Friday, April 27, 2007


Penguins are remarkable for several reasons, one of which is their eyesight. If you watch these characters long enough you'll notice them studying you. They'll gaze out from the shoreline appearing to observe who is looking in at them. You'll also notice them looking at you while they are swimming. Think about this for a moment. They can see just as well above and below the water. Anyone who has been swimming without a mask or goggles knows our eyes don't work that way. Even in the clearest of pools, the unaided human eye can't focus underwater. But our black and white friends have the ability to alter the shape of their eye's lenses so they can see equally on land and underwater. Eyes in the animal world can be quite striking. Consider the cuttlefishes' beautiful eyes. Or how relatively large the eyes are on a squirrelfish. The Hyacinth Macaw's eyes are like black marbles, but the yellow feathers around them give them a friendly expression. Next time you're at the aquarium pay attention to the eyes. And while you're looking, see who's looking back at you.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Mother Wouldn't Approve

The excitement is building around here. One week from today and it's SHOWTIME! Grand Opening begins at 10:30 a.m. May 3rd with the public getting their first chance to see our penguins. It's really been amazing to see how much effort has been put into this wonderful gallery. The day will begin with about 150 elementary students joining in the unveiling ceremony. They will have a chance to ask me some questions while I'm feeding the penguins. I just hope they don't notice a couple of things the penguins do. First of all, penguins don't have teeth, but they do have backward pointing tongue spines that keep a good grip on the fish that they swallow whole. ("Remember to chew your food.") And penguins tend to gobble down their meal and then jump right back in the water and start swimming. ("Wait 30 minutes after eating before you go in the pool") What's natural behavior for penguins would be frowned upon by many human mothers.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Dressed For Success

"Any man may be in good spirits and good temper when he's well dressed." - Charles Dickens
I'm not sure if Dickens ever met a penguin, but if he would have, he might have just as easily penned any penguin may be in good spirits and good temper when he's well dressed. Just seeing a penguin with their tuxedo-like appearance puts smiles on faces. Their dapper good looks are actually a natural way to be dressed for success. The penguin "tuxedo" provides camouflage called countershading. Viewed from above, the back blends into the dark ocean below, while the lighter belly helps the penguin blend into the surface when viewed from below. So it's no wonder the macaronis and gentoos at Penguins' Rock seem to be in such a good mood. Their wardrobe suits them very well.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Max Pool Time For The Macs

Olympic long distance swimmers are amazing to watch, but they would be no match for our macaroni penguins. These little birds spend more time in the water than on the rocky shoreline of "Penguins' Rock." In fact macaronis are swimming around about 80 percent of their lives. One co-worker even said, "The macaronis are like a bunch of 7 or 8 year olds that won't get out of the pool." Oh they pop out of the water from time to time, but mainly to chow down on capelin. The rest of the time they are using their flippers to "fly" underwater. A penguin's muscle structure is quite a bit different from other birds. They have muscles to power their flippers both on the upstroke and the downstroke. Most birds only get power when they flap their wings downward. This adaptation in penguins should make sense to swimmers. Water is much more dense than air. Not only are the macaronis long distance champs, they also have rather surprising bursts of speed. At other times they will lazily float on top and seem to study you. Their curiosity is pretty amazing really. They will gaze at you for quite awhile, then all at once they seem to decide, "Enough of that. Time to swim." And zoom! They're off to the races again.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Just Don't Call Me Late For Supper

When the four penguins arrived from Pittsburgh, they already had names. In the picture above you see these particular macaroni penguins right after they came to the Aquarium. Hercules is the largest of the four, the other male's name is Ceasar. The two females are named Shamrock and Sweet Pea. Shamrock is the one facing away from the camera. She isn't really shy, she was just looking the other way when this picture was taken. In fact none of the penguins are shy. They are all fairly friendly, very curious and all of the penguins seem to have their own personalities. Right now each bird has flipper bands to help us identify the birds. The four from Pittsburgh respond to their names, and we're hoping to come up with names for all the birds. That's where you can have some fun and help us out. Check out this link to suggest a name for the 16 birds without names. By the way, if it weren't for the flipper bands it would be hard to tell the males and females apart. They look pretty much identical to the untrained eye. Males, in certain species, tend to be heavier than females but this is not always reliable. The male's beak also tends to be thicker and longer than the female's. Many zoos and aquariums use a blood sample to perform a DNA test to determine sex.

