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Penguins, Romantic at Heart

While Rita roared just offshore, two Moody Gardens penguins decided to start a family.

By Wendee Holtcamp

As Hurricane Rita barreled toward the Gulf Coast, curators and biologists at Moody Gardens Aquarium were frantically trying to feed all the animals and secure the fort for the pending storm when something caught assistant curator Diane Olsen’s eye in the penguin exhibit — a couple of gentoos were getting friendly. “We were running around like crazy people trying to feed all the animals and it stopped us in our tracks,” says Olsen. The happy penguin couple has since hatched two fuzzy gray and white chicks that have become all the rage with aquarium visitors.

“It’s interesting and exciting because we haven’t had gentoos breed, we’ve mostly had kings breed,” Olsen explains. Although gentoo penguins can mate at two years old, no gentoos at Moody Gardens had gotten amorous. The two that mated were three and five years old (male and female, respectively).

Gentoos are medium-sized penguins with reddish-orange bills, a broad white stripe across the top of their heads, and a sprinkling of white polka dot freckles around their face on otherwise black bodies. The penguins are native to Antarctica and the Sub-Antarctic Islands, such as the Falklands and South Georgia Island, but these particular gentoos hail from penguins raised in captivity for several generations. About 300,000 gentoos exist in the wild. In their native habitat, they create nests from rocks, leaves or other vegetation, and in the aquarium they created a cozy nest on river rocks available in the exhibit. They lay two eggs three days apart, but both eggs usually hatch at the same time, after around 34 days of incubation. This ensures there is not unequal competition between the chicks.

The penguin chicks hatched at Moody Gardens before now — mostly kings — have been hand-reared, but the curators decided for the first time to let the penguin parents raise their chicks. “Sometimes we’re too eager to step in, so we decided to see what happens,” explains Olsen. “We just wanted to see if the parents could do it and let nature take its course.” Aquarium personnel nonetheless weighed the chicks every day for the first five days to ensure they were gaining weight — and they certainly were. A second gentoo couple also paired up after Hurricane Rita.

One of the most exciting aspects of the penguin exhibit is that Moody Gardens participated in an egg-collecting expedition for king penguins in 1998. Most captive penguins come from stock collected many years ago, and the king penguin stock was in need of a genetic boost. Zoo and museum curators maintain an international studbook that details the parentage history of each individual back to the original founding stock. This ensures that no inbreeding occurs, which could cause health and other problems. Several king penguins have paired up and successfully reared young in the exhibit. In addition to 12 gentoos and 31 king penguins, Moody Gardens Aquarium, which opened in 1999, has six rockhoppers, and 39 chinstraps.

As you leave the penguin exhibit, the wall reveals a reflective message from Senegalese Conservationist Baba Dioum, “For in the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”

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