Veterinary Care – Antarctica Brings a New Respect for Penguins

I have a new respect for penguins. As one of the veterinarians at the Detroit Zoo, I know a lot about these aquatic birds – how to collect blood from a penguin, how to anesthetize a penguin, what types of medications I can give to a penguin, and how the inside of a penguin should look on a radiograph (X-ray image). In fact, the day before I left for an expedition to Antarctica, my veterinary ophthalmology colleagues and I restored vision to two of our rockhopper penguins by performing surgery to remove their cataracts. However, after visiting these amazing little birds on their home turf and seeing how they live their daily lives, I realize that I had no idea how a penguin actually “works”.

Antarctic penguins live incredibly harsh lives, but they make it look simple. They appear to be perfectly at home in 29°F salt water. That is not a misprint. The salt causes the water to freeze at a lower temperature than fresh water, so they actually swim daily in water than would be frozen if it were in the Great Lakes. We saw penguins everywhere in the water, swimming like bullets and porpoising with ease at high speeds. Penguins, in fact, live most of their lives at sea. Their only use for land is during a relatively brief nesting, breeding and molting season. Our visit to Antarctica took place during the austral summer and, at this time, the penguins are on land for breeding. Although their stout little bodies and short legs are much more suited to swimming, they manage to navigate rocks of all shapes and sizes, sometimes climbing steep and treacherous cliffs to get to their chicks. Aside from a few relatively flat beaches, we rarely saw penguins walking on level surfaces. They do fall occasionally, sometime frequently, but they get up every time and continue on their mission.

Late in the breeding season – when we arrived – penguin parents spend hours hunting for food in the water and then return to feed their chicks, who are at this point nearly the same size as their parents.  After the parents have hunted all day – making difficult and treacherous climbs up the rocks – their large, pudgy chicks seem much more greedy than grateful for all of the parents’ hard work and dedication.  After feeding all that they have to their chicks, the adults head directly back down the treacherous rocky cliffs and back into sub-freezing cold water to start over again.

These amazing birds live such a hard life, and they make it make it look easy. Or maybe not easy, but they manage it. Because it’s what they do. It’s how they “work”. Now that I’m back at the Zoo working with our penguins, I have so much more awe and respect for these amazing creatures, and I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to witness the workings of wild penguins firsthand.

– Dr. Sarah Woodhouse is a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society.

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