Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Home, Home on the Range

Where do our penguins come from? That's one question that gets asked frequently but has slightly different answers depending on the intended context. The penguins at the Tennessee Aquarium are part of a breeding loan program from SeaWorld in San Antonio, Texas. A few of the macaroni penguins came from the Pittsburgh Zoo as part of this program, the other macaronis and all of the gentoos came from SeaWorld in San Antonio. If you are asking where wild macaroni and gentoo penguins call home, check out the above maps. The top one shows the home range of macaroni penguins. The second map shows the home range of wild gentoo penguins. Notice that neither species lives on the Antarctic continent, but both can be found on the Antarctic Peninsula. There are some cruise lines that now take vacationers to Antarctica but they are too expensive for most people. So it's nice to have a little slice of that world here in our backyard. And guess what? We are finding out that people all over the world are watching the Tennessee Aquarium's penguins on our live web cam. We have heard of some troops in Iraq have been viewing "Penguins' Rock" from time to time. And just the other day we received an e-mail from Sarah who lives in Grandview, Tennessee.
Sarah writes, "Hi, I have been watching the penguins and sent the link to the live cam to my granddaughters who are summering in the Amazon Jungle while their father completes his research on the Biosphere Atmosphere experiment for the Univ. of Arizona. They normally live in Tucson AZ, so the jungle is quite a change for them, and then to be able to watch penguins is even more of a difference!

They are ages 5 and 2, and and are very fascinated with the penguins. We will be viewing the penguins in person when they come to visit us in Tennessee on their way home in August.

Thanks for the Live Penguin Cam!
Thank you Sarah for the fun story. Tell your granddaughters it makes the penguin keeper smile knowing someone in the jungle enjoys watching our little friends.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Smile! You're on Candid Camera.

I bet you didn't know I am a big time movie producer did you? Actually I was helping one of our media friends get some close-ups from inside "Penguins' Rock" the other day. I'm not sure which is more challenging, handling penguins or handling a video camera to get that perfect shot. It has occurred to me that a lot of you getting some pretty neat shots of the gentoos and macaronis, and also of your families enjoying your visit here. So I would like you to send me your best shot. This could be your family with the penguin models near the entrance to "Penguins' Rock", you in front of the penguins, a neat picture of the penguins or maybe you dressed up like a penguin.
Send them to me: And I'll post some of your marvelous macaroni, gorgeous gentoo or fabulous family pictures right here. Make sure you tell me a little bit about your visit and who or what's in the shot. I'm looking forward to seeing you right here soon!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Tiny Bubbles, In My Wake

People might get the impression our penguins are jet-propelled while watching them zoom around in the water. It's really amazing watching their powerful flippers and their torpedo-like bodies zip past the windows. Sometimes they build up incredible bursts of speed and begin popping out of the water like porpoises. The tiny trail of bubbles that trail off behind a gentoo or macaroni has prompted some interesting questions. If you look closely at the penguin as it "flys" by you, you'll see those bubbles are coming from underneath the feathers. On land penguins can raise their feathers just a bit to allow some relatively warm air in close to their bodies. The feathers close down enough before diving that some of that air is trapped close to their bodies to help insulate them. It's a good thing penguins don't have to rely on air to keep them warm though. As they move through the water, that trapped air is escaping in the stream of tiny bubbles you see. Fortunately for the penguins, they have a layer of blubber or fat layer to keep them warm in chilly waters. Heat loss in water is much greater than in the air. Think about your trip to the Tennessee Aquarium and you have seen bubble streams in one other place as well. If you remembered watching the North American River Otters at play in the Cove Forest... you're right. They have two layers of fur. Waterproof guard hairs on the outside, and a thick underfur that traps air and helps insulate them. When the otters dive into the water, a trail of bubbles is released from their fur. Otters and penguins also seem similar in their underwater agility. Both animals can maneuver extremely well as you have probably already seen. But the penguins would be the champions if there was a contest between the two species over exiting the water. The way gentoos rocket out of the water and land on the rocks is simply awesome. Coming in second to their feathered friends is nothing the other guys "otter" be ashamed of though.

Monday, May 21, 2007

"Reservation for one. Gentoo's the name. Got it?"

