Despite their popularity in zoos, penguins have been little studied in the captive environment. The Detroit Zoo is currently constructing the new, state-of-the-art Polk Penguin Conservation Center (PPCC) that will house king, macaroni, rockhopper, and gentoo penguins. The PPCC is being designed to allow for a wide variety of species-appropriate behaviors and for the penguins to exercise greater choice and control. Specifically, a major increase in land space, significantly deeper and greater water space, and more variety of substrates will be available to the penguins. The new habitat will provide a great opportunity to compare the behavior and well-being of the same group of penguins in two drastically different environments.
We are currently collecting data for a multi-year study that will examine the behavior of the penguins in each habitat. We are conducting daily observations to gather information on the activity budgets, use of space, and social dynamics of 27 focal penguins. We are also using biologgers to monitor the penguins’ swimming behavior. The data loggers provide an automatic, 24-hour record of the amount of time the penguins spend swimming as well as their preferred swimming depths. Although field researchers have been using these devices for decades, we first conducted a pilot study to confirm that wearing the data loggers had no adverse behavioral effects on the penguins.
As this study progresses, we are exploring additional novel measures, such as hormone concentrations in feathers, in order to gain the most complete picture of the penguins’ welfare and how it is affected by their new living space.