Education: Penguin Center offers Wealth of Learning Opportunities

The Polk Penguin Conservation Center is not only a state-of-the-art facility for penguins – the largest of its kind in the world – but it also contains a wealth of educational information about Antarctic explorers, modern-day researchers, and the incredible, fragile ecosystems at the bottom of the Earth.

During a visit to this incredible facility, visitors first enter the South American Gallery and are “met” by Sir Ernest Shackleton and the crew of his legendary ship, the Endurance. Shackleton led the ill-fated 1914 expedition to complete a transcontinental crossing of Antarctica. The endeavor became a survival story when his ship became trapped, and eventually crushed, by ice in the Weddell Sea. A dock scene tells the incredible survival story of the Endurance crew.

As you descend the entrance ramps and venture further into the penguin center, you “board” Shackleton’s Endurance and cross the Drake Passage to Antarctica. You may be met with a calm sea at day, a starlit night sky or the Drake’s notorious rough seas. Continuing down the ramps, you cross the Antarctic Convergence, which occurs when the moist air above the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans meet the frigid air above the Southern Ocean. The mixing of warm and cold air causes the moisture to condense and create fog. As you make your way below deck, portholes show glimpses of Antarctic wildlife including orcas, krill and leopard seals.

After passing through the acrylic underwater tunnels and the Underwater Gallery, the path brings you to a world of ice. Spotlight on Science showcases the research of world-renowned polar ecologist and penguin expert Dr. Bill Fraser, head of the Polar Oceans Research Group, and the importance of sea ice for the Antarctic ecosystem. Food sources for many species in the Antarctic region require sea ice for survival. Understanding these ecological changes caused by the shifting formation of sea ice can help us protect ecosystems in the future.

Across the cavernous room, Ice Core Investigations allows guests to explore ice cores, an important tool in uncovering the history of the Earth’s climate. Ice cores are drilled and excavated from thousands of years of compressed snow that has turned to ice. The air pockets trapped between layers serve as a record of what gasses filled the atmosphere over time, allowing us to compare different periods of climate history.

Watch for calving glaciers as you climb the stairs to the Antarctic Gallery. A glacier is a very large piece of ice that is pulled across land by gravity like a slow conveyor belt. Reaching the ocean, ice breaks off from the rest of the glacier and falls into the sea during a process known as calving.

Just outside the Drake Passage Gift Shop, Focus on the Field features the Detroit Zoological Society’s own Matthew Porter, a bird department zookeeper who had the rare and extraordinary opportunity to spend the 2015-2016 austral summer doing field work for the Polar Oceans Research Group in Antarctica. Matthew studied adélie penguins, chinstrap penguins, gentoo penguins, brown skuas, south polar skuas and southern giant petrels.

Learning about the Antarctic ecosystem while journeying through Polk Penguin Conservation Center may compel you to want to help in some way. Before exiting the penguin center, visitors have the opportunity to Make a Difference in the Antarctic Gallery. The Make a Difference kiosks guide you in finding ways to help. Whether it is buying your groceries locally, changing your home lighting to energy-efficient light bulbs, or riding your bicycle to work, you can make a difference with every step you take. The machines allow for you to take a picture of yourself, which is then placed onto a digital card that includes your pledge as well as facts about sustainability and the hashtag #MakeADifference. The digital card is emailed to you, with the option of also posting to social media sites to share with your friends and family.

All those who pass through the Polk Penguin Conservation Center have the ability and opportunity to join us in our mission of Celebrating and Saving Wildlife and leave a lasting, positive impact on the Earth.

– Claire Lannoye-Hall is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Veterinary Care: New Penguin Facility is a Veterinarian’s Dream Come True

Anyone who has visited the Detroit Zoo’s Penguinarium probably knows that it is impossible to escape the charm of the penguin. I have been caring for penguins at the Detroit Zoo for more than 20 years, and can attest to this firsthand. I find them to be exceptionally interesting and charismatic animals, and even after all these years, I enjoy every visit to the Penguinarium immensely. More than a few penguins have stolen my heart over the years.

