Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Finding the perfect gift

Each year we like to get holiday gifts for our volunteers to thank them for their hard work and dedication throughout the year. In past years we have given out cute penguin ornaments, penguin water bottles, we even helped all our volunteers live blue™ by giving them waterproof reusable bags to bring their wet bathing suits home instead of using plastic bags. This year we were having a hard time thinking of a gift that was thoughtful and useful. We finally came up with an idea that is both cute and thoughtful and helps to save an endangered species. We're sponsoring abandoned wild penguin chicks!

A hungry penguin chick | Photo: Romy Klusener via SANCCOB

Each year, due to food shortages, adult African penguins in South Africa may be forced to abandon their chicks on shore so they can go farther out to sea to find enough food to sustain themselves through their yearly molt. Without their parents to provide them with food, these abandoned chicks would die. With the endangered African penguin population declining at an alarming rate, the death of these chicks will have a big impact on the future of African penguins.

A penguin chick in the chick rearing program at SANCCOB | Photo: SANCCOB

Workers from SANCCOB, a seabird rescue and rehabilitation center in Cape Town, South Africa, comb the beaches collecting these abandoned chicks to bring to their facility. Once at SANCCOB these chicks are nursed back to health and fattened up until they grow up and fledge into their waterproof juvenile feathers. They are even given “swimming lessons” before release to make sure they are comfortable in the water much like what we do with our chicks before they join the adults in our exhibit.

A penguin chick at the Aquarium during a swim session

Once the chicks are at a healthy weight and have waterproof feathers, they are released back into the wild. This year SANCCOB has taken in a record number of chicks, and with over 500 hungry mouths to feed, SANCCOB set up a donation program to raise money to help pay for all the food and supplies needed to rehabilitate these chicks. They set up the Adopt a “Christmas Chick” program.  If you want to learn more about SANCCOB and all the things they are doing to help the endangered African penguin along with other local sea birds check out their website.

Penguin chicks released have temporary pink marks on their chest for tracking purposes | Photo: SANCCOB

SANCCOB is not the only rescue operation that is dealing with record numbers of patients. Our very own Marine Animal Rescue Team has treated over 700 stranded sea turtles. Learn more about this amazing effort follow our Marine Animal Rescue Team blog.

One of the 700+ rescued sea turtles cared for at the Aquarium's Animal Care Center via the Rescue Blog

So instead of individual volunteer gifts, we decided to pool the money and adopt two chicks on behalf of our volunteers. Through the program we were able to name each adopted chick. We named one “Lewende Blou” which is Afrikaans, one of the official languages spoken in South Africa, for “live blue” and the second one was named “Vrywilliger” which is Afrikaans for volunteer. While we will never meet the two chicks we adopted, we feel good knowing that the money we donated will help provide food and medication to these chicks ultimately helping them return to the wild.

Lewende blou means live blue in Afrikaans

Vrywilliger means volunteer in Afrikaans

So the next time you are stuck trying to find that perfect gift for someone, a donation to your favorite charity or organization like the New England Aquarium in someone’s name is a great way to give a thoughtful gift and a way to give back to the community. Learn more about how you can make a contribution to the Aquarium. Your donation supports the Aquarium's education, conservation and research efforts around the world. In addition, your donation goes to care for the animals at the Aquarium—like top-notch medical care and food for penguins!

Happy Holidays from the Aquarium's penguins and penguin staff!

Little blue penguin with a Photoshopped hat | Photo: Aquarium volunteer Ray H.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Guest Post | Fossil Evidence for the Rise of Penguins: Australia and Africa

Daniel Ksepka, PhD, is the Curator of Science at the Bruce Museum. Ksepka earned his PhD in Earth and Environmental Sciences from Columbia University in 2007 and spent five years in residence at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where he performed his dissertation research on the fossil record of penguins and gained broad experience in the curation and study of natural history objects including fossils, skeletal materials, skins and geological specimens.

In this last post of the series, Daniel will share information about prehistoric penguins. 

