Thursday, July 29, 2010

FAQ: What are those black dots?

When looking into the penguin exhibit you may wonder about those black circles on the islands.

They're sprinklers!

They are actually lawn sprinklers that were added to the islands when they were being built. Since we don't have waves, wind or rain in the exhibit to rinse off the islands, the sprinklers spray salt water three times a day to simulate these natural environmental actions. The extra spraying also helps rinse the guano - penguin poop - off the islands in between our daily cleanings.

Photo: S. Cheng

If you are visiting the Aquarium around noon time you may see the sprinklers in action. It is interesting to watch how the birds react to the sprinklers. Some totally ignore them...

... some jump right in the water, and some seem to actually enjoy the water sprinkling down on them!

We'll be posting a cute video of the sprinklers in an upcoming blog. You won't want to miss this one so check back again soon!

- Andrea

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Northern vs. Southern Rockhoppers

Up until recently it was believed that there was one species of rockhopper penguins (Eudyptes chrysocome). Within the species there had been three subspecies; the southern rockhopper (Eudyptes chrysocome chrysocome), the northern rockhopper (Eudyptes chrysocome moseleyi) and the eastern rockhopper (Eudyptes chrysocome filholi).

Take a look at this map to see the different areas where each lives. (Click to enlarge.)

Research looking at morphological, vocal, and genetic differences concluded that the northern rockhopper is a unique species (Eudyptes moseleyi), while the eastern rockhopper remains a subspecies of the southern rockhopper.

The main way to physically tell a southern and a northern rockhopper apart is to look at body size and length of the crest feathers.

Take a look at these photos and see if you can tell the difference between the northern, southern, and eastern rockhoppers.

Southern rockhopper penguin

Northern rockhopper penguin

Eastern rockhopper penguin
Photo credit: Heather Urquhart

Southern rockhoppers are smaller and have shorter spiky crests (top picture above), while the northern rockhoppers are larger and have longer crest feathers (middle picture). The difference between the eastern and southern rockhoppers is very slight. The easterns have short crest like the southerns but they have a fleshy area at the gape of their beak (last photo above).

There is also a difference in the patterns under their wings. The two top pictures are southern rockhoppers, while the pair of pictures below are from northern rockhoppers.

Southern rockhopper wings

Northern rockhopper penguins

The next time you are at the Aquarium see if you can spot the differences between our two rockhopper species.

- Andrea

Monday, July 26, 2010

Penguin Pals: Sea Cat

If you find a penguin standing at the very top of the rockhopper penguin island, that penguin is most likely Sea-Cat.

Sea-Cat on top of island

Sea-Cat is a northern rockhopper with a blue and white bracelet on his left wing. He came to the Aquarium in February of 1985. His territory is at the very top of the island, he spends a good amount of time up there enjoying the cool breeze coming from the air conditioning vents. You can often see his crest feathers flowing in the breeze.

Sea-Cat’s name refers to the term early European sealers used to describe these penguins. The crest feathers probably reminded them of the whiskers of a cat.

Sea-Cat made an appearance in a previous blog. Check out his crests bobbing in the breeze in this previous post about staying cool!

- Andrea

Friday, July 23, 2010

FAQ: How do the rocks float?

Looking at the penguin exhibit from above, it may look like the six islands are floating in the water. How can that be?!

Penguin islands as seen from above

The islands are actually not floating. Each one is attached to several pedestals that connect it to the floor. Watch this video to see the pedestals that hold up the penguin islands.

The islands were crafted by the Aquarium’s Design Department of fiberglass, like the coral in the Giant Ocean Tank. Each island is hollow below and staff can enter through an opening in the back.

You can see the openings in the back of the islands, hidden from visitors' view

This allows us storage space out of the sight of the visitors and the ability to clean the underside of all islands. Staff can access each penguin burrow using a hidden sliding door beneath the little blue and African penguin islands.

Caves inside the rock islands

Cleaning under the islands

We occasionally find younger penguins hanging out under the islands, too.

Young little blues hanging out under their island

- Andrea

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Penguin Pals: Robben II

Introducing...Robben II! Robben is a female African penguin with a yellow and gray bracelet on her right wing. She was born here at the Aquarium on July 21, 2008 (Happy belated birthday, Robben!), and her parents are Good Hope and Peeko. Check back again often, we'll be introducing them later!

Robben is named after Robben Island. Robben Island is located 7 km (almost 4 miles) off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, in Table Bay. For a small relatively flat island just a few feet above sea level, it has a very important history; not only to the African penguins but to the people of South Africa.

View Larger Map

Robben Island may be best known as the site where Nelson Mandela (former South African president) was imprisoned for almost 20 years. Robben Island has been used as a prison of some sort since the late 1600’s. But political prisoners were not the only people isolated on Robben Island; in the mid-1800’s it was also used as a leper colony, housing over 400 lepers at one time.

