Valentine’s Day came early for the African penguins at the California Academy of Sciences. Yesterday, staff biologists distributed heart-shaped valentines to the birds.
Although the endangered birds usually exhibit strong pair bonds, the valentines weren’t exchanged—instead, the penguins shredded them for nesting material.
The hearts, which were decorated with messages from the Academy's Teen Advocates for Science Communication group, are made of the same material used to scrub autos in car washes, said Vikki McCloskey, assistant curator at the Steinhart Aquarium.
“We’ll also hand out other colors, and they’ll get that two to three times each week for their nests," she explained.
There are 14 birds in the Academy’s rookery. Biologists have been breeding African penguins there since 1983, but the birds weren’t classified as an endangered species until 2010.
Penguins raised at the Academy are part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan, a breeding program that promotes genetic diversity among captive populations.
African penguins eat small fish like anchovies and squid. Weighing about eight to nine pounds, adults grow up to two feet tall, and can for live up to three decades in captivity.
Each bonded pair may hatch and raise up to two chicks each year. Originally from islands along Africa’s southwest coast, their original habitat has been degraded by overfishing and pollution.
Academy staff engage regularly with animals to provide stimulation. At Halloween, snapping turtles receive pumpkins for munching, and the handlers of a giant Pacific octopus place food inside closed jars that the animal must learn to open.
“You can see an enrichment event every day,” said McCloskey. “It’s part of our mission.”
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