Here's a smile maker for you. This gentoo knows I am the one who brings fish. So in this picture it appears that he is making sure his reservation is in order with the maitre ' d. "Yes, I have a 11:30 reservation, party of one. The reservation should be under the name gentoo. I'm sure you have it written on your clip-board somewhere." It may not be a five-star dining experience, but our kitchen is kept as clean and tidy as the finest restaurants around. In fact much of the food we feed our animals is restaurant grade. The smelt and capelin come in frozen form and we thaw them out in the morning and dish them up to the penguins on ice. About the only thing they would complain about is bent or mushy fish. Those get tossed to the side and are only eaten when the others are gone. Penguins prefer fish that are straight and firm. And in one way, this makes a lot of sense. Straight fish are going to be easier to swallow whole. And I even understand the mushy part as well. Who wants to eat a mushy fish? Smelt is their favorite and like puppy dogs, these little characters know when I have their favorite fish in a pan. Right now they seem pretty happy flipper to flipper bellying up to a pan full of fish. They never complain about the service at the Penguins' Rock Cafe. But they never leave very big tips either.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Beach Boys (And Girls)

If you have been to "Penguins' Rock" at the Tennessee Aquarium, you already know the water is in motion almost all of the time. And it's not the birds causing all of the water's motion. We have included a wave machine to create an ocean swell inside the gallery, and the penguins think it's well......swell. At night and early in the mornings the wave machine is off. This encourages the birds to get some rest at night. In the morning we leave it off for awhile so I can get a real good look at all of the gentoos and macaronis, and make sure everyone gets a vitamin fish. But once the wave machine comes on, it's everyone into the pool. For these penguins, this is the first place they have lived with waves. And they really seem to enjoy body surfing at "Penguins' Rock." If you don't know by now, you'll hear a lot more about penguins surfing in the days to come. On June 8th a new animated film will hit theaters nationwide called "Surfs Up." Here is a link to check out a trailer:
I wanted to mention this because penguins really do surf in the wild. I have a terrific book called "Penguin Life" which has incredible pictures of gentoo penguins surfing the Falkland Islands. Take a look for yourself, and read photographer Andy Rouse's comments about these amazing pictures here:
So I think it's pretty cool that our penguins are surfing everyday in the waves generated at "Penguins' Rock." In fact, in a way that makes our penguins little Beach Boys and Girls.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Good Days, Bad Days and One Very Sad Day.

Please bear with me as this will be a rather long and sad post.

On the day before “Penguins’ Rock” opened at the Tennessee Aquarium, I posted a message on this blog about relationship building and watching the penguins. I told you how important observing their behavior is to make sure they are all staying happy and healthy. You see, in the animal world sickness or injury is a sign of weakness to predators. So an animal will try very hard to hide any health problems they may have. We use a critical eye to watch all of our animals and our volunteers help with this task. We have been paying very close attention to “Caesar,” one of the first four penguins to arrive here, for quite awhile now. At first he seemed as healthy as the other three macaroni penguins he was transported with. He seemed to enjoy his new surroundings just like the other penguins. But within a few days Caesar began exhibiting behavioral differences. He was not as energetic a swimmer as the other penguins, preferred to remain on his own, and wasn’t eating as much as the others. This caught our attention immediately. After consulting with other penguin experts within the SeaWorld network, a treatment plan was administered. For a period of time, Caesar bounced back and even began spending more time socializing with the other penguins. We also looked back at his health records and found that Caesar had shown signs of not feeding as well as his companions in the past, and he had some weight fluctuations. But Caesar always bounced back. Other Aquarium staffers would sometimes cheer Caesar on when he would snap up a fish with the other birds. We have had many good days with Caesar. This week however, his health began to turn. On Wednesday, our veterinarian drew blood and we learned that Caesar’s kidneys were failing. We tried so many treatments and worked very hard to help him get well again. After consulting with the other penguin experts in Pittsburgh and San Antonio again, we were told we had done all that we could do for Caesar, and no further treatment options were available. Caesar lost his fight with kidney failure today. This has been a very sad day for all of us. You see, we all pride ourselves on being professionals and giving all of our animals the highest level of care all of the time. But we also know when dealing with living things, the circle of life will eventually be complete. The thing that really helps today is seeing the smiles on the faces of everyone visiting. Our other 19 penguins are robust and healthy. They are still trying to eat us out of house and home, and still diving, splashing and hopping around as carefree as we would all like to be. There is a wonderful eye to eye connection that people make with these animals. And I’m thankful for the time I had to see eye to eye with Caesar.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Bear Hug? What's That?

Many people think penguins are huggably cute. But in the penguin's world there's no such thing as a bear hug. I hear this relatively common question, "Do polar bears eat penguins?" The quick answer is no. Polar bears live in the northern hemisphere while all 17 penguin species live in the southern hemisphere. Think of it this way: POLar bears live near the North POLE. Penguins live closer to Antarctica. There are a number of reasons this is confusing though.

