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January 2021

The Penguin Glow: Penguins Teach Us about Hope and Resilience

Magellanic Penguins by Charles Bergman

The Penguin Glow: Penguins Teach Us about Hope and Resilience

By Charles Bergman, author of Every Penguin in the World: A Quest to See Them All

My wife, Susan Mann, and I were sitting on a chunk of ice on the shore of Neko Harbor on the Antarctic Peninsula. A light snow was falling. We had stopped here to watch a Gentoo Penguin sitting on an egg in its nest of pebbles.

The penguin rose to its feet. Its bright orange beak pointed to a small hole in the egg. We could see the tip of the chick’s beak. A penguin was hatching.

It seemed almost miraculous. In this harsh climate—one of the most unforgiving places on earth—we watched as this tiny chick emerged from the egg.

For seventeen years, my wife Susan and I traveled throughout the Southern Hemisphere on a quest to see all eighteen of the world’s species of penguins in the wild. Our journeys took us to some of the wildest and most remote places on the planet. This was one of the most memorable moments in our quest because it embodied something at the heart of the appeal penguins have for us.

Penguins offer living lessons in hope and resilience.

Gentoo Penguin with chick hatching by Charles Bergman
Gentoo Penguin with its chick hatching from an egg
Photo credit: Charles Bergman

We find ourselves slouching into a new year. Weary, worried, and burdened, we are living through a dark time of an out-of-control virus, the violence in our presidential election, and a planet careening toward disaster. Penguins are one of the best antidotes to despair that I know.

The most beloved birds in the world, penguins can help provide hope and relieve the gloom in three ways: through an intimate connection to wild animals, the transformative power of awe and wonder, and the healing effects of laughter.

Magellanic Penguins by Charles Bergman
Magellanic Penguins gathering together at dusk at El Pedral Reserve, Punta Ninfas, Argentina.
Photo credit: Charles Bergman

Lesson 1: An Intimate Connection to Wild Animals

One of my favorite places on the Antarctic Peninsula is Port Lockroy. Founded as a British research station, it now also has a gift shop and post office. You can mail post-cards from here that will travel through the United Kingdom and on to your friends and family, bearing an Antarctic postmark. Research on the Gentoo Penguins is on-going and long-term.

Penguins are everywhere. Several are nesting under the porch. Some are standing on the porch. You will encounter them on the path. The penguins always have the right of way.

The last time I was at Port Lockroy, three pairs of penguins were nesting on a large rock near the entrance to the building. They were right next to the path and at eye level on the rock.

Each nest had two chicks. It was a great place to linger and watch the penguins interact with their chicks. It was an intimate encounter, a chance to linger and enter into their world.

Gentoo Penguin with its chicks at Port Lockroy, Antarctica. Photo by Charles Bergman
Gentoo Penguin with its chicks at Port Lockroy, Antarctica.
Photo credit: Charles Bergman

A central element of the charm of penguins in Antarctica was on full display. They offer a wildlife experience like no other in the world. The penguins do not flee from you. You can sit beside nesting penguins—even with chicks—and they don’t scramble away. They are gloriously unafraid of people. In fact, you may encounter a penguin that will waddle right up to you, look you in the eye, its head tilting and its eyes unblinking, trying to figure you out.

I have had penguins hop onto my boots as I was photographing. As I lay on the ground to take a photo, one penguin nipped at my pants and my jacket. I have had penguins come right up to the camera and peer at me through the lens.

Emperor Penguin chicks at Snow Hill, Antarctica.
Photo credit: Charles Bergman

Plus, with penguins, the cute factor is off the charts. At Port Lockroy, the parents and the chicks were incredibly cute. The chicks had huge stomachs, tiny wings, and sweet faces. The tender solicitations of the parents were intimate and moving.

The encounters are magical, moving, and unforgettable. They will remind you of the restorative power of contact with wild animals. They’re models of resilience.

Lesson 2: The Necessity of Awe and Wonder

Antarctica is a continent of wonders, at once humbling in its vastness and daunting in its ferocious beauty.

On one memorable trip to the peninsula, we anchored next to “Iceberg Alley.” It’s a kind of backwater where icebergs have run aground and are stranded. Small groups of Adélie Penguins often rest on these icebergs.

We got into Zodiacs, the inflatable boats that take us to shore or, as in this case, enable us to wander among the arrested icebergs. Wind and sun have carved the icebergs into a fantasy-land of dreamy shapes.

You may think of Antarctica as a white continent. But the ice often glows, as the icebergs here did, in exquisite shades of blue. The whole scene stretches your mind and lights up your imagination.

In the midst of this strange world of sculpted ice, we were astonished to discover four humpback whales feeding on krill. We spent an hour with them. They often came up near us. They were much bigger than the Zodiacs. Each one weighed about 25 tons.