Like South America, Australia was just a short distance from Antarctica during the Eocene Epoch but would later drift northwards. Despite being much larger than New Zealand, Australia has far fewer penguins. Today, the only penguin that breeds on the Australian mainland is the little blue penguin, a tiny bird that stands, or perhaps one should say hunches, about one foot tall. This delightful species can be seen at the New England Aquarium, and in fact many of the individuals in the enclosure are birds who were hatched in Australian zoos from rehabbed parents but could not be released in the wild and needed a safe new home.

Little blue penguin

Our knowledge of Australia's ancient penguins is very fuzzy, coming from just a handful of fossil specimens that have been collected over the years. Palaeontologists have discovered evidence that penguins made it to the southern coast of Australia by the Eocene Epoch, and some reached sizes that would have made a little blue penguin look like a bug. However, with only bits of flipper bones and similar scraps left behind, these ancient penguins have revealed little about their overall appearance.

The large species vanished before modern little blue penguins started arriving from New Zealand, but we do not know why. Bones of penguins have been found in pre-colonial middens, indicating humans hunted some species during the pre-colonial era. However, most of the large extinct penguin species such as Anthropodyptes gilli were long gone by the time humans appeared on the scene, so overhunting cannot completely explain why Australia is so depleted of penguin diversity today.

Fossil humerus (flipper bone) of the mysterious Australian penguin Pseudaptenodytes macraei,
compared to the same bone from a modern emperor penguin.
Image courtesy of Travis Park

Finally, we reach Africa. Africa appears to be the last major landmass that penguins reached in their sweeping journey across the southern ocean. The oldest penguin fossils discovered in African sediments come from the Saldanha Steel site and are between 10 and 12 million years in age. These bones were fortuitously exposed while an industrial steel plant was being constructed, which is an isolated incident. Indeed, one extinct species of African penguin is named Nucleornis insolitus because it was discovered during construction at a reactor site. There seem to have been at least four different species of penguins living side by side in Africa in the past, swimming along the coast of an area inhabited by such oddities as the extinct African Bear (Agriotherium africanum) and the short-necked giraffe (Sivatherium hendeyi).

This reproduction of a painting shows a Sivatherium of an undetermined species | Via

The New England Aquarium's own African penguins (also known as black-footed penguins or jackass penguins) are members of the sole species that breeds in Africa today. These fine fellows appear to be newcomers to Africa. They only start showing up about half a million years ago, at a point when all the ancient species seem to have already vanished.

Skeletal reconstruction of the extinct African penguin Inguza predemersus with a modern
black-footed penguin for scale. Fossil art by Kristin Lamm, living penguin art by Barbara Harmon.

So the march of penguins was completed. Beyond the three continents we covered, penguins also live on many small islands today, though we have little knowledge of their ancient history in these locales because fossils tend not to be available. Far from being restricted to icy Antarctica, penguins have truly conquered the myriad environments of the southern hemisphere.

By request of my image providers, the standard conditions are: one time single use, with no transfer of copyright. 


Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Guest Post | Fossil Evidence for the Rise of Penguins: South America

Daniel Ksepka, PhD, is the Curator of Science at the Bruce Museum. Ksepka earned his PhD in Earth and Environmental Sciences from Columbia University in 2007 and spent five years in residence at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where he performed his dissertation research on the fossil record of penguins and gained broad experience in the curation and study of natural history objects including fossils, skeletal materials, skins and geological specimens.

Over the next couple posts, Daniel will share information about prehistoric penguins. Learn more about penguins, their ancestors, their physiology and their biology. Visit the Aquarium! Keep reading for more about the first penguins in South America's fossil record.

South America welcomed its first penguin visitors about 40 million years ago, roughly 15 million years after as our flippered friends established themselves in Antarctica. The oldest fossils from this continent were discovered in Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of the landmass. Looking back at the geological record, this is not surprising. During the Eocene Epoch, South America was much further South then it is today. The swim from the Antarctic Peninsula to Tierra del Fuego would have been an easy journey for penguins.

