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Dallas zoo, aquarium staff part of global effort to save African penguins

African penguins are indicator species that tell us how our oceans are doing. Ryanne Hanley, Assistant Manager of Ambassador Animal Experiences, tells more about the species at the Dallas Zoo.<br/>

Penguin keepers across Dallas are working with conservation groups across the globe to implement the Species Survival Plan.

A colony of 11 penguins calls the Dallas Zoo home. They’re in the midst of their breeding season.

Kevin Graham, the zoo’s associate curator of birds and ectotherms, is counting on four bonded pairs to lay viable eggs. Graham said his colony is, in part, responsible for the survival of the entire species.

“If the worst happens and extinction crisis becomes imminent, we have a population that could be the reservoir,” Graham said.

The Dallas Zoo is part of an international cooperative called the Species Survival Plan Program. Its goal is to manage vulnerable ex-situ— or captive — populations.

The SSP identifies animals at risk of extinction and develops a Breeding and Transfer Plan between facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The program is managed by expert advisors who work cooperatively to maximize genetic diversity.

The breeding pairs at the Dallas Zoo didn’t fall in love by accident. They were matched up by a sophisticated algorithm that first analyzes their DNA as chicks, then matches them to a genetically ideal partner.

The highly scientific dating service ensures eggs laid by a breeding pair will be viable and contribute to a genetically diverse captive population.

While none of these penguins will ever find themselves in the wild, their still-incubated descendants might be reintroduced one day.

The algorithm accounts for a number of genetic features, but even the most advanced technology can’t predict personalities. So when his penguins need an extra push, Graham sets them up on a penguin date.

An African penguin swims in a tank seen through the glass
Yfat Yossifor
An African penguin swims to catch their food in the tank in their enclosure Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023, at the Dallas Zoo.

“There’s a lot of vocalization, a lot of body posturing, a lot of interacting,” he says. “And that’s if it goes well. If it doesn’t, we hope they ignore each other. But penguins that don't get along are feisty.”

While penguins prefer to find a mate and mate for life, some make it past their prime breeding years without securing a match. These birds find homes in penguin retirement communities.

The Dallas World Aquarium, which also contributes to the Species Survival Plan, is currently home to seven bachelor penguins. Susan Schmid, the aquarium’s avian collection manager, said that even though they aren’t part of the breeding program, her penguins play a role in conservation efforts as “ambassador animals” key to things like community outreach.

“They’re adorable,” she said. “I mean, you can’t help but like them. They’re cute. They’re funny to watch walk.”

Listen to African penguins get excited for feeding time at the Dallas World Aquarium

But these staffers aren’t satisfied with just bringing the public to the penguins. They want to ensure the public isn’t disrupting the penguins’ natural habitats.

The way we interact with the environment in North Texas can directly impact wild penguin populations, according to Ryanne Hanley, the Dallas Zoo’s assistant manager of ambassador animal experiences.

“Our big river here in Texas, our big Trinity River that goes all the way down to Galveston Bay, can carry trash as far away as Africa,” Hanley said.

According to Hanley, thoughtfulness about the environment is just as crucial as breeding programs for preserving animals like the African Penguin.

Her team at the zoo and keepers at the aquarium have taken their conservation efforts a step further.

Each year, each organization sends staff members to volunteer in South Africa. There, they help rescue wild penguins off the continent’s southernmost tip.

Julie Farrington, a lead zoologist at the Dallas Zoo, focuses her work in Southern Africa on providing nesting sites for displaced penguins, many of which have lost their nests due to land development, erosion or climate change.

The penguin keeper feeds fish to African penguins
Yfat Yossifor
Genie Olivo, primary penguin keeper, feeds the African penguins hang out on a rock in their enclosure Friday, Feb. 17, 2023, at the Dallas World Aquarium.

“Out there, [we] travel to all the different nesting sites where the penguins are still trying to nest. And [we’re] getting those nests out there for the birds to use. As soon as we get those nests down, birds are in them,” Farrington said.

She works in partnership with the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, or SANCCOB. The non-governmental organization helps rehabilitate seabird populations in southern Africa.

The artificial nests they use were developed in North Texas by Kevin Graham, the Zoo’s penguin keeper. During the design process, he accounted for everything from the nest's size to weight to building materials.

A prototype of the original nest sits in the penguins’ enclosure at the Dallas Zoo.

Graham says his work with the penguins at the zoo is just as important as his nest-building work in southern Africa.

“The penguins we have here are representatives of their species,” Graham said. “They teach people the struggles that penguins in the wild face.”

Born in London, Morning Producer and Podcast Host Katherine Hobbs has lived across the U.S. since 2001. Prior to joining KERA, she produced three podcasts for WJCT Public Media and Florida Public Media and wrote for Jacksonville Magazine, Autism Parenting Magazine and EU Jacksonville, among others. Katherine is thrilled to return to Texas after briefly living in Austin to share the stories that impact our North Texas community. When she’s not working, Katherine can be found admiring public libraries and visiting penguin colonies around the world.