Generally speaking, penguins are strong, feisty birds that rarely develop health problems. In recent years, the penguin flock at the Detroit Zoo has become older, and we have treated penguins for a variety of age-related medical problems. In the course of this work, we realized that there were gaps in the scientific literature concerning penguin health. As a result, we focused our efforts on gaining a better understanding of some of the most important conditions, including cataracts, melanoma and bumblefoot. Our animal health and life sciences departments and the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare all share the same long-term goal of better understanding how we can provide an environment that allows penguins to thrive and maintain the best possible health and welfare.

The new Polk Penguin Conservation Center is a penguin veterinarian’s dream come true. We feel so fortunate to have been able to use our expanded knowledge of penguin health to inform the design of their new home. Every aspect of the habitat is designed to meet their unique needs:

  • The lighting in the new habitat provides a much wider spectrum of wavelengths, with more ultraviolet light and improved nighttime lighting in the red wavelength ranges. The lighting intensity capacity is greatly increased, and can be adjusted to mimic seasonal variation.
  • The flooring has been designed to enhance foot health and prevent development of bumblefoot lesions. In some places, the floor is coated with a resinous material to provide cushioning, and in other areas the flooring has variable rocky textures, mimicking conditions seen in Antarctica.
  • The penguins will have an enormous pool for swimming, and a swim channel that will allow them to circumnavigate the entire habitat. This will result in increased activity levels and opportunities for natural porpoising and diving behaviors and will help them avoid weight gain.
  • The water filtration system is state-of-art, and will include an ozonation capacity and improved water filtration.
  • The air quality will be significantly improved, providing 100% air exchange and improved air filtering.
  • The nesting areas are designed to be easy to clean and allow better chick-rearing success.
  • We will also have more places to temporarily hold animals needing special attention during illness or quarantine, and fold-down stainless steel exam tables for veterinary exams and procedures.

 

 

 

 

Over the years, we have been able to provide treatment and loving care to a number of very special penguin patients and have had a lot of success: We’ve helped chicks who have gotten off to a rough start, restored vision to a number of geriatric penguins with cataracts and significantly reduced the incidence of bumblefoot. Despite these successes, our greatest measure of achievement is in the medical problem that is avoided altogether. We constantly strive to prevent issues from developing, through carefully designed diets, vaccination and parasite prophylaxis, disease surveillance and excellent care. The Polk Penguin Conservation Center is a big stride forward toward this goal, and we thank the community for their support of this exciting project. Thank you for helping us provide the best possible care to our penguin family.

– Dr. Ann Duncan is the Director of Animal Health for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

Notes from the Field – Scientific Research in Antarctica

As the only continent on Earth without a native human population – and with the harshest and most extreme climate in the world – Antarctica presents a unique, natural laboratory for scientific research. As challenging as the climate is, it is vital to understanding ecosystems and our impact on the planet.

Half a century ago, the governments of 30 countries collectively formed the Antarctic Treaty System to regulate this natural wonder as a scientific preserve. Now more than 50 research stations are in operation there, with scientists and their support staff numbering a few thousand during the austral summer when conditions are less severe. These include biologists, ecologists, geologists, oceanographers, physicists, astronomers, glaciologists and meteorologists. Even still, the vast majority of the white continent is still little known. Such is the case with the Weddell Sea. Its iceberg-filled waters are unpredictable and treacherous. This is the same sea that captured and crushed Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, 100 years ago.

We sailed the Weddell Sea as part of a recent expedition to Antarctica with scientists from the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) and the Polar Oceans Research Group (PORG). World-renowned polar ecologist and penguin expert Dr. Bill Fraser, head of the PORG, shared his extensive knowledge on board, as he has done as consultant on the Polk Penguin Conservation Center. His research, which spans nearly four decades, operates out of the U.S. Palmer Station on Antarctica and focuses on the ecology of penguins and their habitats. Over the years, Dr. Fraser and his team have revealed a dramatic decline in Adelie penguins in this particular region of Antarctica – an 80 percent drop over the last four decades – due to shifting conditions and disappearing sea ice.