Penguins quickly progressed north on both coasts, and fossils have been discovered in Peru, Chile, and Argentina recording their past diversity. In fact, they soon reached latitudes of 14°S in Peru, well within the tropics. Early subequatorial penguins soaked up rays on the beaches of a “Greenhouse Earth” during the Eocene, at a time when global sea surface temperatures averaged more than 5°C (~10° F) higher than today. Several unusual types of penguins thrived in this region. Roughly 34 million years ago, a spear-billed penguin called Icadyptes salasi prowled the coast.  This species was able to impale its prey with a long, straight, reinforced beak unlike any modern penguin.

Fossil skull of the spear-billed penguin Icadyptes salasi with a modern Humboldt penguin for scale

Later, around 10 million years ago, “bobble-headed” penguins like Spheniscus megaramphus and Spheniscus urbinai appeared.  These species are extinct relatives of the modern banded penguin group that includes Humboldt and Magellanic penguins. Each had a powerfully hooked beak with a sharp, downturned tip. This beak shape likely helped these menacing birds get a grip on prey like fish. These intimidating penguins were likely ensconced at the upper levels of the food chain for a long time. 

Today, mainland South America hosts more unimposing penguins, included the banded Humboldt penguin and Magellanic penguin, and the crested macaroni penguin and Southern rockhopper penguin. (The last of these can be seen at the New England Aquarium today!) These species are important predators of small fish and other marine life, but penguins as a whole seem to have relinquished part of their former role in the ecosystem to marine mammals like seals and sea lions in the modern day.

Silhouettes of a modern Humboldt Penguin and the extinct
"bobble-headed" 
Spheniscus urbinai to the same scale.

By request of my image providers, the standard conditions are: one time single use, with no transfer of copyright. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Guest Post | Fossil Evidence for the Rise of Penguins: Antarctica

Daniel Ksepka, PhD, is the Curator of Science at the Bruce Museum. Ksepka earned his PhD in Earth and Environmental Sciences from Columbia University in 2007 and spent five years in residence at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where he performed his dissertation research on the fossil record of penguins and gained broad experience in the curation and study of natural history objects including fossils, skeletal materials, skins and geological specimens.

Over the next couple posts, Daniel will share information about prehistoric penguins. Learn more about penguins, their ancestors, their physiology and their biology. Visit the Aquarium! Keep reading for more about the first penguins in the fossil record in Antarctica.

Antarctica was the first point of expansion for penguins. However, this was not the Antarctica we know today. There were no permanent ice sheets covering the continent, and forests spread over the land. Mountains rose over lakes and rivers, and vast plains spread over areas that today lie silently under tremendously thick layers of ice. Sometime around 55 million years ago, shortly after penguins appeared in New Zealand, they expanded their range and reached this forested Antarctica. Soon, an incredible diversity of penguins was gathering along the coast at Seymour Island on the Antarctic Peninsula, which was once the site of an estuary.

A gathering of penguins along the shoreline in Eocene Antarctica, with contemporary plants and animals.
Artwork © Martin Chavez.

It is sometimes difficult to tell whether two different sized bones belong to separate species or represent the male and female of the same species. In the case of Antarctica, even the most conservative counts would indicate 8 species lived side by side, and the true total may have reached 12 or more at the height of their diversity during the Late Eocene (roughly 35 million years ago). These ranged from “normal” penguins close in size to the modern Antarctic Adélie Penguin all the way up to giant species like Anthropornis nordenskjoeldi (a name meaning Nordenskjöld's man-bird, referring to both an Antarctic explorer and the enormous size of the bird).

A fossil beak fragment from a giant Antarctic penguin compared to the skull of a 
King Penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus). Photo © Dr. Piotr Jadwiszczak.

Over time, Antarctica began to cool as it was placed in a freezer by changing ocean circulation patterns.
Australia and South America, once connected to Antarctica, drifted further north opening a deep seaway. Surrounded on all sides by a powerful clockwise circulating current, Antarctica was cut off from warmer ocean waters and entered an icebound phase. Penguins today call the ice shelves of Antarctica home, and even lay their eggs and raise their chicks on frozen sea ice. Yet, today's polar penguins are not direct descendants of the many penguin species that lived in Antarctica during the Eocene. Those species are all extinct now, yet we know precious little about what happened between the Eocene today. All we have to fill in the more than thirty million year gap are two bones deposited 10 million years ago on the east side of the continent and found during field work in the region.

