Penguins

 
 

Dallas Zoo animals bring smiles to tiny hospital patients and beyond

A small Children’s Health patient prepares to meet a Dallas Zoo animal ambassador penguin along with Outreach Supervisor Shannon College.

Whether it’s a tamandua high up in the sky at Reunion Tower or penguins at a Texas Rangers ballgame, you never quite know where the Dallas Zoo’s Animal Adventures outreach team will go next. With just seven staff members, the team carries out nearly 1,000 animal outreach programs a year across North Texas, bringing animal encounters to places like, schools, hospitals, businesses, convention centers, and many iconic Dallas locations.

When the small staff is not on the road, they’re tending to the needs of the 40 educational ambassador animals that delight, inspire and educate those attending an outreach experience. The job sounds demanding, however for Animal Adventures outreach team manager, Allyssa Leslie, the well-being of the ambassador animals remains top priority, “We work hard to ensure our animals feel safe and comfortable traveling with us. It’s great to see that when we go out to these events, the animals choose to come out with us because they know they’re safe and it’s interesting for them to go to new places.”

Despite all the variety this team experiences, some trips are so special that they’re repeated over and over again. Thanks to the Simmons Animal Safari program, and a treasured partnership with Children’s Health established in 2014, the outreach team returns to the hospital every few months to provide magical up-close animal encounters to small patients overcoming big obstacles.

The outreach team, including two-toed sloth Lola and African penguin duo, Sid and Jazz, arrive with the humble goal of encouraging smiles while gifting a special experience to those families who have more on their plate than planning a trip to the Zoo at this time.

Excitement filled the room as the children enjoyed the animals on stage.

“Even for the children that cannot physically come down to see the presentation, Children’s Health broadcasts the program into their rooms so they can enjoy it as well,” Leslie shares of the experience, “We are glad to be able to go out and hopefully bring some joy and fun memories for the patients and their families.”

Following the animal presentation, families are encouraged to come up close and commemorate the experience with a photo with an animal ambassador. Leslie watches on as the patients eagerly line up to have their moment at the front of the stage, “It’s so wonderful to see the excitement on the kids and their families’ faces when they get to see the animals so close!” she gushes.

At the close of the presentation, one last parting gift is revealed, each family is given tickets as a standing invitation to visit the Dallas Zoo. We look forward to many future visits to Children’s Health, bringing enjoyment to these extraordinary kids and their families with each animal encounter.

(Interested in hosting an Animal Adventures outreach program? Click here for more information.)

Categories: Education, Events, Penguins, Wild Encounters | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment
 
 

Saving African penguins with a new home

 

Two penguins standing in front of one of the artificial nests.

“Penguins have been decimated by what people have done to them,” said Kevin Graham, bird supervisor at the Dallas Zoo. “We’ve done everything we can to wipe African penguins off the planet. We’ve stolen their eggs by the hundreds of thousands, we’ve polluted their environment, we’ve taken all their fish, we’ve taken their nest area, we’ve introduced predators and we’ve introduced disease. It’s about time we do something to help them.”

Kevin on Dyer Island installing the nests.

African penguins burrow and nest in guano, a term for their poop. About 110 years ago, there were over a million guano nests for African black-footed penguins. But South African natives started stealing the guano to use as fertilizer. Right now, there are only about 27 natural guano nests left. This has left the critically endangered African penguin population in serious trouble.

For the past three years, Kevin has been trying to resolve that problem. In addition to working with birds at the Zoo, he is also the artificial nest development project coordinator for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). He studies, builds and installs artificial guano nests for African penguins to lay eggs in. And after three years of research and testing, he was finally able to install nests in South Africa along with the help of our incredible partners, Dyer Island Conservation Trust and Pan-African Association of Zoos and Aquaria (PAAZA).

Over the course of two weeks this past February, Kevin and our Association of Zoos and Aquariums partners built and installed 200 nests in two South African penguin colonies. (Thanks to our Invest in the Nest Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign that helped AZA-accredited zoos raise the funds for this project!) And great news — the penguins seemed to settle into their new homes very quickly. At the end of February, 40 percent of the nests in one colony already had eggs in them, and 25 percent of the nests in the other colony had eggs! Kevin gets updates frequently on more and more eggs being laid.

African penguins will no longer have to incubate their nests in the open sun, and their eggs will be more protected from predators.

Over the next few months, Kevin and his team will be collecting environmental data from the nests. Once they’ve analyzed the data to ensure the nests are in tiptop shape for the penguins, they will start building 3,000 more nests to install. Long-term, he hopes to have 6-7,000 installed nests in total.

“If everything goes well and these nests continue to work, then we can keep giving them homes,” said Graham. “Each one we build is in an environmentally friendly deposit. We can’t solve the population decline with just the nests. Over-fishing, climate change, marine pollution, introduced pests, human incursion, habitat degradation—all of that has to be addressed. But at least if nothing else, we can give them a place to raise kids.”