Sea ice remains an essential ecological variable in the Weddell Sea. Somewhat unlike the western Antarctic Peninsula (where the U.S. Palmer Station sits), sea ice is the platform for species survival. During our trek within this sea and our landings at Devil Island and Brown Bluff, we observed tens of thousands of Adelie penguins. The presence of sea ice in this oceanic basin appears to have had a positive effect on this species through processes that are not yet fully understood – but a theory is emerging. Unlike other areas, populations of Adelie penguins are either stable or increasing here. This is a very different situation from the western Antarctic Peninsula where sea ice is diminishing and Adelie populations are decreasing with it. A number of observational metrics including nesting density, chick condition and colony aspect were compared just a few days later during our voyage to the Palmer Station.

Visiting these locations within the Weddell Sea was also important to scouting potential field research sites. No other team or country is doing ecological research here. Given that the Weddell Sea is closer to any other region on the Antarctic Peninsula where sea ice still persists, it offers the most optimal situation to more closely study how sea ice impacts the ecosystem.

These donor-funded excursions are important to the Detroit Zoological Society’s wildlife conservation efforts. They have also yielded significant philanthropic support – our Antarctic expeditions have led to contributions of $15 million for the Polk Penguin Conservation Center, and this most recent venture also secured $67,000 for the Polar Oceans Research Group. While fundraising is an important goal, our relationship with Dr. Fraser and PORG is a compelling example of the power and impact of collaboration between the DZS and conservationists in the field.

– Ron Kagan is the executive director and CEO of the Detroit Zoological Society.

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.

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.

Notes from the Field: Saying Goodbye to Antarctica

In what seems like the blink of an eye, this incredible journey at the bottom of the Earth has come to an end as I write to you back home at the Detroit Zoo. Three months ago, I flew to Chile, sailed across the Drake Passage and landed on Anvers Island in Antarctica. My home became the U. S. Palmer Station where I joined the expert field team of Polar Oceans Research Group.

We zodiac’ed around the local waters through wind, snow, and ice day after day, traversing the stunning landscape to study penguins, skuas, southern giant petrels, and more. Through the quick Antarctic summer, we travelled to many rocky islands, watching the birds lay eggs and diligently incubate them to hatching. Then the dedicated parents brooded their chicks, foraging often to find krill, fish, and more to feed their downy kin in an effort to raise them to maturity.

In my final days of observation, the birds continued to grow. The Adelie chicks lost most if not all of their down and are were almost ready to hop in the Southern Ocean for their first swim. The chinstraps were just behind them, but the gentoos were still downy, with a little more time to grow before hitting the chilly waters. The brown skua chicks were running all over the place as their primary flight feathers were quickly developing. The southern giant petrel parents were regularly leaving their chicks alone at the nest while they went out in search of food.

As we studied the birds, we had to watch out for the many fur seals that had joined the neighborhood, as they do around this time every year. We also saw a couple more humpback whales in the area. One playful individual made quite a commotion on the surface and was repeatedly lunge-feeding, devouring lots of krill.

Antarctica is now a part of me, and a very special part of our world. The Antarctic peninsula is one of the fastest changing places as the world’s environment changes. It will take a worldwide effort to help our planet, but every conscious decision you make to respect, recycle, and conserve will help turn the tides. I am so proud to be a part of our Detroit Zoological Society. Please walk with us down the path of sustainability. Thank you for reading and joining me on this extraordinary journey.

– Matthew Porter is a bird department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society who spent the last few months at the U.S. Palmer Station in Antarctica for a rare and extraordinary scientific opportunity to assist a field team with penguin research.