Friday, April 20, 2007

"I'll Have The Usual."

We have some big birds with big appetites. Right now the 20 gentoo and macaroni penguins are gobbling up 60 pounds of capelin each day! That's a lot of fish. As you can see in these pictures, capelin are relatively small, slender fish. Each one is less than seven inches long and only weighs a few ounces. So when you think about each penguin devouring three pounds of these fish each day, you really have to say "Wow!" Capelin, Mallotus villosus is a salt water fish similar in some ways to the fresh water smelt. Apparently our penguins are quite satisfied with the menu selection right now, as long as the capelin are fairly straight. You might see fish flying from the penguin beaks occasionally. This isn't a sloppy diner. Penguins are somewhat picky eaters. If a fish is bent or curved or not firm enough, it's flipped out of the tray and out of the way. That's not to say one of the others won't pick up the leftovers and gladly eat them. At the "Penguins' Rock" cafe, there's no need for doggie bags. And no need for a change in menu right now. These customers seem just fine ordering "the usual" for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Rolling Along With Rocky?

While our load of four Macaronis were enjoying the water surrounding "Penguins' Rock", Senior Aviculturist Kevin Calhoun was enroute from Texas with the rest of the penguins. Two Lesco drivers were tag-teaming the truck driving, while Kevin and SeaWorld Aviculturist Phyllis Gutierrez followed in a car. The birds were checked frequently, and seemed to get along just fine. By the time they got to Chattanooga everyone was ready to get out and stretch legs, or in the penguins' case, flippers. A word about flippers. Penguins have very strong muscles to propel them through the water. When you come to "Penguins' Rock" you'll see how fast they "fly" through the water, and how they use their flippers to rocket out of the water. It's really amazing. They are also somewhat good at slapping you around if you aren't careful. These guys and gals don't have names yet, but "Rocky" might be a good one for one of the larger gentoos. Kevin will point out "the big boy" that gave him a roundhouse flipper to the head. He says they pack quite a punch. The above picture shows Kevin introducing one of the gentoos to "Penguins' Rock." The other 16 penguins made the trip from San Antonio in excellent shape and now all 20 birds are busy playing at the Tennessee Aquarium. In fact, in less than an hour the penguins seemed to be really enjoying their new home.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

You're Transporting What? Macaroni penguins officer.

You know the feeling of relief you get when you return home after a long trip? Magnify that by 100 and you'll know how we all felt when the first penguins made it to the Tennessee Aquarium happy and healthy. Our day began before sunrise at the Pittsburgh Zoo. We worked with staffers to round up the four macaroni penguins that were coming to Chattanooga. The first three almost seemed eager to come with us. But one of the older females was wise to us, and stayed in the water trying to keep us at flipper's length away. We finally coaxed her out of the water and she seemed content joining her feathered friends. Everything was planned out in advance to make the journey as smooth as silk for the penguins. One thing we hadn't planned on was the Pennsylvania State Police. All the proper paperwork was in place, but when the trooper asked our truck driver what we were hauling, he called for a complete inspection. At weigh stations trucks are randomly selected for searches. We figured when the trooper heard we were hauling macaroni penguins, he called for the inspection just so he could get a close look at these neat animals. We imagined him talking with his trooper buddies later saying, "No really. I inspected a load of penguins today." The rest of the trip was uneventful. When we arrived at the Tennessee Aquarium at the end of the day, we were tired and the birds were hungry. They immediately chowed down on some smelt and capelin, and then they were ready for some serious splash time.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Getting To Know You

The best part of being the penguin keeper is getting to know the birds and their personalities. I travelled to SeaWorld in San Antonio, Texas to meet the penguins coming to the Tennessee Aquarium. I worked with African penguins for about one and a half years, and they were very enjoyable to be around. But even with some penguin experience, I was surprised when I saw the gentoo and macaroni penguins. "Wow! These are BIG birds," I thought to myself. It turns out they are very curious as well. The gentoos will walk right up to you as if to say hello. In fact several of them would waddle up and give a special penguin greeting. It begins with a dip of the head. When the head comes back up, the beak opens and a friendly call comes out. It kind of sounds like a goose honking. The macaroni penguins were a little less friendly, but they were very fun to be around. Did you know gentoo penguins are the third largest penguin species overall? And the macaroni penguins are the largest of the crested penguins? They are, and I think you'll be amazed at how big and how busy these birds really are.