Chinstrap Penguin with chicks. Photo by Charles Bergman
Chinstrap Penguin with chicks at Hydrurga Rocks, Antarctica.
Photo credit: Charles Bergman

The scope and scale of the world in Antarctica is staggering. Antarctica and its wildlife will make you feel small. It’s similar to the feeling you get with penguins. Their tender intimacies contrast dramatically with the vast immensity and the unforgiving harshness of the surrounding landscapes.

They will leave you with a sense of awakened wonder and awe. I find these moments in Antarctica humbling, in a deeply ethical and transformative way. You may feel small, but you do not feel insignificant.

As one of the great heroes of Antarctic exploration, Ernest Shackleton, put it, “You feel bigger in the bigness of the whole.”  

Lesson 3: The Healing Power of Laughter

It’s almost impossible to feel miserable in the company of penguins. Perhaps you are feeling overwhelmed. Perhaps even defeated and near despair. Penguins are invaluable as diversion and consolation. They will almost certainly make you laugh. They put a smile on your face.

A line of penguins parades past you, with their characteristic and comical waddle, so serious, so purposeful, so pretentious even. Then one will slip on the ice and do a faceplant in the snow. Or one suddenly slaps a neighbor with its flipper, and they break into a screaming chase.

Pride and a pratfall. Slapstick on ice.

You can’t help but laugh. They are the beloved clowns at the bottom of the world.

One time I was photographing a colony of Gentoo Penguins, all faced to the sea, looking in the direction of the setting sun. As a spectacular sunset began to fill the sky, I walked around behind them. I wanted a photo of penguins watching the sunset.

Gentoo Penguins at sunset in the Falkland Islands.
Photo credit: Charles Bergman

I busied myself with my tripod and camera, getting ready for the shot. Then I looked up again. I had to laugh out loud. All of the penguins had turned around. They were now facing me. I found myself wondering, who exactly is watching whom?

As I photographed them watching me, I had a smile on my face the whole time.

A connection with animals, a sense of wonder and awe, and a comic charm—the feeling you get in the company of penguins is unlike that of any other creature. My wife and I have a name for this unique penguin feeling, which is both healing and hopeful. We call it the penguin glow.

Our darkened world needs more of the penguin glow right now.

Charles Bergman is author of Every Penguin in the World: A Quest to See Them All
He can be contacted at
bergman [at] plu.edu

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Picking the perfect penguin partner

Northern Rockhopper Penguins

Picking the Perfect Penguin Partner, AKA Using “The Studbook”

By Lorna Moffat, Penguin Keeper

Zoos use a studbook to keep track of penguin lineage

What does a male or female penguin look for in a mate? Is it being gifted the perfect pebble? Winning the desired nest spot? Sporting a thickest bonnet or longer crest than the average male? There is a lot to consider and picking the perfect penguin partner is vital to producing the strongest offspring.
Gentoo pair ecstatic calls
Gentoo penguins
Northern Rockhopper Penguins
Image 1: Bonded Gentoo Penguin pair ecstatic displaying (trumpeting), Image 2: Nesting Gentoo Penguin, Image 3: Northern Rockhopper pair sitting on egg
Photo credit: Lorna Moffat

First, a little background information on Gentoo Penguins

Classed as “Least Concern” under the IUCN Red List 3, Gentoo Penguins (Pygoscelis papua) face many threats in the wild including over-fishing, plastic pollution, and rising sea temperatures. With an estimated 390,000 wild breeding pairs, distributed along Crozet Island, Falkland Island and South Georgia 3, all chicks that hatch are crucial to future generations. Conservation efforts are ongoing to not only protect penguins, but the ecosystem as a whole: i.e. Falkands Conservation analyse breeding success annually via population counts, maintain nesting sites and good relationships with local fisheries 5.

Gentoo Penguin colony
Image 4: A Gentoo Penguin breeding colony on Sea Lion Island, Falkland Islands
Photo credit: Lorna Moffat

Breeding management in captive populations = Studbooks

With wild breeding success fluctuating each year, zoos and aquariums work hard to maintain global captive populations through breeding programmes to sustain genetic diversity as well as providing them with high standards of husbandry with regards to veterinary care, enclosure design and nutritional requirements.

Gentoo Penguin with two chicks
Image 5: Colin and his two chicks at EZ – each chick being identified by a coloured “scooby” band
Photo credit: Lorna Moffat
 

Most zoos and aquariums are members of an accredited regional organisation such as EAZA (European Association of Zoos and Aquaria), ZAA (Zoo and Aquarium Association) or AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquaria). Each association has established Taxon Advisory Groups (TAGs) – groups which specialise in a group of animals such as penguins, birds, cats. One role of a TAG is to implement how each species is managed with regards to breeding – assessing the conservation status, global/captive population status and what species is housed where 4. Different regions have their own established breeding programmes: European Gentoo populations are managed as an ESB (European studbook) by RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, and as a Green SSP (Species Survival Plan) Programme by Sydney Aquarium (Australia) and San Diego SeaWorld (North America) 1. It is important that regional holders keep in close contact with each other in order to sustain captive populations.