Gentoo penguins | Photo © Brian Skerry

We know that penguins like the adorable Adélie and the regal Emperor eventually mastered the ice, but it will take further discoveries before we know when they arrived and whether any survivors of the warmer era where still hanging on to survival at that point.


By request of my image providers, the standard conditions are: one time single use, with no transfer of copyright. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

Guest Post | Fossil Evidence for the Rise of Penguins: Prehistoric Penguins

Daniel Ksepka, PhD, is the Curator of Science at the Bruce Museum. Ksepka earned his PhD in Earth and Environmental Sciences from Columbia University in 2007 and spent five years in residence at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where he performed his dissertation research on the fossil record of penguins and gained broad experience in the curation and study of natural history objects including fossils, skeletal materials, skins and geological specimens.

Over the next couple posts, Daniel will share information about prehistoric penguins. Learn more about penguins, their ancestors, their physiology and their biology. Visit the Aquarium! Keep reading for more about the first penguins in the fossil record.

Penguins have a remarkable family tree. Today, there are 18 officially recognized species of penguin spread throughout the Southern Hemisphere. Each of these species is unique, and together they span a wide range of sizes, ecologies, and preferred environments. Yet, these spectacular birds are only the most recent branches of the extended penguin evolutionary tree. More than 50 extinct species of penguins have been discovered in the fossil record. Paleontologists have learned many secrets of ancient penguin evolution from this rich fossil record. In this series of posts, we will take a look at the march of penguins across the southern seas.

It all started when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth. Ornithologists have used DNA evidence to estimate that a group of ocean-going birds split off into two lineages sometime more than 66 million years ago. One of these branches gave rise to the tube-nosed albatrosses and petrels, and the other gave rise to penguins. These estimates would place the start of the penguin lineage during the Cretaceous Period, but at this first stage they were probably still capable of both wing-propelled diving and aerial flight, much like modern puffins. So far, paleontologists have not found any fossils to illuminate this first stage of penguin evolution.

Evolutionary tree showing the relationships of penguins to other waterbirds.

Fossil penguins appear on the stage in the Paleocene Epoch, the first phase of Earth history following the mass extinction that killed off the non-avian dinosaurs. These fossils turn up not in Antarctica as some might expect, but in New Zealand. This is appropriate enough, as New Zealand is one of the hotspots of modern penguin diversity. The oldest penguin fossils that have been reported so far date to about 61 million years in age. They belong to a species called Waimanu manneringi, (a name derived from the Maori word for “water bird” and the name of Al Mannering, discoverer of the fossil). A smaller species named Waimanu tuatahi lived around the same time. Within a few million years, more species started turning up and New Zealand became a penguin paradise. Almost completely devoid of mammals, the region was a perfect breeding ground for birds that seek to evade land predators.

Life reconstruction of the early penguin Waimanu tuatahi.
Artwork by Chris Gaskin, © Geology Museum, University of Otago.

Among the species that once swam the waters surrounding New Zealand were Kairuku waitaki and Kairuku grebneffi. Kairuku translates roughly to “diver who returns with food”, whereas waitaki references the region where the fossils were found and grebneffi honors Andrew Grebneff, who contributed to the collection and preparation of the fossils. These penguins would indeed have returned with great stores of food, as they were giants. Reaching heights more than a foot taller than living Emperor Penguins, Kairuku penguins would have cut regal figures on the ancient beaches. They were not alone, but lived alongside several smaller species, such as the roughly two foot tall Duntroonornis parvus. New Zealand has continued to host many penguins species through to the present, and today it is possible to find breeding Little Blue Penguins (Eudyptula minor), Yellow-eyed Penguins (Megadyptes antipodes), and Fiordland Crested Penguins (Eudyptes pachyrhynchus) on the mainland, as well as several other species of crested penguin on the outlying islands.

From their New Zealand stronghold, penguins were about to break loose. We'll watch the start of this expansion unfold in the next post.

