Penguins have been around for millions of years, but they are sensitive to changing climate patterns.
The theme of the Kansas City penguin exhibit is the interconnectedness of oceans and currents. Changes in ocean temperature can cause shifts in fish behavior and force the animals that feed on them — including penguins — to adapt.
That might mean one penguin partner has to swim farther away to feed while the other partner tends the nest. That might mean less sustenance for chicks, leading to a higher mortality rate.
“If the food supply goes away, whatever parent is off to get food will swim the distance,” said Gary Wesche of Kansas City, an education consultant hired by the Kansas City Zoo to help develop penguin curriculums and learning materials for classrooms and field trips.
“But they might not make it back in time before the other parent has to leave the nest to survive and get its food,” Wesche said.
Of 18 generally recognized species of penguins, some are considered in danger, but all are considered challenged.
Some penguins, like polar bears in the Northern Hemisphere, are dependent on sea ice, which is shrinking. Algae on the ice attracts the krill and the fish that penguins eat.
Temperature changes can also bring invasive species that compete for food or threaten the penguins themselves.
Scientists are watching to see how penguins cope with climate change, but accessibility to their breeding grounds is often difficult and much is still unknown about their behavior between breeding seasons.
Of the species Kansas City is getting, the rockhoppers and the Humboldts are considered vulnerable, while the gentoos are near threatened. Kings are of the least concern.
Humboldts, which nest along the west coast of South America, are seriously depleted. Roughly 40,000 birds survive, a small fraction of the 19th century population.
“Peru’s largely unregulated fishing industry not only removes the Humboldts’ food supply but also places them at risk of entanglement in fishing nets,” said Michael Macek, curator of birds at the Saint Louis Zoo and director of a conservation program for Humbodlts.
Another threat is the guano trade. Humboldts use the bird manure as nesting burrows for their eggs, but guano is packed with nitrogen and is harvested for fertilizer.
Later this fall, the Kansas City Zoo will send Sean Putney, director of living collections, to Peru to join the Saint Louis Zoo and others in a project to protect Humboldt penguins at Punta San Juan on the coast.
The project has conducted an annual Humboldt census of the entire Peruvian coast since 2004 and has led to sustainable guano harvests that reportedly have no negative effect on the penguin population.
Punta San Juan and 32 other penguin breeding sites are now protected under a 2009 agreement with the Peruvian government.
You and the zoo
The Helzberg Penguin Plaza opens for Friends of the Zoo members at 8:30 a.m. Friday and for the general public at 9:30 a.m.kansascityzoo.org penguinscience.com