Notes from the Field: Antarctica’s Influence on Penguin Habitat Design

As I walk to and from my office every day at the Detroit Zoo, I watch the Polk Penguin Conservation Center taking shape and I revel in its beauty. Now, after returning from an expedition to Antarctica, I marvel in how the design of the building truly resembles the tabular icebergs found there.

As the Detroit Zoological Society’s associate curator of birds with 22 years of experience working with penguins, I felt right at home in Antarctica – between the overwhelming smell of penguin guano, the sound of penguin chicks vocalizing and the pitter-patter of penguin feet as they walked to and from their nests. It was awe inspiring to witness their natural behaviors, from lying on the ice if they were too hot to collecting rocks for nesting to porpoising in and out of the water while foraging for food.

While designing a new habitat for the penguins at the Detroit Zoo, we consider all of these things and provide opportunities for the aquatic birds to exhibit these behaviors. It was fascinating to observe penguins tobogganing – lying on their bellies and moving through the snow with their flippers – a form of transportation for penguins in a hurry. We were also fortunate to see many chicks near fledging – parents were returning from the sea with full bellies of food for their chicks, and some chicks were taking their first swim in the water. I knew we would encounter three species of penguins – Adelies, gentoos and chinstraps – but I was astounded to see the one lone macaroni penguin that lives amongst a colony of chinstrap penguins.

Observing thousands of gentoos was a highlight of the trip, as it is a fairly new species to the Detroit Zoo, and the 20 gentoo penguins currently in quarantine at the Zoo will be a wonderful addition to the penguin population here.

These observations of how penguins spend their time in the wild will directly influence the home we provide for penguins at the Detroit Zoo. We can include more rocks in the penguins’ habitat, offer a variety of nesting materials other than rocks, provide hills of snow for climbing – not just for standing on – and we can let the penguins choose their nesting site, even if we think there is a better location.

Wonderful conversations transpired among animal care staff, veterinarians and researchers – including world-renowned polar ecologist and penguin expert Dr. Bill Fraser and his wife Donna Patterson-Fraser – all of us sharing our observations and questions with each other about what we were seeing in the field. One of our final destinations was to the U.S. Palmer Station to pick up Matthew Porter, a bird department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society. He has been assisting the “Seabird” field team, a division of the Long Term Ecological Research Network, focusing on penguin research for the last few months. Matthew – and those of us on this expedition – will be sharing the wealth of knowledge we have gained from this experience with staff and guests at the Detroit Zoo.

– Bonnie Van Dam is the associate curator of birds for the Detroit Zoological Society.

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