Composite skeleton of a giant Kairuku penguin being examined by
blog author Dr. Daniel Ksepka. Photo © Dr. R. Ewan Fordyce

By request of my image providers, the standard conditions are: one time single use, with no transfer of copyright. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Breeding: Candling

Here is a video of a little blue penguin egg being candled several times throughout its 38 day incubation period.



By shining a concentrated beam of light though the egg we can get a glimpse inside to determine if the egg is fertile.

A penguin egg

We first candle the egg when it is about 10 days old.  If it is fertile, we will see a small bean sized embryo with a network of veins. As incubation continues, the developing chick gets bigger and bigger and we begin to see it moving inside the egg. Just before it is due to hatch the chick becomes so big that it takes up the entire available space inside the egg, and the light beam no longer passed through the egg. This means hatching is not far away.

This is the device we use for candling

The Aquarium takes part in a Species Survival Plans for African and little blue penguins. It's always exciting to track the growth of these chicks while they're in the eggs. Candling is an important part of this process.

Stay tuned for more about the breeding season that happened 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!

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.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Guest Post | An uncooperative African Penguin: Part 5

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 this series of posts about an uncooperative African penguin, she retells one particular experience while conducting field research of wild penguins. Catch up by reading previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4!

The fog hovers over the coast for most of the morning. As soon as it begins to clear, the wind returns with its usual vengeance. At 5:00 pm we repack the vehicle for the umpteenth time and head for Guano Bay. The wind seems to be dropping. Again we take turns staring through the telescope, scanning the colony and landing beach from the shore. As the sun is setting, Katta calmly announces “there she is, she just arrived.”  We are on Halifax Island in record time. I am not taking any chances and have brought my catch-net along.

Detaching the logger: Katta carefully unwraps the lattice of tape holding the logger while I hold the penguin.
Photo: Jessica Kemper | Namibia's Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources

Normally I catch penguins directly by hand because it is a calmer approach, but with a nervous penguin it can be less stressful with a net. We carefully move toward colony 2. She is lying next to one of her chicks, looking in our direction. All we can see are loose tape ends fluttering on her back. Our hearts stop. Has the logger fallen off? Is she just wearing the lattice of tape strips?

We slowly shift position to see her back, but still can’t confirm whether the logger is attached or not. I slowly tip-toe closer, focused, catch-net at the ready. I am about 2 m away from her when she becomes aware of me. She gets up and edges away. Before she has a chance to run, I put the catch-net over her. Got her. And yes, the logger is still attached. Just. Her chicks must have had fun undoing and playing with the tape ends, but our precious logger is there. We quickly take off the logger and tape. I carry her back to her nest and fully expect her to make another dash through the colony. Not so. She calmly settles next to her chicks. All is well.

On our way back we are overcome by a giggling fit; it must be the relief kicking in. It is now getting dark. And for the first time in ages we both catch the perfect wave to the shore.

Stay tuned for the last post of this series. It'll bring home why the researchers go to such lengths to attach—and retrieve—these GPS data loggers. 

Can't wait? 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. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Guest Post | An uncooperative African Penguin: Part 4

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 this series of posts about an uncooperative African penguin, she retells one particular experience while conducting field research of wild penguins. Catch up on the story so far with Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Saturday, February 28, 2009: We drive to Guano Bay at the usual time. The early mornings are starting to take their toll on us and we are feeling tired and despondent. Again the wind is pretty strong and we are reluctant to paddle. We’ve brought the telescope along and start scanning again. Suddenly we see her. No doubt, it’s her. The logger is still on her back and she is standing with her chicks. Strangely enough, the wind has calmed down a bit (or is it just our imagination?), so without hesitation we climb into our wetsuits, jump on our paddle-skis and paddle as fast as we can.

We arrive at colony 2...our penguin is gone! We check the beach, hoping that she is still socializing with the beach crowd, but no, she has already left to sea. We return home, disappointed but hopeful. At least we know that she is alive and well, that she has obviously not abandoned her chicks and that she is still carrying our logger. Phew!