Check out this humorous photo-shopped image of a penguin waking up a polar bear:

Or this cartoon of what would happen if polar bears took a little boat ride:

Photo editing can also look pretty real, and may be another reason people think polar bears and penguins can co-exist as in this example:

If you want to see a few Antarctic Antics that will make you smile, check out Wally and Osborne. You guessed it! A great comic featuring a polar bear and his penguin pal:

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

I'll Take What's Behind Door Number 1

Every morning penguin breakfast is being prepared behind the scenes, and some clever little birds have this all figured out. People have asked me if the penguins have personalities, and I would have to say yes. Take this little wise-guy for example. This gentoo doesn't mind following me into the keeper's area. He has figured out that when the door opens into the exhibit, good things like smelt or capelin usually come in. So through the door he waddles, sneaking in on my heels trying to filch some fish. Only this time he was caught on camera with his beak in the capelin tray. Before you know it he performs his favorite magic trick, making three capelin disappear....gulp....gulp....gulp. As I shoo him back into the exhibit, it feels like he has a smile on his beak. The only evidence of his crime is fishy breath, and a slightly bigger tummy.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Penguins' Rock, Paper, Scissors

I had an interesting conversation with a co-worker today. She had overheard a visitor asking if the penguins were really studying us, or simply admiring their own reflections on the other side. Can they really see us? Or is it like a mirror on their side? The gentoos and macaronis really are spending time looking out at you....face to beak. Want to test this? When one of the penguins swims up to the window try wiggling your finger in front of their beak and watch what happens. Make a fist and hold your hand steady. Now point at the penguin and move your index finger up and down. More often than not, the penguin will begin to nod it's head up and down. Another way to prove all of the windows at the Tennessee Aquarium are see-through both ways is to wave to a diver. Or watch the divers playing rock, paper, scissors with visiting children. If the windows were like mirrors on the inside, the divers would tie themselves every game. (Diver to himself: "I don't know who this diver is, but he's really good at this game. Almost as if he knows my every move.") If chickens at the county fair can play tic-tac-toe, imagine how much fun it would be if gentoos or macaronis had fingers. Then you could play Penguins' Rock, paper, scissors!

Monday, May 14, 2007

One, if by hand, and two, if by sea. (Three if by pan.)

If he were still alive, I hope Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wouldn't mind me "borrowing" a line from his poem - Paul Revere's Ride. We don't hang lanterns along the shoreline of Penguins' Rock, but we do feed them one of three ways. And when you visit, you'll have a chance to see them chow down each way. Every morning the penguins are each hand fed at least one special fish. A vitamin is tucked inside the mouth of this first-fed fish. It's my job to make sure each bird gets one. That's no easy task when you have twenty hungry penguins crowding around you. Sometimes we'll use hand feeding as a way to build trust, and other times we do this to get a close up view of each penguin. The second way we feed is by tossing fish into the water, or water-feed. This is really fun to watch. The penguins are zooming all over the place trying to snatch up a fish before someone else gets it. Sometimes one penguin is successful at grabbing the capelin or smelt, but then changes direction and loses it. It's finders keepers if that happens. As soon as one penguin drops a fish, another one nabs it. The third way we feed the penguins is by pan. Mounds of fish are simply served up in two trays we leave out on the beach. This can be quite funny to watch as well. Occasionally one penguin will have a fish all picked out, and another will pluck it up before the first one can reach in and grab it. Some rather noisy exchanges will follow as the two birds seem to quarrel over who had "dibs" on the tasty morsel in question. Believe it or not, there's usually one Paul Revere in the crowd. As soon as one bird hears me approaching the door from outside, the charge is on from the rest of the penguins. Because they know that most of the time when the door opens - "The big-fish are coming! The big-fish are coming!"

Thursday, May 10, 2007

How I Keep My Suave Good Looks

When our penguins aren't diving into or rocketing out of the water, swimming or eating, you'll see them working on their feathers. Preening is important to all birds, but maybe more so to aquatic birds like penguins. Their feathers have to be waterproof so they can zip through the water like they do and dry off quickly when returning to land. The gentoo in the picture above is reaching back to a special gland near the tail. The uropygial gland produces a waxy substance the penguins spread over the rest of their feathers to keep them waterproof. Preening also realigns the feathers so they interlock with microscopic hooks. If you look closely at one of our penguins you'll see how smooth they look with those incredibly tight fitting feathers. Sometimes you'll see something funny when a penguin is preening the feathers on it's head. Since it can't reach the top of his head with it's beak, the penguin leans way over while standing on one foot. Then the other foot reaches up and begins a scratching motion. It's really one of the more comical things penguins do. As they keep scratching the top of their heads, you can almost hear them saying, "OH YEAH! That's the spot."

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Eau de Penguin?