Categories: Africa, Penguins | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Animals visit brave patients at Children’s Health

 

The Dallas Zoo’s wonderful partnership with Children’s Health, one of the top pediatric health care providers in the nation, allows us to take patients’ minds off of the treatment they’re undergoing. Through the Simmons Animal Safari program, we’ve traveled to the hospital _MG_8354since 2014 for magical up-close animal encounters.

The Zoo recently paid a visit to Children’s Health with animal ambassadors who brought the smiles, including an opossum, a tamandua (also known as a lesser anteater), and an African crested porcupine with giant quills. Patients and their families sat eagerly, waving animal-themed masks as they waited to meet each new creature. As the Zoo’s Animal Adventures outreach team shared trivia and engaged with the kids, even hospital staff paused to see the show.

Engrossed in the moment, the kids animatedly shouted answers and shifted in their seats to see who they would meet next. The room came alive with excitement, spreading smiles from face to face as each animal ambassador said hello.

As penguin duo Sid and Jazz waddled into the spotlight, the room collectively gasped in delight, thrilled to meet two of our most beloved _MG_8383ambassadors. The kids enthusiastically asked questions as they learned about the Zoo’s African penguins. At the end of the presentation, patients and their families had the opportunity to take a photo with Sid or Jazz, capturing this moment forever.

As these brave families said their goodbyes to the animal ambassadors, we gifted them with one more surprise – each family was given tickets to the Zoo, including the patients who couldn’t make it down to meet us. We look forward to many future visits to Children’s Health, bringing enjoyment to these extraordinary kids and their families with each animal encounter.

Categories: Education, Penguins | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Saving penguins: A nesting nightmare in South Africa

Kevin Graham, Wilds of Africa bird supervisor, guest-blogs on ZooHoo!

Over the past 100 years, the population of African penguins has declined from more than two million breeding pairs to slightly more than 20,000 breeding pairs left. This dramatic decline has resulted from many factors, unfortunately all of which are human-related.

I’ve recently returned from a workshop and time studying the various remaining colonies of African penguins in the Cape Town area of South Africa. Along with our VP of Education and Conservation, Dr. Patty McGill, I had the privilege of meeting the people who work in the field with these native penguins. For quite some time, I will continue to work with them to develop a crucial nesting plan to help the birds and begin their recovery.

In the first half of the 20th Century, egg collection from the breeding range decimated the hatch rates, with estimates of more than 1.5 million eggs per year being destroyed or collected for food and other uses.

Around this same time, it was found that guano (bird feces) had accumulated to a depth of many feet on the breeding islands. The guano served as a perfect substrate for the penguins to dig their nest burrows, but it also was a valuable crop fertilizer. So humans scraped the guano from the islands, leaving the birds with few options for nesting burrows.

African penguins are now nesting in the open in some South African locations.

Penguins are now nesting in the open in some South African beach locations./Kevin Graham

These two events, in conjunction with catastrophic oil spills; and the impact of unrestricted commercial fishing; human encroachment into breeding ranges; and global climate change have compounded the challenges faced by the African penguin population.

Recently, organizations and colony managers in South Africa have tried to develop an artificial nest that African penguins could use to supplement the little remaining nesting habitat.

These attempts have seen limited success. In many cases, the penguins chose not to use the nesting structures, either due to overall design, excessive heat accumulation, ectoparasite buildup in the structure, and other potentially unknown factors.

In some locations, this has led penguins to nest on the surface, exposing their eggs and chicks to additional risks that weren’t as significant in the burrow nests. Predation from land mammals such as mongoose, aerial predators of eggs/chicks such as kelp gulls, and even pet and feral dogs pose dramatic risks to nesting penguins in exposed areas.

In addition, those exposed surface nests face the challenge of temperature extremes not found in the burrow nests, where temperatures are regulated by the surrounding substrate. This leads to a higher rate of nest abandonment when the climate is unsuitable for the adults to continue their nesting attempt.

Association of Zoos and Aquarium (AZA) member institutions, including the Dallas Zoo, have been strong partners in the protection and attempted recovery of African penguins for more than two decades. Recently, a new initiative to focus efforts was implemented: AZA’s Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) program.

I’m honored to have been given the opportunity to work with this program as the North American coordinator for the Artificial Nesting Project. I’ll be working collaboratively with organizations, researchers, and colony managers, all focused exclusively on creating a nesting system to help this highly endangered species recover.

While we can’t recreate the guano fields that disappeared more than 60 years ago, we will use our combined knowledge and skills in the zoological and research fields to develop a suitable option for the recovery of African penguins in South Africa and Namibia. I look forward to sharing these exciting options on ZooHoo! as they develop. (Visit our more than a dozen waddling, splashing and sunbathing African penguins at Zoo and discover the beauty of these remarkable birds we’re saving.)

