Thursday, December 10, 2015

Penguin biologist finds they're not bird-brains

December 8, 2015

The pejorative expression “bird brain” shouldn’t apply to penguins, said Andrea Newman, a penguin biologist. “They’re very intelligent and calculating animals – not the cute cuddly creatures depicted in the movies,” said Newman, 33, who works with more than 80 penguins who live in an active colony located in a giant pool at the New England Aquarium. Newman spoke with Globe correspondent Cindy Atoji Keene about what it’s like to care for three penguin species and keep their exhibit clean and engaging.

“As a senior aquarist, I spend as much as six hours a day in 55-degree water, often standing in chest-deep water, feeding and monitoring the penguins, and scrubbing and spraying the fiberglass islands and pool.

The birds are in an open air exhibit, and penguin poop has a very distinct odor – some have described it as smoky ammonia mixed with rotten seafood – so it needs to be throughly cleaned, not just for the animals but also for the public.

The aquarium has quite a large colony, including 14 rockhopper, 48 African and 29 little blue penguins who consume up to 80 pounds of fish a day. The fish is washed and sorted into buckets and then hand-fed, a sometimes perilous task, given the razor-sharp penguin beaks and projectile penguin poo which can shoot out in gooey lines. Even though they are living at the aquarium, they are still wild animals in the middle of Boston and when humans invade their space, they defend themselves.

My hands have a fair share of scratches on them but usually it’s because I’m going into the nest and checking on the chicks during breeding season. I love watching the ease with which the penguins swim through the water. As a distance swimmer in college, I’ve spent hundreds of hours underwater. That changes my perspective as a marine scientist. If I spend too much time on land, I get antsy and need to be wet.”


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