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Monday, March 16, 2009

They nest in what?!

Posted by: Rebecca Whitham, Communications and Jona Jacobson, Field Conservation

Humboldt penguins nest in poop.

No, really.

In the wild, Humboldt penguins dig their nests into guano, the accumulated droppings of sea birds. These nesting burrows protect eggs and chicks in the unique yet unforgiving desert environment that is Punta San Juan, Peru—home of Peru’s largest Humboldt penguin population, and the inspiration for Woodland Park Zoo’s new penguin exhibit opening in May.

But this tidbit is important not just because it’s a great “Did you know?” to pull out at your next party, but because it’s also a significant factor in the conservation of this endangered species.

You see, one of the greatest threats to Humboldt penguins is the overharvesting of guano as an agricultural fertilizer.

Take away their nesting material, and penguins lose the ability to safely hatch eggs and add chicks to their already depleted population.

To mitigate this threat, a guano reserve was created in Punta San Juan, overseeing the sustainable harvesting of this precious resource. The Humboldt Penguins Conservation Center, which Woodland Park Zoo helps support annually, is currently trying to transition Punta San Juan from a supervised guano reserve to a true marine reserve. In addition to maintaining a protective seawall, the Center collects biological data and conducts educational programs within the surrounding area, increasing awareness of Humboldt penguin needs and marine conservation issues.

When you visit the new Humboldt penguin exhibit at Woodland Park Zoo this summer, look for guano-topped rocks like the one pictured here and guano bags stacked next to a recreation of a working guano harvest area.

Photos: (Top) Humboldt penguin chicks, photo by Patricia Maluf. (Middle) Bags of harvested guano are stacked high in Punta San Juan, Peru, photo by R. Scott Vance. (Bottom) Guano-topped rock in Woodland Park Zoo’s new Humboldt penguin exhibit, photo by Ryan Hawk.

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