Logger bird feeding chick: Dinner is served. Photo: Jessica Kemper | Namibia Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources

Sunday, March 1, 2009: We cunningly revise our strategy and opt for a pre-dawn raid; clearly our penguin is a very early riser. As we leave town at 5:30 am, we get enveloped in thick fog. So thick that it is hard to even guess where the road is heading, although we know the route by heart. We arrive at Guano Bay in foggy darkness. Daylight somehow never comes. We can’t see a thing from where we are parked. Not the shore, not the sea and certainly not the island. Way too dangerous to attempt a crossing. We patiently wait for the fog to lift, even just a little bit, but it doesn’t. It just sits there. An hour later we give up. No point in waiting; our penguin would have left the colony by now.

Click through to Part 5 for a resolution to this quest to retrieve a scientific GPS logger from this uncooperative African penguin! 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Guest Post | An uncooperative African Penguin: Part 3

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 this series of posts about an uncooperative African penguin, she retells one particular experience while conducting field research of wild penguins. If you're behind, catch up with Part 1 and Part 2.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009: We arrive at the colony just before sunrise, fully expecting our penguin to be there. Alas, no sign of her. Her chicks have teamed up with the neighbor’s chicks and all four are guarded by one adult penguin. Oh well, it’s only day two, we’ll try again tomorrow morning.

Halifax Island welcome committee: African Penguins tend to be a curious lot.
Photo: Jessica Kemper | Namibia Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources

Thursday, February 26, 2009: We arrive at Guano Bay at 6:30 am, but discover that the wind is already too strong to paddle to the island. The sea is whipped into foamy curls all over the bay and we don’t think it is worth the risk of getting blown straight to Brazil. Besides, we’ve got Plan B, the use of the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources’ research vessel, the !Anichab later that day to do a routine bird census on Halifax Island. Of course the odds of seeing our penguin in the middle of the day are not that great—the best chances are around dawn and dusk when penguins arrive back from sea to feed their chicks. And, as expected, our penguin is not around; at least “our” chicks look well-fed. But what if the wind stays strong and we can’t paddle across again the next morning? Staying overnight at the island is not really an option; there is no shelter on the island and it is covered in bird ticks that cause us to break out in massive, itchy welts. We are not really too keen on that prospect.

Friday, February 27, 2009: Back at Guano Bay at 6:30am. Wind conditions are marginal and we risk the paddle. Katta misjudges a wave and gets bucked off her paddle-ski. Our equipment is packed in waterproof backpacks, so no harm done. On the island we don’t bother to change into our dry clothes but head straight for colony 2. Surely, she has to be back. She isn’t. We stand and wait. Freezing in our wet wetsuits. Scanning the beach. Scanning the colony again from all angles. Then the wind picks up and we have to head back. This time I get dumped in the surf, but that’s not unusual. We drive back with the car heater on full blast. And now we are getting worried.

En route to Halifax: Paddling to “the office” – Katta on the left, Jessica on the right.
Photo: Jessica Kemper | Namibia Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources

The wind remains strong throughout the day, but we give it another try in the late afternoon. We drive out to Guano Bay, armed with paddle-skis, wetsuits and my telescope. Perhaps, if we are lucky, we might get a glimpse of her from the shore. We take turns scanning the colony and the landing beach until it is too dark to see anything. Still no sign of our penguin. Neither of us sleeps well that night.

Keep reading with Part 4 of this series, as the quest to find the missing penguin—and GPS logger—continues.

Can't wait, need more penguins right now? 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. 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Guest Post | An uncooperative African Penguin: Part 2

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 this series of posts about an uncooperative African penguin, she retells one particular experience while conducting field research of wild penguins. Read Part 1 for an overview of the research project.

Monday, February 23, 2009: It is 7:00 am and Katta and I just paddled to Halifax Island from Guano Bay on our paddle-skis, a 10 minute trip. The weather is still calm, but the south wind, for which this region is world-famous, is about to come up, making the paddle back to the mainland difficult, if not plain dangerous. We are scanning Penguin Colony 2 for a potential candidate to carry our GPS logger and settle for a penguin at the northern edge of the colony—easily accessible, in good condition, two healthy downy chicks. I leopard-crawl into the colony, trying not to upset the general peace, and slowly grab our penguin. An easy catch.

