SeaWorld is home to thousands of species of animals and marine life. Penguins are a big part of SeaWorld’s conservation and preservation efforts. Penguin exhibits at each SeaWorld location offer a great family experience but more importantly, they also educate about these animals, and their conservation status. Penguin habitats provide a unique experience for both researchers and the public at large, who would not otherwise be able to view penguins in their natural habitat.
In San Antonio, SeaWorld takes care of over 100 penguins of various types and sizes. Two penguins recently drew attention because of their instinct to be “foster parents” for an egg of an entirely different penguin species.
Gentoo Penguins’ Mating and Nesting Habits
Gentoo penguins can be found in many sub-Antarctic islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. Compared to the emperor or king penguins, gentoo penguins are a smaller breed. On average, they weigh between 9.9 and 18.7 pounds.
Traditionally, gentoo penguins create nests along shallow coastal areas, often in tufts of grass. Stones surround each nest. The female gentoo penguin will lay eggs sometime between June and December, depending on the weather. Like many other types of penguins, the gentoo penguin is monogamous.
After the female gentoo penguin lays an egg, the male and female pair will take turns incubating the egg. The entire period will generally last about 35 days. Then, the chick will stay in the nest for about another month before joining other chicks to form small packs of young penguins, called creches.
Penguin “Foster Parents” at SeaWorld San Antonio
Today, there are roughly 300,000 breeding pairs of gentoo penguins in the wild. They are the third-largest penguin species. Surprisingly, the gentoo penguin is the only penguin species in the Antarctic Peninsula region whose population is increasing. Nonetheless, they remained classified as “near-threatened.”
SeaWorld San Antonio has two male gentoo penguins that have demonstrated a close bond. The gentoo species is known to have same-sex pairs that bond for life. In 2017, the two males were seen creating a nest together and taking turns guarding their nest and incubating, as though they had an egg in the nest.
While it is not uncommon for penguins to “foster” eggs, it is far less common that the “foster parents” are a same-sex pair. The pair was given a faux egg in 2017 to see how they would respond to it. They cared for the replica egg, just as two expecting penguins would in the wild. The trials continued until. 2020 when SeaWorld’s staff felt that the pair was ready..
In the early hatching season, the pair was given a “foster egg” that came from a chinstrap penguin pair. The pairs’ nest was close to an area where emperor penguins frequented, and the SeaWorld team was concerned that the egg would be trampled or left out in the cold if it was not relocated.
The gentoo penguin pair was able to hatch a chinstrap penguin egg on Dec. 30, 2020. Jason Medina, a SeaWorldSan Antonio aviculturist, noted: “Most new pairs tend to lose their eggs, and it takes a few seasons before they successfully incubate an egg.”
The two penguins also took turns feeding the chick once it had successfully hatched. Penguins feed their chicks regurgitated food. Adults will recognize their chicks by their distinct call, and penguins will not feed any chick other than their own.
In studies conducted in the wild, adoptions like these are very rare. A full, successful adoption among king penguins has only occurred in about 2% of cases. As a result, the fact that this adoption has been successful, and involves two penguins of the same sex, is remarkable.
SeaWorld and its Involvement in Penguin Conservation
There are 18 species of penguins that are currently legally protected from hunting and egg collecting. Many restrictions were put in place as part of the Antarctic Treaty, which was signed by 12 countries in 1959. It was reauthorized in 1991.
As a result of this treaty, it is illegal to harm or interfere with a penguin or its eggs in Antarctica. The Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research must approve any research or specimen collection. Similar treaties and laws affect other species of penguins as well, including the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
The penguins at SeaWorld have grown up in its care, or were rescued after being harmed or injured in some way. SeaWorld’s goal is always to return rehabilitated animals to the wild.
The Convention Assessment and Management Plan (CAMP) is a tool that is used to develop conservation priorities for various animals. In 2004, as a result of the Fifth International Penguin Conference, sponsored by SeaWorld and the New England Aquarium, the 1998 CAMP was updated to include all species of penguins. It also extensively reviewed conservation efforts and priorities to assist penguin populations around the world.
Penguin reproduction at SeaWorld is an integral part of efforts to increase penguin populations as a whole. The hope is that study of the penguins and support for reproduction will ultimately lead to better, more effective efforts to increase populations in the wild.
SeaWorld’s Efforts to Educate and Create Awareness
Observing animals in zoos and aquariums brings attention to these fascinating animals and helps create awareness about the need to preserve habitats for penguins. Currently, SeaWorld is home to the following breeds of penguins:
SeaWorld San Diego has been designated as a “Participating Institution” in efforts to preserve the Humboldt penguin population, a vulnerable species of penguin. Each species of penguin has been able to successfully reproduce in at least one SeaWorld location as part of the park’s comprehensive breeding program. SeaWorld has also provided grants to various research efforts to learn more about penguins in their natural habitat, including those observing and tracking migration and behavior patterns in the wild.