"Penguins' Rock" Ready To Roll

Big viewing windows? Check. Realistic rockwork? Check. Mood-setting mural? Check. Chilly air and water? Check. Wave machine creating ocean-like swells? Check. Penguins? On the way. From where? From SeaWorld in San Antonio, Texas. The gentoo and macaroni penguins at the Tennessee Aquarium are part of a breeding loan progam. Four of the macaroni penguins were at the Pittsburgh Zoo, but also part of the SeaWorld loan program. The other 16 birds, ten gentoo and six macaronis are coming from deep in the heart of Texas. They will travel all that way in refrigerated trucks. (Insert old joke here.) Q:"Why do penguins travel in refrigerated trucks?" A: "Because they can't fly." Ba-doom-boom.

A Work Of Art

Part of the fun of "Penguins' Rock" is feeling like you are visiting the penguins in their habitat. And muralist David Rock helped the Tennessee Aquarium create that feeling. Rock used air brushes and paint brushes to add the chilly scene on the back wall. A lot of people have already commented on the realism of the background. The rockwork really seems to blend in and extend back toward the snow covered mountains. And the lighting on the clouds makes it seem like you are looking at the sub-Antarctic sky. Great job David Rock! (I couldn't resist adding this second picture of Grant Garrett working on some less artistic painting. No one seems to remember someone painted the walls of the Sistine Chapel.)

"Penguins' Rock" Takes Shape

Here are two views of "Penguins' Rock" as it nears completion. The top picture shows the rockwork when it was nearly complete. The bottom picture shows some darker areas where a softer material was added to the rockwork. This is made up of rubber particles similar to the material used on indoor tracks. It's one way to protect the penguins' feet from getting sore.

How Did They Do That?

Most of the questions we get asked are about the animals and the way they behave. "How many teeth do your sharks have?" "How fast can an otter swim?" "What does a paddlefish eat?" But sometimes we get asked, "How did you do that?" To see the gentoo and macaroni penguins clearly you need some big windows. In the top picture you see a huge acrylic panel that had to be hoisted into Ocean Journey with a big crane. The bottom two pictures show some special construction workers designing and creating the rockwork with concrete. It's a job worthy of the television show Dirty Jobs.

Construction Scenes Continued

Bob the Builder and his friends always ask, "Can we build it?" and of course respond, "Yes we can." So it's kind of fun to look back at the construction of "Penguins' Rock" and compare it to a visit to the Tennessee Aquarium. The top picture is taken from where you'll enter the gallery. The middle picture shows a worker sealing the concrete so water will stay with the penguins where it's supposed to be. And the bottom picture shows where a curved acrylic viewing panel is to be installed. Building a home is a lot of work. Building a home with a pool is even more work. Building a home that's mostly a pool takes a lot of skill and planning. What do you think Bob and his friends would say about this?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

An Idea Is Hatched

Your tour of "Penguins' Rock" in the Penguin Keeper's Blog begins with a peek behind the scenes to see everything that has gone into creating this amazing gallery at the Tennessee Aquarium. When Ocean Journey was built, empty space was left in the building for future expansion. (See top photo) The idea for a penguin exhibit was hatched nearly two years ago. The entire Tennessee Aquarium team has worked to make this project come together. Other zoos and aquariums across the United States were quizzed about their exhibits, and some sites were visited by our staff. When all the information was weighed, it was decided that gentoo and macaroni penguins would be fun, lively and unusual species to feature at the Aquarium. Now the design team had a challenge. "Let's make this gallery something special." And we think they have done a great job creating a habitat that meets all of the penguins needs, and is not only a fun place for them to live, but is a fun place for us to see them waddling along the rocky shoreline and "flying" underwater. The bottom two pictures show how the re-bar and forms were set up for pouring the concrete walls of "Penguins' Rock."