Halifax Island: Halifax Island in southern Namibia, home to about 6,000 African penguins.
Photo: Jessica Kemper | Namibia Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources 

After retreating some 20 m from the colony, with my victim held securely under my arm, we quickly weigh and measure the bird, a female. While I gently but firmly hold the bird across my lap, her eyes covered, her heart racing, but not struggling to get away, Katta expertly fixes the small device to the lower back of the penguin by weaving strips of Tesa® tape into the feathers and wrapping the loose ends over the logger. The beauty of this method is that the logger can be taken off again without any damage to the feathers; that’s important because feather damage would compromise the bird’s waterproofing and therefore its survival, clearly not what we intend. The seawater will eventually take its toll on the effectiveness of the tape and after a week or so the tape will start to come apart. But that’s not a problem for us, because we will collect our logger again long before this becomes an issue.

Five minutes later the logger is securely affixed and I release our penguin next to her nest. Usually a penguin quickly settles back at the nest with the chicks, breathes a sigh of relief and carries on contemplating life, but this time our bird just takes off, dashing through the colony, panic-stricken, away from me, away from her chicks. From a distance we watch the nest for a while, hoping our penguin would return, but she is nowhere to be seen. With the south wind picking up we decide to call it a morning and paddle back to land and a hot cup of tea. I am left with a niggling feeling that we have a particularly uncooperative bird on our hands. Catching her again to take the logger off might be tricky now that she knows what to expect.

Keep reading with Part 3 of this series, where the researchers return to the island for their first attempt to retrieve the GPS logger. Things don't go entirely as planned!

Can't wait, need more penguins right now? 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. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Guest Post | An uncooperative African Penguin: Part 1

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 her following guest posts, she will share a bit about working with wild penguins.

My name is Jessica and I am a penguin biologist. I live in the pretty little harbor town of Lüderitz on the southern coast of Namibia. Most of my fieldwork takes place on Halifax Island, home nearly 6,000 African penguins and about 10 km west of town as the crow flies.

For the last eight years my colleague Dr. Katrin Ludynia, aka Katta, from the University of Cape Town in South Africa has teamed up with me for a project that involves deploying GPS data loggers on unsuspecting breeding African penguins. These loggers regularly record over time the position of a penguin as well as other information such as time, dive depth and water temperature. This in turn provides important insights on penguin foraging areas, habitats, ranges and behavior which are vital for guiding conservation management of this endangered species.

Logger arriving and greeting partner: Home after a foraging trip, a penguin 
bearing one of our GPS loggers arrives back in its nest.
Photo: Jessica Kemper | Namibia Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources

The general idea is to equip a penguin with such a device for about two days to obtain precise details of one foraging trip. The device is small enough not to be a burden to the penguin, but it also means that it is limited in terms of how much data can be stored; its battery life span is about three days. The device has to be retrieved in order to download the data and great care is therefore needed to choose a penguin that is likely to return to the colony after a foraging trip. Katta and I have done this many, many times and by now are pretty good at choosing the right penguin to carry our precious piece of equipment.

How to select the perfect candidate…the trick is to find an accessible (but not isolated) nest with a relaxed-looking penguin caring for one or two well-fed, medium- to large-sized downy chicks. At this stage of chick development, African penguins are strongly bonded with their offspring and the chicks are still small enough to be looked after by one parent (while the other one is away foraging, usually for about a day). Choosing smaller chicks is unwise, as the disturbance created by catching the parent may cause nest abandonment at that stage. Small chicks are also at greater risk of being viciously attacked by upset penguins nesting next door or by marauding kelp gulls while the parent is being equipped. Choosing chicks close to fledging age may also be problematic; at that stage parental commitment may be abating as the chicks are subtly encouraged to start fending for themselves.

Keep reading with Part 2 of this series. Everything starts out according to plan, but the researchers quickly realize they are working with an unusual penguin!

Can't wait, need more penguins right now? 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. 