Notes from the Field: Growing up in Antarctica

Greetings from Anvers Island! The front of the U.S. Palmer Station doesn’t usually have many icebergs, but this summer, the waters around the station have become something of an iceberg parking lot. The last few days have been breezy with a couple inches of summer snow, but that has not stopped us from making our rounds. Throughout the area, the seabirds are busy raising demanding chicks while humpback whales are swimming by.

The south polar skuas are just starting to hatch and we are seeing their chicks on a couple of the islands. The brown skua chicks have grown significantly. Their primary flight feathers are starting to come in and they are becoming more challenging to measure. The sneaky youngsters are often hiding behind rocks away from the nest. They are quick on their feet and run from us when we approach. The ages of the southern giant petrel chicks vary with some newly hatched and others barely fitting under their brooding parent because they’ve grown so much. Often as we walk by, we’ll see a fuzzy white head sticking out under mom or dad.

All of the penguin chicks are growing rapidly but the gentoo chicks are the smallest, with many still fairly young. These chicks are very cute; their beaks already show orange and somehow the young birds manage to stay very clean.

 

The chinstrap chicks are also tidy-looking and have grown significantly. The Adelie colonies are thinning out as the parents are spending more time out foraging. Their extremely messy chicks are forming groups called crèches. At this stage, the young birds are really starting to grow up and are willing to venture away from their nest to hang out with other chicks. The oldest chicks are in the process of molting their down and many look quite funny. They are partially covered in down with some of their first molt showing. This next generation of penguins is developing quickly, which is important as the quick Antarctic summer is flying by.

As I reflect on this wonderful journey, I continue to marvel at the purity of Antarctica’s environment. Please try your best to respect the environment wherever you are and leave behind the smallest footprint you can. We share an incredibly beautiful world and it’s all of our responsibility to protect it.

Thank you for reading.

– Matthew Porter is a bird department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society and has spent the last few months at the U.S. Palmer Station in Antarctica for a rare and extraordinary scientific opportunity to assist a field team with penguin research.

Notes from the Field: Island Hopping in Antarctica

This week started with our usual routines and turned into the best “fieldtrip” ever. We cruised through our work of counting penguins and weighing chicks and then we saw a wonderfully calm weather window. We had an extremely favorable, gentle forecast, which allowed us to make a special trip out to the Joubins – a special group of islands that our field team only has the opportunity to see once or twice a year because they are located outside of our boating limits. We packed two boats as a safety precaution and sailed westward.

The krill was thick and the ocean was pulsing with hungry predators. We spotted a humpback whale on our journey out, shortly followed by hundreds of crabeater seals and numerous penguins swimming around. Crabeater seals have very specialized teeth, which enable them to filter the ocean water while devouring krill. Some crabeaters were in the water while many others were laying on the large pieces of ice that drifted past us. There was even a leopard seal in the area, which could’ve been bad news for the “crabbies”. The much bigger leopard seals will eat crabeater seals given the right situation.

We made it to our first study island and were pleasantly greeted by Adelie, chinstrap, and gentoo penguins. This island was particularly fascinating with all three of these penguin species breeding together in the same colony. Many of the chicks were quite young but looked healthy.

Throughout the day, we continued to explore island after island, surveying nesting birds and taking in the unblemished beauty of this Antarctic paradise. As the day came to a close, we packed our boats and made the journey home through gentle seas safely back to the U.S. Palmer Station.

In our local area, the giant petrel eggs have been hatching and there are some excited parents! The chicks are darling fuzzy balls of fluff. Their cooperative parents take excellent care of them and allow us to do our measurements with no complaints. When we return the chicks, the parents snuggle them under the safety of their bodies.

The gentoo chicks are still small but growing quickly, and most of the Adelie chicks are huge. The Adelie parents are incredibly busy trying to keep the begging chicks full. During the upcoming weeks we should start to see the Adelie chicks venture away from their parents into little chick groups within the colony. They will also start to lose their down.

 

Thanks for reading; I will report back soon.