Penguins on Robben Island

When Robben Island was first discovered by the Dutch in 1652, the only large animals found on the island were a variety of seals and seabirds including African penguins. In 1654 the settlers released rabbits to provide an available food source for the sailors of passing ships. The rabbit population quickly grew and destroyed much of the vegetation on the island, destroying penguin breeding sites. So by 1800 the original African penguin colony was completely exterminated. It took almost 200 years for penguins to return to Robben Island in 1983. The colony has grown to over 13,000 individuals and is now the species' 3rd largest breeding colony. Currently attempts are being taken to ensure that the rabbit population is under control and will not endanger the native penguins.

Robben Island Beach

Being one of our younger penguins Robben is still trying to find her place in the penguin colony. You can read more about Robben in a future molting blog about juvenile feathers versus her adult ones! (Learn more about molting in general in this previous post, and see some funny pictures of penguins during their mold in this entry.)

Robben mid-molt at the Aquarium

- Andrea

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Breeding: A Romantic Getaway

When you think of a romantic getaway, some people probably think of a hotel suite with wine, roses, a hot tub and maybe some Barry White playing in the background; or maybe a tropical island with a private cabana. Our SSP-approved African penguin breeding pairs have their own romantic getaway, which might not seem romantic to us but works well for them. (Learn more about the African penguin SSP, or Species Survival Plan, in this previous blog post!)

A bonded pair of African penguins

Each spring we move our breeding pairs from the exhibit to our behind-the-scenes holding area. By having these penguins behind the scenes it allows us to more closely monitor and control the breeding process. Here's a picture of a pair in their cozy digs:

In our holding area each pair has their own large kennel style cage with soft matting, a cave and nesting material. It usually takes some time for our new pairs to get comfortable with each other but our established pairs get right down to business as soon as they get behind the scenes.

Stay tuned for the latest updates on our African penguin breeding season throughout the summer.

- Andrea

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Many People Ask: PENGUINS vs. PUFFINS!

People frequently ask us if penguins and puffins are related. Although both are birds that share a similar black and white feather coloration and a love of fish for breakfast, penguins belong to the family Spheniscidae, and puffins belong to the family Alcidae. Let's take a look at some of the other major differences between penguins and puffins.

Puffins fly!
Puffins, like most birds, have hollow bones. It's these hollow bones that make them light enough to fly. Penguins on the other hand have solid bones. Since penguins swim instead of fly, solid bones are important for less buoyancy. (See video of penguins swimming in this previous blog post.)

Atlantic puffin, photo credit: Jörg Hempel

Size and Variety!
There are 4 different species, or types, of puffins in the world, ranging in size from 10 to 15 inches. Penguins have 18 different species in their family with a much wider variety of sizes ranging from 10 inches tall to almost 4 feet tall! Here's an interesting fact: An Atlantic puffin stands about 10 inches tall and weighs in at 500 grams, or just about 1.1 pounds. The little blue penguin is also about 10 inches tall but tips the scales at 2.2 pounds. That's double the weight of the puffin!

Little blue penguin

Different Hemispheres!
The earth is split in half by the imaginary line we know as the equator. Everything above the equator is in the Northern hemisphere, while everything below the equator is in the Southern hemisphere. All 4 species of puffins live along rocky coasts in the Northern hemisphere, while the 18 species of penguins call some of the coastlines in the Southern hemisphere home.

Atlantic puffin, photo credit: Hanno

But for all their differences, penguins and puffins do share one unfortunate similarity: They are in trouble! Wild populations of both penguins and puffins are struggling due to problems like over fishing, pollution, global climate change and introduced predators. One group working locally to help protect Atlantic puffin colonies (and many other indigenous seabirds) along the coast of Maine is the National Audubon Society's Project Puffin.

Over the last 37 years, Project Puffin has restored puffin colonies to 3 islands, and protects many other valuable seabird colonies on 4 other islands off the coast of Maine. All 7 sanctuaries are staffed during the summer months by teams of staff and volunteer wardens. While on the islands, the teams conduct population censuses, feeding studies and band chicks in order to recognize them when they return to the island as adults. The New England Aquarium has worked closely with Project Puffin over the years and this year they are sending me as a representative to work with the "puffineers" on Matinicus Rock, a tiny island 20 miles off the coast of Maine. Check back soon for updates from the field!

And don't worry penguins, I still love you!
- Caitlin

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Many People Ask: Can penguins fly?

Our penguins can do a lot of things, but flying through the air is not one of them. (Unless you count porpoising as flying! Visit this blog post to learn more and see video of this nifty penguin behavior.) While flying birds have hollow bones, penguins have bones that are solid and heavy and that helps them dive underwater. Also their wings are smaller compared to birds of flight. This reduces drag when the penguins are swimming underwater.

Photo: S. Cheng

But penguins swimming underwater certainly look as if they're flying!

Watch as the penguins flap their wings propelling themselves through the water.