Categories: Africa, Conservation, Penguins | Leave a comment

Conservation spotlight: A journey to Peru to count penguins

Dallas Zoo’s VP of Conservation and Education, Dr. Patty McGill, guest blogs on ZooHoo!

Humboldt penguins along the Peruvian coast. Photo credit: Austin McKahan, Kansas City Zoo digital marketing manager

Humboldt penguins along the Peruvian coast. Photo credit: Austin McKahan, Kansas City Zoo digital marketing manager

For 18 long days this past January, I joined more than 20 biologists from across the world to conduct a critical population census on Humboldt penguins along the Peruvian coasts. Our work started outside of Lima, and we made our way south to a site close to the border of Chile.

For 15 years, I’ve traveled to Peru in search of these vulnerable birds. I was part of an international team that designed the census methods in 1998, and I have worked to keep the census going almost every January since.

Nearly half of the Humboldt penguin population was wiped out during the 1997-98 El Niño. With 20,558 penguins tallied in January 2014, the small population is slowly rebounding, but still faces many climate and human-related threats.

Dr. Patty McGill pictured second from left, front row, with team of researchers from institutions including Kansas City Zoo and Saint Louis Zoo.

Dr. Patty McGill pictured second from left, front row, with team of researchers from institutions including Kansas City Zoo and Saint Louis Zoo./Austin McKahan

Our first expedition this year focused on two separate island groups. We began with Isla Asia. The fisherman we hired to take us to this island kept his 20-foot-long open wooden boat on a sandy beach. With no dock, we waded into the surf and as the fisherman watched the waves, we scrambled into the boat on his command. The journey to the island took nearly an hour, but we were entertained along the way by several groups of dolphins and hundreds of seabirds.

After finishing the counts around Isla Asia and all of the little rocky islets in the area, we went back to shore and drove a little farther north to another set of islands, the largest of which is Isla Pachacamac. The really unusual thing about this island is that there is a very large cave, open to the ocean, where penguins nest and also take shelter at other times of year. When the seas are calm, we can approach the point where the cave opens into the ocean; being very careful of submerged rocks, the fisherman steered his boat to the perfect place to peer into the dim light of the cave with our binoculars. We spotted 490 penguins!

Spotting the Humboldt penguins isn't easy on the rocky coasts.

Spotting the Humboldt penguins isn’t easy on the rocky coasts./Austin McKahan

Humboldt penguins are the BEST penguins – or at least that’s my opinion! They’re found on the coasts of Peru and Chile. You may wonder why they’re found well within the tropics, and perhaps you wonder even more why they nest along the coast edge of one of the driest deserts on Earth. In fact, it is so extremely dry that it almost never rains, leaving very few plants.

So how do penguins survive here? The ocean is extremely cold because the Humboldt Current flows across the Sub-Antarctic, then turns north and sweeps up the west coast of South America, providing cold and highly productive water. The fish there are very abundant. So penguins may not need frigid air and ice, but they always need cold water for finding food.

Binoculars were essential during the census./Austin McKahan

Binoculars were essential during the census./Austin McKahan

 

While in the field, we use a variety of boats to find these birds. In two locations, we charter small tourist boats that accommodate up to 20 people, even though our team is usually only about five at a time. But by chartering the whole boat, we can do two things: visit penguin sites, not tourist sites on the coast, and invite local colleagues and park rangers to participate.

At most locations, however, we hire local fishermen to take us to islands. Their boats are typically wooden and range in size from room for eight, down to tiny boats that will hold only three. It’s a big ocean for these small boats, even when we are usually within sight of the coast. These fishermen do not have compasses or GPS, but they know these islands and rocky peninsulas like the backs of their hands. The biggest challenge is dense fog – sometimes we have to stop and just sit until the fog lifts. That’s especially strange when we’re near an island and the cries of invisible sea lions and birds surround us in the fog!

Penguins in Peru

Photo by Austin McKahan

Sadly, like their Galápagos and African penguin relatives, Humboldt penguins have declined significantly. These penguins face a few serious challenges – declining food supply (fish); climate change and warming oceans which cause changes in ocean currents and productivity of the ocean; and human-related disturbances where penguins nest.

But the Dallas Zoo is working to help our guests discover penguins, and make pledges to help save these birds at home through simple actions, such as, eating sustainable seafood and reducing unnecessary use of electricity.

Our census work is very important in tracking what’s happening with penguins all along the Peruvian coast. I’m proud that we have maintained a consistent effort to monitor the fortunes of these birds for so many years. However, this year our results are concerning – at various sites, we’ve seen 15 to 50 percent fewer birds than in recent years. We think the numbers are still affected by El Niño, which causes warming of the coastal waters. We hope these magnificent penguins are finding ways to cope and that their numbers recover quickly. I look forward to reporting more in 2017.

Categories: Birds, Conservation, Penguins | 1 Comment

Brought to you by the Dallas Zoo