Monday, February 2, 2015

Audubon Aquarium and the fight to save the endangered black-footed #penguin

 By Robert McClendon, | The Times-Picayune on February 02, 2015

Ron Forman, president and chief executive of the Audubon Institute, speaks at a July 29, 2015, meeting of the Audubon Commission. (Photo by Robert McClendon, | The Times-Picayune)

Marina, a rare black-footed penguin, squirmed as Darwin Long tried to explain how Audubon Aquarium of the Americas is trying to save her species.

Long, senior aviculturist at the aquarium, raised Marina from a hatchling, and she's an "ambassador penguin," one of the animals Long uses in educational talks to aquarium patrons. She is used to being handled and dealing with humans, but she had just finished making introductions and posing for pictures with the Audubon Commission when a reporter asked to interview Long about the penguin breeding program.

Everyone has their limits, even an ambassador penguin.

Marina is the product of the aquarium's breeding program, which aims to preserve the species' genetic stock in the event that it goes extinct and needs to be re-introduced into their native habitat, the islands and coastline of Africa's southern tip.

Over the last century, the black-footed penguin population has declined 99.5 percent, Long said, leaving a wild community of fewer than 50,000.

The species has been under tremendous pressure from environmental degradation, he said. Oil spills and guano mining, the removal of hardened bird-poop that the penguins use to build nests, have contributed to the species decline, but the primary driver is the collapse of the cape anchovy.

Overfishing has decimated the penguins' primary food source, causing a decline in breeding, Long said. "When you are an African penguin trying to get enough fish to feed yourself and your partner and your two chicks, and 80 percent of your food source disappears, something has to give," he said.
The species could be extinct within two decades, Long said.

Until the fishery recovers, there is little point in reintroducing penguins to the wild, where they would either starve or fail to propagate, Long said.

That's where the captive breeding program comes in.

Audubon is a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and participates in the organization's Species Survival Plan.

Audubon and other participating aquariums keep extensive pedigrees on their penguins. The Survival Plan program gathers that data and acts as a "" for penguins, Long said, paring penguins with varied heredity to ensure that the genetic stock of the captive population remains robust.

For now, the captive population should be able to propagate itself safely without danger of inbreeding for about 200 years, Long said.


An employee of the Aquarium of the Americas holds a black-footed penguine, a critically endangered species native to Africa's southern coast. (Photo by Robert McClendon, | The Times Picayune)

 Darwin Long, an employee at the Aquarium of the Americas, holds a rare black-footed penguin at a meeting of teh Audubon Commission Jan 29, 2015. (Photo by Robert McClendon, | The Times-Picayune)

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