Come visit the Aquarium to see our new and improved underwater camera at the Penguin Exhibit to watch penguins torpedo through the water!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Playing Match Maker

We are often asked if we control which penguins breed with each other. And yes, we are very selective of which penguins are breeding; this is to ensure that we maintain a genetically diverse and healthy population.

A penguin family in the breeding area behind the scenes

But it doesn't stop with just the penguins at the New England Aquarium. The New England Aquarium takes part in the Species Survival Plan (SSP) for the African penguins. The SSP involves AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) accredited institutions that have African penguins and develops a breeding program that will produce the most genetically diverse population possible.

The genealogy of every African penguin born in the SSP is known, and each penguin is ranked based on how genetically valuable they are. This rank is based on how well represented their genes are in the population. Then every two years, members of the SSP get together and, using the rankings, decides which penguins would make the best pairings. Sometimes the two penguins are already at the same institution, but sometimes penguins need to be traded to other places.

Beach Donkey and Halifax

Last summer the SSP meeting was held at the New England Aquarium so all the penguin staff had the opportunity to sit in on part of the meeting. It was very interesting to see all the work that goes into making sure the African population is well managed and self-sufficient. To me, it sort of felt like being at the NFL draft with all the trading that was going on!

In the end the New England Aquarium has 10 SSP approved breeding pairs, stay tuned to future blogs to see how our African penguin breeding season turns out.

Breeding pair in holding

- Andrea

Monday, July 12, 2010

Penguin Pals: Eudyptes II and Chrysocome II

The two penguins I would like to introduce to you today are Eudyptes II and Chrysocome II. Both are southern rockhopper penguins. Eudyptes has a red bracelet on her right wing and Chrysocome has a brown bracelet, also on her right wing.

Eudyptes II

Chrysocome II

Both penguins were born at SeaWorld Orlando (Chrysocome on November 7, 2000, Eudyptes was born about a week later on November 13) and were driven by NEAq penguin staff from Florida to Boston in November of 2009 to help increase the female population of our rockhopper penguin colony. Click here to learn more about their debut on rockhopper island!

Eudyptes and Chrysocome are named after the scientific name for the southern rockhopper. Eudyptes is the genus name and means “good diver” in Latin. Chrysocome is the species name and means “golden hair” in Greek. Together their names mean “golden haired diver”; and even though penguins have feathers instead of hair that name is a very good description of the rockhopper species.

Eudyptes II

- Andrea

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Penguin Parade at Phillip Island Nature Park in Australia

This is a guest post written by Peter Dann, Research Manager at the Phillip Island Nature Park in Australia.

There are people in the world who don't like cats or children or rainy days but there is no one, apparently, who doesn't like penguins. Testament to this is the enthusiastic band of penguin–watchers (nearly half a million) that come to Phillip Island on the south-eastern coast of Australia to see the Little Penguins come out of the sea at dusk and cross the beach to their breeding habitat amongst the sand-dunes.

(Photos: Phillip Island Nature Parks)

This event, known as the "Penguin Parade," has been occurring since the late 1920s and allows people to observe the penguins going about their daily lives without regard to their adoring fans.

(Photos: Phillip Island Nature Parks)

The Penguin Parade is managed to minimize the impacts of visitors and all other negative human influences on their lives, including oil spills, introduced fox predation, road deaths and plastic pollution. The good news is that the penguin population on the island has been increasing of late as some of the management practices start to bear fruit.

-Peter Dann, Research Manager
Phillip Island Nature Parks

New England Aquarium Aquarist Jeremy Brodt reported on visiting Phillip Island and seeing the penguin parade in this post.

Friday, July 9, 2010

FAQ: Do penguins have knees?

Looking at a penguin standing or waddling around on the island it may look like they have very short legs and no knees.

But yes, penguins do have knees!

A penguin’s leg is composed of a short femur, knee, tibia and fibula. The upper leg bones are not visible as they are covered in feathers giving penguins a very short legged appearance. Here you can compare the leg of a penguin skeleton to a model of a human skeleton.

Take at look at these x-rays of one of our penguins and you can see the leg bones, including the knee joint and how most of it is covered in the penguin’s body.

Head-on x-ray of penguin, the knees are in green rectangles

Side-view of penguin knees in yellow rectangle

So now you know!

- Andrea

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

What's Happening: Molting - The Homestretch

As mentioned before in this previous post, penguins molt their feathers every year. This process takes about 2-3 weeks. As they approach the end of the molt it is exciting to see the interesting patterns the last remaining patches of old feathers make.

Here are some fun looks from our penguins.

The mohawk

The lion's mane



The Beard

Once the penguins complete their molts, they have slimmed down to their original weight, have a brand new set of feathers and are ready to face the cold ocean water until next year, when they start the process all over again.

Just three old feathers left and a shiny new set of feathers

All done and showing off new feathers!

We'll be posting a video of our rockhoppers in the middle of their molt very soon. Stay tuned!

- Andrea