my head! Band-able chicks were brought back to the house where they were weighed, measured and given bands on each leg--a metal field readable and a service band issued by the U.S. government--before being returned to their nest sites. The chick in the photo below didn't know quite what to make of being put on his back.

photo credit: David Vonk

Once we had found all the "obvious" chicks we took turns climbing to the top of the lighthouse and spotting the chicks as they ran out to be fed by their parents and then radioing their location to someone on the ground. Alex spotted this chick as it ran out from under a rock to be fed by its parents and radioed the location to me.

After 6 hours we had banded over 100 Arctic tern chicks! The following day we spent a few more hours searching the grass for more chicks to band and by the end of the week we had reached our goal of 200. Unfortunately for the tern fledgers, just because we've given them their "grown up" bands doesn't mean they'll make it back to the island next year. Perfecting the art of flight takes some time and with hungry gulls searching the skies for their next meal it can be down right dangerous.

Gulls are a natural predator of many seabirds but over the years the gull populations have exploded, changing the natural balance of predator to prey. Gulls are intelligent, opportunistic predators that will try a wide variety of food options, and our landfills and dumpsters have provided them with a never ending food source. Terns, puffins and many other seabirds however, stick to only one food item: fish. So while gull numbers are multiplying as they thrive off of our wasteful habits, most seabirds colonies are shrinking due to overfishing and changes in fish populations in the worlds oceans. More gulls hunting in the already smaller tern colonies means fewer tern chicks and fledgers will survive to adulthood and return to the colony to breed in the future. Of course, gulls are not to blame for finding a way to survive in this new environment we have created, but this certainly is a reminder that something as simple as feeding your leftover chips to the gull hanging out in the park can impact the delicate balance of nature and predator/prey relationships.

Check back soon for more updates from Matinicus Rock!


Earlier this summer, Caitlin taught us the difference between puffins and penguins, like the ones in our exhibits. Get the scoop in this earlier blog post!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

What's Happening: New Prehistoric Penguin Fossil Found!

Scientists from the University of Texas sent us this information hot off the presses and asked if we could share their new find with all of our Aquarium penguin blog readers.

Artist's rendering of Inkayacu paracasensis, based on recently discovered fossilized remains (Illustration: Katie Browne)

Paleontologists just unearthed a 36-million year old skeleton of an ancient penguin in Peru. The skeleton also contained fossilized remains of feathers and scaly soft tissue preserved on an exposed foot. Looking at the feathers they could determine that the penguin had reddish brown and grey feathers, which is very different from the classic tuxedo look penguins have today.

The new species is named Inkayacu paracasensis, or Water King. Based on the skeleton the penguin would be nearly 5 feet tall, which is almost 1 foot taller than the emperor penguin.

Fossilized remains of Inkayacu paracasensis

This new discovery is very important to help us understand the history of ancient penguin species and their relationship to the penguin species today.

Learn more about this incredible find here, here, here and here.