– Matthew Porter is a bird department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society and is spending several months at the U.S. Palmer Station in Antarctica for a rare and extraordinary scientific opportunity to assist a field team with penguin research.

Animal Welfare: Residency Program Advances Mission

The Detroit Zoological Society’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare acts as a resource for knowledge about animal welfare, and in many cases, this includes providing training to others in various ways.

One such way is through our residency program. Residencies offer individuals the opportunity to better understand animal welfare and how to apply scientific principles in order to assess it. Residents are recent college graduates who join our team for a period of six months, during which they assist with data collection on various welfare-related research initiatives and conduct their own independent project designed to provide us with more information about how animals are doing. Past residents have examined such concepts as the impact of underwater complexity on North American river otters, how temperature and social relationships affect how Japanese macaques use their habitat, and the effect of varying how food is presented on the behavior of the king brown snake.

We currently have two brand-new residents working with us, and we are so excited to have them join the team. They will be helping to collect data on the penguin welfare project we are currently working on as we prepare for the opening of the Polk Penguin Conservation Center; using video recordings of what the aardvarks are doing at night so we can have a better idea of how they spend their time and what environmental features they might prefer, and focusing on assessing the welfare of one of the species at the Zoo as part of an independent project. The information they gather will help us to figure out if the animals are thriving, and if any changes could result in even better welfare.

We are glad to be able to provide these kinds of educational opportunities to aspiring animal welfare professionals. Not only does this enable us to undertake even more welfare-related projects here at the Detroit Zoo, which helps to expand the existing body of knowledge about animal welfare, but it also promotes the advancement of animal welfare as these residents go on to the next part of their career.

– Dr. Stephanie Allard is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.

Notes from the Field: To the Moon and Back

Hello from the U.S. Palmer Station! The weather has been behaving and we were able to have a very productive week. Because of the warmer temperatures in Antarctica this time of year, some long-distance travelers from the north came to visit us – a group of more than 100 arctic terns have made their way down for the summer.

The arctic tern is an incredible bird that only weighs as much as a small apple yet it migrates farther than any animal on Earth. They breed in the Arctic during the northern summer and they travel to the Antarctic for the austral summer to feed in the rich waters of the Southern Ocean. They will travel some 45,000 miles every year and may live for decades. This bird lives a full life; it flies the distance to the moon three times over. It is absolutely inspiring watching these weary travelers make it down here, knowing they were at the top of the world just a few months ago.

Back in Michigan, the Detroit Zoological Society helps conserve two different species of tern – black terns and common terns. The DZS has worked with other agencies to develop and maintain a new nesting site for common terns, which have become quite uncommon along the Detroit River over the last 50 years. We are also working with the National Audubon Society and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, looking at nesting success of black terns in the St. Clair Flats. Black terns are suffering population decline across their range and we are committed to learning more about their life history in order to reverse this trend and protect the species.

Besides the arctic terns, we have been very busy studying the local birdlife. The Adelie penguin colonies seem to show some variation with regard to what stage of development the chicks are in. Some of the chicks are getting huge and the nests are getting crowded as many proud parents have two chicks growing well. That being said, the noise level continues to climb and the colonies are starting to become messy! It does appear that the chicks pick up bad habits at a very young age (stealing rocks from the neighbors).

The brown skua chicks continue to hatch and grow as well. We have been measuring their beaks and routinely weighing them, tracking their growth. The parents can be a little feisty, but overall they tolerate us well. The chicks are beginning to run around and explore, which can make it tougher for us to find them.

As the days of this incredible journey continue to pass, the northern hemisphere has started to tilt back toward the sun and our days are shortening a touch. It’s still pretty much always light out, but it’s getting slightly easier to see the sun set.

Have a great week; I will report back soon!

– Matthew Porter is a bird department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society and is spending the next few months at the U.S. Palmer Station in Antarctica for a rare and extraordinary scientific opportunity to assist a field team with penguin research.