One of the joys of being part of the Tennessee Aquarium’s husbandry team is witnessing new life coming into the world. In some cases that means carefully incubating turtle eggs or making sure there’s just the right water conditions for trout eggs, baby seahorses or shark and stingray pups. And, as part of a network of accredited zoos and aquariums, frequently these offspring are shared with others to ensure healthy populations in human care and to reduce pressure on wild populations.
“Over the years we have exchanged a variety of animals with other AZA-accredited institutions - from native songbirds to jellyfish,” said Jackson Andrews, the Aquarium’s director of husbandry and operations. “And now, for the first time, we will transfer 11 of our penguins to another facility.”
More than 4.6 million guests have enjoyed learning about the Aquarium’s Gentoo and Macaroni penguins since these charismatic birds came to Chattanooga in 2007 as part of a long-term breeding loan agreement with SeaWorld. “Pepper,” a Macaroni chick, was the Tennessee Aquarium’s first penguin hatchling in 2009. Since then, eight Gentoos and two other Macaroni chicks have thrilled visitors.
“The penguin life cycle - is fascinating to watch throughout the year,” said Dave Collins, the Aquarium’s curator of forests. “Molting, courtship and bonding displays, nest-building, incubation and rearing of chicks can all be observed – providing a great view into the inner workings of a penguin’s life.”
While these educational opportunities connect Aquarium guests with a remote location many will never visit, Collins says it’s also important from a husbandry standpoint to provide opportunities for each bird to engage in natural behaviors. “With 19 adults remaining at the Aquarium, many that are proven pairs, we expect to see more penguin chicks in the future,” said Mr. Collins.
In order for the Aquarium’s most recent additions to find a mate and start a family, it’s necessary for them to join another colony. “Our Gentoos and Macaronis are part of population management plans for their species,” said senior aviculturist Amy Graves. “We follow guidelines to ensure that mated penguin pairs keep the genetic diversity robust. Our birds have strong family trees. Now Pepper and the other birds we raised will be able to branch out and add to that lineage.”
The Aquarium will host a “Penguin Bon Voyage Party” on Monday, Jan. 20, which is also Penguin Awareness Day. Two special penguin programs are scheduled at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Keepers will talk about the success of the Aquarium’s penguin breeding program and the challenges associated with helping penguin parents raise their young. Youngsters can color their own flipper bands and learn more about penguins at a special information station that will be set up outside the Penguins Rock exhibit. To discover more about the life cycle of King Penguins, visitors may choose to see Penguins 3D at IMAX at noon or 3 p.m.
The exact transfer date and logistics are still being determined, so guests that are not able to visit during the Bon Voyage Party will have some time to visit the chicks they helped name one more time before they move to San Diego.
Ms. Graves was part of the team that brought the Aquarium’s penguins to Chattanooga. She knows their personalities and discovered their individual behaviors. When asked if she and the other keepers will miss this group of birds, the answer was yes.
“Of course we’ll miss them,” she said. “You get quite attached to the animals you take care of and help raise, some with late night feedings. But we also know they’re going to a wonderful organization that cares for their birds as much as we do. It will be fun to hear about our chicks joining a new colony and raising their own chicks one day.”
Tennessee Aquarium senior aviculturist Amy Graves with “Pepper,” the first penguin reared in Chattanooga.