Year of the Penguin

By Mike Macek, curator of birds
stlzoo magazine, March/April 2006

At this year's Academy Awards ceremony, the actors and directors won't be the only ones wearing "penguin suits." The documentary March of the Penguins and the animated film Madagascar made the "tuxedoed" birds popular with moviegoers in 2005. However, neither film represented "typical" penguins.

For example, of the 17 species of penguins, only two are found in true Antarctic habitats. Most penguins live in sub-Antarctic, temperate or even tropical regions. And as far as I know, no species has ever hijacked a ship. Still, these films have charmed kids and adults alike and have forever marked the year 2005 as the "Year of the Penguin." Last year also witnessed great advances in the Saint Louis Zoo's penguin collection and the Center for the Conservation of the Humboldt Penguins in Punta San Juan, Peru.

The year saw the first hatchings of three penguin species since the opening of Penguin and Puffin Coast in 2003. The king, gentoo and Humboldt penguins all produced chicks, and the rockhooper penguins laid eggs for the first time since arriving at the Zoo. Captive penguins often don't resume normal breeding cycles for up to three years after being transferred to a new facility. Our birds resumed normal breeding in just two years. The Humboldt penguin colony increased by the addition of six new birds received from other North American zoos. These transfers followed the recommendations of the Species Survival Plan.

2005 also featured a long-awaited study of visitors to the Penguin and Puffin Coast exhibit. In July and August, an external strategic marketing, research and planning firm, the Qualis Company, conducted an observation/tracking and exit visitor survey study. The study confirmed that all components of the Penguin and Puffin Coast work together to generate desired learning experiences which clearly are anchored in encounters with the animals.

In Punta San Juan, Peru, the site of our WildCare Institute's Humboldt Penguin Conservation Center, we continue careful monitoring of the penguin population. We funded facility improvements and initiated a new education program in 2005. Punta San Juan is home to the largest Peruvian breeding population (4,500 penguins) of the threatened Humboldt penguin. The Saint Louis Zoo, with the help of our conservation partners, the Brookfield Zoo and the Philadelphia Zoo, support the field station facilities and staff. The staff in Punta San Juan routinely monitors the numbers of individual penguins and nests, records biometric measurements of both adults and chicks, the level of reproductive successes, molt patterns, and causes of mortality. The staff also monitors the activities of individually-marked birds. Seventy-seven adult penguins and 75 chicks were identified with individual wing bands in 2004 and monitored throughout 2005.

The Humboldt Penguin Conservation Center also funded one of the most important elements of the Punta San Juan facility. Located on a peninsula, Punta San Juan is protected from human and feral animal intrusion by a ten foot, mile-long concrete wall. The harsh desert and ocean winds have damaged the wall to the point that it no longer provides a safe haven for the penguins. With funds provided by the Saint Louis Zoo, 84 wall panels will be repaired and 33 panels replaced to secure the safety of the birds in this most important breeding site.

The Humboldt Penguin Conservation Center added a new conservation partner, ACOREMA (Areas Costeras Y Recursos Marinos), a conservation education non-governmental organization, which focuses its efforts on coastal and marine resources. The Zoo supports ACOREMA's efforts in promoting Humboldt penguin conservation and survival in the Pisco/Paracas area of Peru.

What do we have planned for this year? In Punta San Juan, we will expand our relationships with our North American and Peruvian partners during this coming year. In the late fall, we'll conduct a census of the entire Peruvian population of Humboldt penguins. And at year's end, we plan to conduct a Population Habitat and Viability Assessment (PHVA) of both the Chilean and Peruvian penguin populations. This assessment is essential to the future of Humboldt penguins. It will take place in Lima, Peru, and include all stakeholders: scientists, educators, non-governmental agencies, and local community representatives. The group will use in-depth analysis of life histories, population dynamics, ecology, demography, genetics and environmental factors to model extinction risk assessments for the species. This process will produce vital action plans for the future of the Humboldt penguin.

We hope that all this work together will help make 2006 another great "Year of the Penguin" for our Zoo populations.