GREENSBORO, N.C. — When the African penguins Derek and Geirfugl were given their own room last spring, keepers at the Greensboro Science Center questioned whether they liked each other enough to take their relationship to the next level.
Derek was more interested in interacting with her human keepers than with other penguins. And when she did start to flirt with Geirfugl, leaning toward him and flicking her head back and forth, the male bird did not return the sentiment.
By mid-September, though, the relationship had taken an amorous turn. On a recent afternoon, they nestled beside each other inside a plastic crate — on a nest containing two eggs. “Geirfugl is actually a really good mate,” said Shannon Fletcher, a keeper at the science center. “He’s done all of the collecting for their nest box. He’s been very protective of her.”
In the wild, African penguins, which inhabit the coast of South Africa and Namibia, choose their partners from a pool of thousands and mate for life. In captivity, the limited size of the colonies — and the need to perpetuate a genetically diverse species — make human intervention necessary.
The African penguin population has declined more than 60 percent over the past 30 years, and the species is now considered endangered. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums runs a “species survival” program among the nearly 50 facilities with African penguin colonies, including the science center here.
Scientists gather the genetic information on more than 800 birds held around the country and make breeding recommendations based on which are least related to one another. The facilities maintain “studbooks” that track the information and carry out prescribed breeding and transfer plans.
One of the newer facilities to join the program, the Greensboro center started its penguin colony — now 17 birds — just over two years ago. As it turns out, while the science guiding the plan is fairly straightforward, penguin group dynamics are not. “One day this penguin likes this penguin, and the next day, they’re not talking,” said Carmen Murray, a former senior keeper. “They’re flirting and trying to get attention, or being a bully and picking on a certain one.”
Because penguin preferences rarely correspond exactly with species management plan mandates, the keepers are responsible for managing the penguins’ love lives, often by gently trying to convince certain birds that they fancy each other, while keeping other potential partners distracted.
Breeding healthy penguins is both a science and an art, said Steve Sarro, curator of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park and coordinator of the zoo association’s African penguin program. “The science is in the medicine and nutrition, and the art is in the keeper staff, the institutions, knowing their animals,” he said. “You need to be able to finesse your colony so you get the best out of them.”
Completed in June 2013, the glass-walled penguin enclosure at the Greensboro science center contains a 9,500-gallon pool of water against a backdrop of faux granite rocks. The penguins here lead soap-opera lives, to hear their keepers tell it.
When Geirfugl was bonding with a bird named Kaapse, for example, the couple took nesting too far and began hoarding rocks from the exhibit — more than 100 pounds — in their nesting box, crushing a couple of eggs. After the keepers set them up in a room with a nesting box and a few token rocks, they turned out to be wonderful parents.
This season, Kaapse and Tux, both females, bonded with each other rather than males, because their former mates were both in keeper-designated relationships with other females. (Little is known of gender preferences among penguins; however, albatrosses are known to establish same-sex pair bonds.)
When the female pair began to compete with Apollo, Tux’s former mate, and his new spouse for a nest box, the keepers gave the females one of their own, praying it would prevent Tux from sabotaging her ex’s current relationship.
Then there are the star-crossed lovers Guinn, a male with prized genes, and Jumoke, whose genetic makeup is less optimal. Guinn doesn’t much care about that. “Even when he and his assigned mate are doing well, he keeps coming back to Jumoke,” Ms. Murray said. Guinn would serve the species by moving on, of course, but he just can’t quit her.
Glenn Dobrogosz, executive director of the science center, describes managing the birds as a matter of prioritizing the long-term well-being of the species over the individual preferences of the penguins.
“Some people would say that’s not fair or nice, because you’re taking a bond that has previously formed and you’re breaking it up, but we’re not seeing any negative repercussions to it whatsoever,” Mr. Dobrogosz said. “Their new bonds seem to be happy. They’re getting along, they’re building nests together, they’re cooperating, they’re switching off laying on the eggs. Ultimately, 10, 20, 30 years down the road, it’s better for the species.”
Despite the interpersonal challenges, the penguins have been very successful breeders. All seven couples designated to mate last year produced healthy chicks.
In the wild, however, African penguins face continued threats, mostly from people. The collection of guano for fertilizer has deprived them of the material they use to build burrows. Oil spills in 1994 and 2000 killed 30,000 birds despite rehabilitation efforts. And commercial overfishing has forced the birds to swim much farther for food. “One hundred fifty years ago, there were millions in the wild,” said Mr. Sarro, of the Smithsonian. “Now we’re down to 18,000 breeding pairs.”
Last spring, the zoo association launched a campaign focused on restoring endangered animals’ wild populations to healthy levels. Because of their vulnerability, African penguins were among the first four species chosen.
The association hopes captive colonies will act as ambassadors for their wild counterparts, building public support for conservation efforts.
Back at the science center, Derek and Geirfugl warmed their eggs in the back room as several other adult pairs sat on eggs in their nest boxes. Two chicks born last year, Jordy and Keuchly, stood pressed together on a rock overlooking the pool of water, grooming each other’s face feathers. “The yearlings are definitely practicing,” Ms. Fletcher, the keeper, said. “But they’re in that awkward teen phase. They’re trying to figure it all out.”