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News from the field: Health checks for wild penguins

Posted by: John Samaras, Penguin Keeper

This blog post is part two of a three-part series based on Woodland Park Zoo penguin keeper John Samaras’ work in Punta San Juan, Peru with a zoo conservation partner.

In part one, I blogged about the diverse wildlife I encountered on my trip to Punta San Juan in Peru where I joined zoo professionals and Peruvian biologists in conducting an annual health assessment of the wild population of Humboldt penguins.

Woodland Park Zoo’s penguin exhibit, which opened in May 2009, replicates the coast of Punta San Juan, a barren desert peninsula that juts out into the South Pacific in southern Peru.

Here in part two, I’ll take you through the experience of administering the health assessments on these wild penguins, a challenging annual task that is critical to establish baseline data so we can track the health and any emergent needs of this endangered population.

From the field:
We stood at the edge of a high cliff where the flat desert abruptly ends and a rock wall drops down 60 feet to the sandy beach and sea below. About 40 penguins gathered on the beach basking in the bright sun. As I peeked over the edge I could see several Peruvian boobies nesting on small rock shelves just a few feet below. Even though we were this high up, there were penguin burrows! We identified about five burrows and geared up to start.

Along with cases of medical equipment, the tools of the trade for catching penguins were: a four-foot pole curved on the end to form a hook, which was padded, and another pole with a metal bowl attached to it. We used the pole with the hook to reach into a burrow and hook it around a penguin’s legs, then carefully pull it out of the burrow. We used the pole with the bowl if any penguins had eggs in their burrow. The bowl would be placed over an egg, then slowly pulled out to safety before trying to catch the adults. After watching others on the team catch the first couple of penguins, I was ready for my turn.

I peered into the sandy burrow, and it stretched back about four feet in the shape of a “u.” There were two chicks in the burrow, so I slowly pulled each one out with the padded hook. Once the chicks were in safe hands, it was time to catch my first wild penguin!

Lying on my stomach, I saw the penguin facing me and backing up deep into the burrow. I reached in with the pole, and after a few misses I was able to loop the hook around its leg. I slowly extracted the feisty penguin from the burrow.

With the pole in the left hand and holding the penguin in place, I used my right hand to quickly grab it behind the neck and control its head. I then released the leg and restrained the bird with both hands.

I carried it a few feet over to the vets work station. One person had a clipboard and recorded the time each procedure was performed—the first being the time at which the bird was restrained. I sat down with the penguin between my knees, my legs outstretched and my ankles crossed. I held its bill securely closed and the vet started the physical exam.

We checked each penguin for a toe-tag to identify any previously-caught birds and scanned it for a microchip. For those without a toe-tag, we applied the small, numbered tag to the webbing between two of their toes. The vet then performed a lactate test, using a needle to puncture the bare skin around the penguin’s bill, and squeezing out a drop of blood.

A machine similar to a glucometer was used for this test, with a small strip being inserted into the reader and the end of the strip being put into the drop of blood to read the level of lactic acid in the blood. An animal that exerts itself and is under stress will have a high lactate reading, since more lactic acid is being produced. So, we could measure the stress level of the penguin immediately after being caught up—and again after we were finished and about to release the bird. We found that, generally, their stress levels were higher right after being caught and had lowered by the end of the procedure.

Heart rate and respiration were taken and recorded, and a microchip inserted if the bird did not already have one. Next, a small device was used to test the intraocular pressure of each eye. We also conducted blood draws, which were dispensed into about eight different collection tubes for various tests. A feather sample was taken and sealed in a small plastic bag.

Measurements of the bill, wings and feet were taken and recorded. We also weighed the penguins using a fish scale—a strap was put around the penguin’s body just under the wings, and the bird was carefully held up in the air.

After restraining the penguin again, the strap was removed and a fat yellow grease pencil was used to mark the bird so we didn’t catch the same one twice.

The second lactate test was taken, and the penguin was then ready for release! The chicks were placed back into the burrow and the adult penguin was put back into its home.

Over the next five days, we journeyed to several different beaches and caves on the peninsula to catch a total of 51 penguins for the health assessment. All of the penguins we examined were in good condition and all had either eggs or chicks. It was amazing to finally see and work with Humboldt penguins in the wild!

In my third and final blog of the series, I will reflect on my experience and the valuable first-hand perspective that I obtained by going to Punta San Juan that I was able to bring back and share.

Photos by John Samaras/Woodland Park Zoo.


Boo at the Zoo said…
I've been here a few time always learn a lot and have a great time.