March of the Penguins: Polar Plunging Into Penguin Welfare

This month, the Detroit Zoological Society is bringing you not one, but three blog posts centered around our favorite flippered friends — the penguins who live at the Polk Penguin Conservation Center (read the first and second entry). The facility, which had been closed since 2019 due to waterproofing issues, reopened in February, and we can’t wait to share with you all the stories we have been saving over the past two and a half years.

In our final March of the Penguins entry, learn how animal care staff ensured the flock was thriving while its home was being repaired.

It has been a while since the public has been able to visit the penguins who call the Detroit Zoo home. You might have been wondering – what were the penguins doing during that time? In order to answer that question, staff and dedicated volunteers from the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics (CZAAWE) spent nearly every day monitoring the penguins for the last two and half years.

Megan Jones, a research associate for CZAAWE, collects data in the Polk Penguin Conservation Center.

While repairs were being made to the Polk Penguin Conservation Center (PPCC), the penguins returned to their previous habitat, the Penguinarium. Animal care staff went above and beyond to make their extended stay in the Penguinarium more comfortable, including bringing snow into the habitat and even letting the penguins walk around Zoo grounds. The penguins’ move provided us with an interesting opportunity to monitor their transition between habitats and compare how they used their previous space compared to their new home in the PPCC.

The PPCC was designed to give the penguins more opportunities to express natural behaviors. It contains a 326,000-gallon pool, which holds 10 times more water than their previous habitat and is equipped with an adjustable wave machine for the penguins to enjoy. Additional improvements were made while the building was closed for repairs, including adding second snow machine within the habitat, more nesting areas and enhanced lighting.

One of the important roles CZAAWE plays at the Detroit Zoo is monitoring how major habitat modifications impact an animal’s welfare. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums defines animal welfare as an animal’s physical, mental and emotional state over a period of time, which is measured on a continuum from good to poor. Since we can’t ask the penguins what they think about all of the new features, we have to rely on decoding their behavior. CZAAWE staff and volunteers have conducted more than 5,000 observations in order to understand how the new habitat impacts the penguins’ welfare. During every observation, CZAAWE staff and volunteers record several indicators of welfare, including the penguins’ behavior, their location within the habitat and the features of the habitat they are using. Our hope was to see the penguins use a variety of different features and locations within the habitat in addition to engaging in the same natural behaviors as their wild counterparts.

Some penguins explore the grounds while the Zoo is closed. Photo credit: Lauren Brown

We found preliminary results varied between each species. For example, the 25-foot-deep pool in the PPCC was successful in promoting swimming in king penguins, who swam more than 10 times more in the PPCC than in their previous habitat. The macaronis, rockhoppers and gentoos relished their new nesting sites, spending more time engaging in nest building behavior than they did in the Penguinarium. The gentoo penguins began to utilize the elevated nesting sites, a feature they did not use in their previous habitat. Additionally, the chinstraps had the opportunity to discover one of their favorite features of the new habitat – the underwater bubbles! Although we saw many positive signs from the penguins in their new home, CZAAWE’s monitoring revealed that the penguins continued to thrive during their stay in the Penguinarium. They maintained their use of the pool and engaged in a healthy variety of behaviors, which is often considered a positive indicator of welfare.

Arthur, a king penguin residing in the PPCC, enjoys his habitat. Photo credit: Megan Jones

Our research also revealed some patterns regarding the location of each species within their new habitat. The PPCC is split into two sides to emulate the natural habitats of all five species that live at the Detroit Zoo. The southern rockhopper and macaroni penguins, typically found on rocky sub-Antarctic islands, are most likely to be found on the South American side of the habitat when you first walk into the building. The king penguins can be found near the snow piles on the Antarctica side of the habitat, while the gentoos tend to use all parts of the habitat. Our newest residents, the chinstrap penguins, are most likely to be found in the water. Most of the species gravitate toward areas of the habitat that are most similar to their natural habitats!With a new habitat comes new opportunities for both penguins and Detroit Zoo guests! What was once a rare opportunity to see king penguins immersed in the water is now a normal sight at the Penguin Center, and the large viewing windows now make it possible to get nose-to-beak with some of your favorite birds. We are thrilled to welcome you back to enjoy some of the positive benefits that major habitat modifications have had on the penguins at the Detroit Zoo.

Tommy, a gentoo penguin, is observed by researchers. Photo credit: Megan Jones

Megan Jones is a research associate for the Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics.

One thought on “March of the Penguins: Polar Plunging Into Penguin Welfare

  1. Thank you for this interesting post. It’s good to hear that the penguins have done so well with their habitat changes, and it was particularly nice to hear that they were able to get out into the fresh air. That must have been fun for everyone involved!

    Looking forward to visiting soon and seeing the improvements to the PPCC as well as the new Chinstrap Penguins!

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