Keen-eyed visitors may have noticed some new inhabitants waddling around the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Splash Zone penguin exhibit. Four female African blackfooted penguins—three juveniles and one adult—recently arrived from the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.
The new penguins help fill out the exhibit and provide a better social environment. “It’s always been our goal to acquire more birds,” says Aviculturist Donielle York. “We also had an uneven sex ratio—five more males than females—competing for female attention, and this helps even things out.”
The new girls are easy to spot—all have a white band with red letters on their left wings. The three juveniles have all-black heads, while the adults have white “earmuffs” on either side. The young penguins also have an all-white chest, while the adults show a distinctive black upside-down “U” pattern. (See photo below—the juvenile is on the left.)
With the new additions, there are now 21 birds total, as you can see on our live Penguin Cam. You can even watch a narrated feeding at 10:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily.
Patiently Seeking Penguins
As much as the Aquarium wanted to add to the exhibit, it’s not possible to just go collect protected penguins. “We don’t want to take birds out of the wild,” says Donielle. “It’s not an acceptable practice with this species. The population is in decline.”
In fact, penguins are carefully managed under the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ “Species Survival Plan.” It’s a cooperative effort among institutions to ensure the survival of threatened and endangered wildlife. Every two years, the AZA asks institutions about their penguin plans—for instance, if they want to add or transfer animals, and whether those animals are males or females.
“The goal for the whole population,” says Donielle, “is to maintain genetic diversity.” This helps ensure that if something happened to wild penguins, the captive population would be healthy and viable, and could even help re-establish these charismatic animals in the wild.
Believe it or not, all the penguins on exhibit know their names. It’s a basic part of their training, helping them to respond to simple commands such as stepping on a scale for a medical exam or getting into a crate for transport. All the penguins on exhibit were named for places in their homeland of South Africa.
Observing this tradition, the Aquarium conducted a naming contest among its volunteers, and as a result, the four new arrivals are named for place names in Africa, including Betty (for Betty’s Bay), Messina, Oshana and Sabie.
A Happy Family
The new penguins are acting right at home in their new digs. Donielle initially fed them separately so they wouldn’t have to compete for food, “but by day two, they were mixing so well with the others, it wasn’t necessary. They’re were a few pecks and jabs at first, but now they’re interacting really well.”
Given the popularity of the exhibit, will the Aquarium acquire even more penguins in the future? “We did so much planning and looking forward to this,” says Doneille. “We’ll give this a couple of months and see how it changes the dynamic, then decide where to go from here.”