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Myth #1: “Someone stole a penguin?!?”

When people find out that I work at the Aquarium, there is no shortage of questions and interesting small talk. I often get asked: “Is it true that a child stole a penguin and brought it home in his backpack?”

Don’t be alarmed. All of our penguins are present and accounted for and this story is a common urban legend that has been circulating for years.

All penguins present and accounted for!

While the details vary from telling to telling; the main gist of the story is that a child wearing a backpack gets separated from their family or school group. Once reunited the child wants to go home. At home the child goes and takes a bath. After hearing lots of splashing in the tub, the parents check in and are surprised to find a penguin in the tub with the child. The penguin is immediately returned to the Aquarium and the embarrassed parents reprimand their child.

As crazy as this story sounds many people are fooled into thinking that it’s true. Here are a few key reasons why this could not really happen at our Aquarium:
  • First: the design of our exhibit makes it pretty difficult for a person to get in and out unnoticed. All penguin personnel wear wetsuits in the exhibit every day to feed and take care of our penguins and a soaking wet child would be quite noticeable. 
As you can see, the volunteers are wading around the exhibit in a wetsuit,
while visitors look on from above. 
  • Second: penguins are quite vocal when being picked up and transported. It is doubtful that a penguin in a backpack would go quietly.  



  • And most importantly is the fact that our penguins like most wild animals do not like to be handled or picked up. Although relatively small, our penguins are very strong, and would put up a fight. As staff, we are trained to handle them safely. But even with our skills the penguins will occasionally bite us. It seems pretty unlikely that a child would be able to capture a penguin and force it into a backpack and come out unscathed.  

Educator Jo Blasi wears a glove and forearm protectors while volunteering with
 a penguin rescue program in South Africa
.

Since so many people asked about this myth in 2006 we held a press conference, to assure the public that none of our penguins were penguin-napped.

Learn more about the penguins at the Aquarium:
Better yet, come visit!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Macaroni vs. rockhopper penguins

Often while in the penguin exhibit we hear visitors ask if we have macaroni penguins. At first this may sound quite weird. Is there even a species of penguin called the macaroni and if there is, why would they be named after a type of pasta?

Macaroni penguin

Well, there is in fact a species of penguin called the macaroni penguin (Eudyptes chrysolophus). They are one of the 7 penguin species in the crested penguin family. All seven species have characteristic yellow crest feathers on their heads. Southern rockhoppers (Eudyptes chrysocome) are members of the crested penguin family, which are often confused for macaronis at the Aquarium. One distinct difference between macaroni penguins and rockhoppers is how their crest feathers are “styled”.  Rockhoppers have crest feathers that start over their eyes like eyebrows and then branch off the sides of their heads while the more golden or orange crests of a macaroni penguin start at a point above their beaks and flair out past the eyes. Macaroni penguins also have larger, blunter beaks; stand over 2 feet tall and can weigh up to 14 pounds.

Southern rockhopper penguin

Both rockhopper and macaroni penguins have very large distributions ranges in the sub-Antarctic region and overlap in many locations like the Falkland Islands and other sub-Antarctic Islands like Kerguelen Island, Prince Edward and Marion Island. They also share many distinct behaviors. Both types of penguins are surface nester, meaning they build nests on open surfaces by collecting rocks, twigs and whatever else they can find. They also lay dimorphic eggs which mean the two eggs a female will lay will be noticeably different sizes

Ecstatic display by one of our rockhopper penguins

To impress a mate both types of penguins will perform ecstatic displays consisting of a bow forward, extension the head and neck straight up followed by loud vocalizations and shaking their heads back and forth displaying their beautiful crest feathers.



Now the burning question: how did the macaroni penguins get such a silly name?

Macaronism was a style of dress popular in 18th century Europe, consisting of elaborate outfits, oftentimes including hats with large ornate feathers on them. People who adopted this style were called macaronis. In the early 19th century, English sailors on the Falkland Islands saw macaroni penguins with their elaborate crest feathers and named them macaronis.

The line “He put a feather in his cap and called it macaroni” from the song Yankee Doodle also refers to that fancy fashion style.