Over the past 14 months, ten endangered African penguin chicks were hatched at SF’s California Academy of Sciences.
Also known as the Cape penguin or South African penguin, the African penguin is a species of penguin limited to southern African waters — and is one of just two species of penguin to inhabit somewhat tropical waters. But much like other penguins, African penguins are monogamous; they mate with the same individual for many years.
In captivity, however, the bird’s monogamous nature can mean it’s hard to produce them in sizable numbers. They’re discerning, committed mates that won’t just… say, “Give it up” to any tuxedo-looking bird. It’s one reason San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences’ recent achievement is so profoundly exciting — hatching ten chicks over the past 14 months.
It’s especially commendable and exciting when contrasted with the fact that it collectively took the Steinhart Aquarium, the wing of Cal Academy where the penguins are displayed, ten years to produce the last ten chicks.
“To hatch 10 chicks in just 14 months is truly remarkable, especially if you consider the previous 10 chicks hatched over 10 years,” said aquarium biologist Sparks Perkins in a press release about the news. “Our penguin care team has years of training in the art and science of egg incubation and chick rearing. We are thrilled to be putting our expertise towards caring for the next generation of African penguins in human care.”
The yield of new chicks is a welcome addition to the endangered African penguin population, which now sits below 9,000 breeding pairs in the wild. Cal Academy is a longtime member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the foremost collaborative breeding and transfer program among accredited zoological institutions in the world that is dedicated to maintaining genetic diversity in the captive populations of animals — including African penguins.
“African Penguins are such a charismatic species, but sadly threats like overfishing, habitat degradation, and oil spills have had a devastating effect on wild populations,” writes Brenda Melton, Director of Animal Care and Well-Being at Steinhart Aquarium and member of the African Penguin Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) steering committee, in the same release.” These issues extend beyond penguins, too— the birds are a visible indicator for the marine environment, and when we see penguin colonies in decline we know there’s trouble for other marine species.”
Melton waxes that every chick produced in captivity helps to strengthen the “genetics and overall population of the species in human care,” before reminding us that zoological institutions also exist as conduits for informing the masses on the need to conserve our planet’s wildlife — “more than a million people come through the museum each year, which is an incredible opportunity to educate about these birds and the challenges they face in the wild, and hopefully ignite care for all animals facing threats and endangerment.”
The chicks are moved out from their nest boxes around three weeks after hatching and into an area not on view to the general public for human-assisted rearing; after about four months of careful attention and care by aquarium staff, the chicks are fully ready to make their flightless debut — after attending “fish school,” as it’s cheekily called — and be reintroduced to the colony, where they can stay anywhere from a few months to a few years.