One of the questions I get asked quite a bit is, "Aren't penguins smelly?" And the answer is yes and no. Macaronis are the world's most abundant penguins species with an estimated 9 million breeding pairs. They also might be the world's most pungent species. Macaroni colonies are found in the maritime Antarctic and sub-Antarctic regions. Huge breeding colonies of hundreds of thousands of penguins can be found on places like South Georgia Island. But hold your nose if you ever travel there. These enormous rookeries can be smelled 5 to 6 miles offshore! It's a good thing penguins have a poor sense smell. (And a good thing they aren't Toucans.) Quite a bit of thought went into the design of "Penguins' Rock", and special consideration was given to ventilation and odors. But I'd like to think the lack of strong odors is due to a lot of elbow grease. We are in the exhibit cleaning several times a day. You'll see us hosing and brushing the beach, and washing and wiping the mural. Which makes me think the penguins are always glad to see me. I'm the chef and the maid.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Nipping A Napping Story In The Bud

It's funny how some stories can keep resurfacing and being told again and again until they become the famous....."Urban Legend." So let's nip one in the bud before someone starts talking about a bird napping. For years there has been a story circulating literally all over the world about a child visiting a zoo and stuffing a live penguin in a back-pack and carrying it home. Several of these false alarms popped up from the United Kingdom to the United States in 2005. One place to read these urban legends is at this fact or fiction website: This website even cites the 2002 children's book, Tina and the Penguin, by Heather Dyer that may have re-ignited these false stories. So it's not surprising that yet another penguin-napping story has popped up in the news lately. This time KUTV in Salt Lake City went myth busting when it was reported that a young boy guessed it...stolen a penguin from the San Diego Zoo and it was later placed on exhibit at the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City. KUTV's Jeff Jaeger reports one major problem with the story though, the San Diego Zoo didn't have penguins in the first place. One surprise though...the Hogle Zoo reported people calling and visiting wanting to see the stolen penguin. For the full story check out this link: The only time you'll see a penguin-napping at the Tennessee Aquarium is after a gentoo or macaroni has a belly full of fish. Or at night on our webcam. That's when they catch their Zzzzzzzzz's!

Monday, May 7, 2007

Splish, Splash I Was Takin' A Bath

Wow what a busy past few days we have had at "Penguins' Rock." I think the penguins had as much fun seeing everyone visiting as the people enjoyed seeing the penguins. Every once in awhile you'll see me or one of our penguin volunteers cleaning the inside of the windows. We have an extension pole with a soft cloth at the end of it so we can wipe any fish scales or feathers from the acrylic. The birds are always having fun in the water jumping in and out, shaking their tails and heads. They also bathe while they are floating atop the waves. The penguins will roll over on one side and rapidly move one flipper, splashing water all over the place. Sometimes you'll see them on one side and then rolling over to the other side as if they are making sure both sides are squeaky clean. Normally I enjoy watching them doing this. But there was one time when it was not so fun. We had a crew in filming the penguins for a fun commercial you'll be seeing sometime soon. It was my job to clear all of the water droplets from the acrylic so the camera crew had a perfectly clear view of the penguins. Just about the time I would have the inside of the window spotless, you guessed it......splish, splash! A gentoo or macaroni would float by splashing water back onto the spot I had just dried off. Everyone looking in had big smiles on their faces, and it felt like a few sneaky penguins had grins on their beaks as well. You can see the fun music video the film crew put together by going back to our penguin page here: http://

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Penguins' Rock Opens Tomorrow!

Wow! It's almost time for the Tennessee Aquarium's penguins to meet everyone. In some ways it's hard to believe this day is finally here. I have been telling everyone that even though I have worked with penguins before, this is the first time I have been able to be part of a project like this from the ground up. And I have loved every minute of it. Getting to know the penguins has been the most fun. And relationship building is really one of the most important aspects of being the penguin keeper. You have to get to know the gentoos and macaronis in order to understand how they are doing. So you may see me simply observing the birds like in the picture above. By watching them preening or hopping along the rocks, I can tell who is acting happy and healthy. Some of the penguins may be more outgoing all of the time, a few might be a little shy. If one of the more outgoing penguins starts acting a little shy for example, is there a reason for the shyness? In that way, penguins are like children. If they are real active most of the time, and one day they get up acting sluggish you feel their forehead and ask, "Are you all right?" Except that these little ones can't tell me how they are feeling. Speaking of little ones, we had a few school groups take a sneek peek of our penguins yesterday. You should have seen their faces light up when they saw these amazing birds. For all of the people who have worked so hard for so long to bring penguins to Chattanooga, the smiles on little faces make it all worthwhile.