Studbook keepers manage the studbooks

Studbook keepers are people with a specialised interest in and has worked (or working with) the species. However, it is not as simple as putting 20 males in with 20 females and breeding as many chicks as possible. Managing colonial species such as penguins is different to species like tigers: one male + one female = cubs. You cannot predict which birds will pair up together meaning that each colony should have the correct genetic diversity limiting chances of inbreeding between related birds. Studbooks are designed to be able to analyse these genetic demographics via databases such as ZIMS (Zoological Information Management System) (previously via SPARKS) 4. Every bird entered into the database has their own record (an equivalent to a “Tinder” profile), holding information such as hatch date, location, sex, rearing type, taxonomy, local identity number, tags, chips and most importantly – parental lineage. All this information is pulled from their own animal record which is why ZIMS is a great platform as it holds all information (medical notes, husbandry notes, weights, pedigree line) on one database.

A studbook keeper’s main role is to maintain these records, as well as analyse the genetics of each colony and make recommendations to institutes (i.e. swapping 10 birds with another collection). With over 800 Gentoos from 37+ institutes being listed on the ESB on ZIMS, it is essential that all collections hold accurate animal records as this information could be crucial with where the bird is housed and with whom.

And then there are sub-species of penguins (likely to be classified as new species someday)

Another thing to consider are sub-species. Gentoos that breed farther south in colder temperatures are subtly morphologically different to Northern populations, meaning that there are two classified sub-species: the Southern species (Pygoscelis papua ellsworthi) that breed on the Peninsula (South Orkney/Nelson Island) and the larger, Northern (Falkland) species (Pygoscelis papua papua). These morphological differences are very subtle and may be down to varied oceanic conditions 5. Gentoos that have unknown wild lineage in captivity are classed as Pygoscelis papua. With these sub-species in mind, many collections have specific species – i.e. Loro Parque in Tenerife and SeaWorld in North America have the Falklands line, and The Deep in England have predominantly Ellsworthi line. This means that it is easier to keep captive lines pure with the knowledge of where their wild genes originated from and attempt to eliminate hybridisation. 

Penguin breeding success at Edinburgh Zoo

Edinburgh Zoo (Royal Zoological Society of Scotland) has had great breeding success over the past 60 years with a current population of 96 gentoos being housed with 25 Northern Rockhopper (Eudyptes moseleyi) and 5 King Penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus). The zoo was also the first captive collection in the world to successfully breed the famous King Penguin. There are many factors aiding this breeding success: Established breeding protocols, high standards of husbandry as well as a team of dedicated keepers. By keeping in contact with institutions that hold the species, this means that teams can share methods and give out advice aiding in improved husbandry guidelines as well as higher chick survival rates.

Gentoo Penguin building its nest
Image 6: Gentoo Penguin nest-site at “Penguins Rock”, Edinburgh Zoo
Photo credit: Lorna Moffat

Edinburgh penguins are identified by coloured flipper-bands located on the left flipper for female, right for male (devised of coloured hama beads threaded onto cable ties) This means that during the breeding season accurate information such as sire, dam and clutch records can be kept which will then be entered onto ZIMS. It is vital to know who the sire and dam are of each chick, to prevent inbreeding, passing on of traits such as leucism breeding from birds that are over-represented in the colony as well as tracing genetic lineages.  

Gentoo Penguin in artificial nest
Image 7: Gentoo Penguin “Kevin” at EZ with gold flipper-band on right flipper as form of identity.
Photo credit: Lorna Moffat

The studbook: Essential to the survival of the various penguin species

Maintaining studbooks means that genetic lineages can be traced back to wild birds that were brought into captivity (100+ years ago) when it was legal practice to remove birds/eggs from the wild. Birds that have wild genes only a few generations up the line (i.e. grandparents) are desired individuals to breed from as their genes are more under-represented in than birds that have wild genes 8 generations up the line.

The IUCN issued a ‘Captive Breeding Policy’ in 1987 stating that all zoos holding wild animals should aim to achieve self-sustaining, genetically diverse populations – and today this is being carried out by zoos and aquariums; not just by breeding genetically viable offspring, but by educating visitors on the role of good zoos and how they are helping the species not just in captivity, but in the wild too.

Uncover more fascinating facts in some of our other blogs:

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References

  1. Association of Zoos and Aquariums (2019). Species Survival Plan (SSP) Programme. [Online]. Available at: https://www.aza.org/species-survival-plan-programs
  2. Borboroglu, P.G. & Boersma, P.D. (2013). Penguins: Natural History and Conservation.
  3. Birdlife International. (2019). Gentoo Penguin (Pygoscelis papua). [Online]. Available at: http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/factsheet/gentoo-penguin-pygoscelis-papua/text
  4. EAZA (European Association of Zoo and Aquaria) (2019). Specialist programmes. [Online]. Available at: https://www.eaza.net/conservation/programmes/
  5. Falklands Conservation. (2019). Conservation Action. [Online]. Available at: https://www.falklandsconservation.com/conservation-action
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