In the Antarctic penguins usually have no problem p-p-picking up a partner during the breeding season.
But at a British zoo the birds have been getting some extra help – a daily dose of cod liver oil which makes them more attractive to the opposite sex.
During the three months of the mating season, each penguin gets one 400mg capsule a day popped in its mouth by a keeper who holds open its bill.
The pills, ordered over the internet, cost about 2p a time and help make the birds look better preened.
Mates for life: Rockhopper penguins are being given cod liver oil capsules to help perk up their sex lives
The move has proved so successful that Edinburgh Zoo has now become a world leader at breeding penguins in captivity and has been able to send birds as far away as Japan and New Zealand to enhance conservation programmes.
The penguins have even become an internet sensation – with thousands of people logging on to watch their playful antics as they currently enjoy snowy weather in Edinburgh to match their natural Antarctic home.
The zoo’s vet Romain Pizzi said: ‘The cod liver oil is given to the penguins during the breeding season as it helps to keep their preen gland healthy.
‘The preen gland is used by the birds during grooming and produces an oil to help condition their feathers. A healthy preen gland ensures the penguins are looking good so they attract a mate.’
In the wild, the penguins would have obtained the oil from their natural diet, which includes cod.
However, the zoo is bound by marine sustain¬ability guidelines which recommend it feeds the birds blue whiting and hake instead of cod. The liver oil pills are then used as a supplement.
Scientists have observed that penguins preen their feathers frequently because they must be in prime condition to ensure waterproofing and insulation. They preen with their bills, spreading oil through the feathers which is secreted from a gland near the base of the tail.
During the mating season they head for special nesting sites on the shoreline where the males stand with backs arched and wings outstretched.
Daily dose: The 'miracle' cod liver oil capsules being given to penguins at Edinburgh Zoo
The birds bond by touching necks and slapping each other on the back with their flippers. They usually remain mates for life.
Edinburgh has more than 200 penguins – one of the largest captive colonies in the world. It includes 187 gentoos, 19 rockhoppers and ten king penguins. King of all the kings is Sir Nils Olav, the mascot of the Norwegian Army.
Edinburgh Zoo spokesman Claire Richardson said: ‘The breeding ¬season starts at the beginning of March, when the keepers place nest rings in the birds’ enclosure.
‘They return to the same nests they used in previous years and usually pair up with the same partner.
‘Very often the keepers find the birds waiting on their nest position before the nest ring has gone down.
‘When the nest rings are in place, the birds start collecting small pebbles to build their nests.
‘The keepers provide piles of pebbles but the gentoos often prefer to steal likely-looking pebbles from their neighbours’ nests, inevitably causing arguments.
‘The first eggs are laid in April and the eggs hatch after a 35-day incubation. The chicks weigh between 70-100g (3-3.5oz), but very quickly put on weight so that by July they are 5kg (11lb) and ready to wean.
‘At this stage, the adults and chicks engage in “feeding chases’’, where the chicks chase their parents around the nest-site begging for food. This ensures the parents only ever feed their own chick.’
The zoo’s order for 24,000 cod liver oil capsules came as a surprise to Mitesh Soma, of Chemist¬direct.co.uk. The 400mg pills cost £3.88 for 180.
‘I was stunned,’ said Mr Soma. ‘We had never had an order like it before.
‘They are certainly our most unusual customers, but we hope the treatment works through the mating season, and we get another order next year.
‘We’ve now been approached by other zoos to provide supplements for animals.
‘But I’m not anticipating dental floss orders for crocodiles!’
The Penguin Camera is located on Torgersen Island (64°46’S, 64°04’W), off the coast of Anvers Island and less than a mile from Palmer Station. Torgersen Island is home to a colony of Adélie penguins numbering approximately 2,500. This camera is seasonal and operates primarily from October to February, the Adélie breeding season. The camera is solar-powered and may sometimes experience brief outages due to inclement weather. School classrooms and other educational demonstrations will often take control of the camera, moving it to gain better views of the colony.