March of the penguins

New aquatic birds arrive at the Detroit Zoo

By: Victoria Mitchell | Royal Oak Review | Published January 6, 2016


ROYAL OAK — Arriving via FedEx, 20 gentoo penguins marched into the Detroit Zoo last month to nest in the Polk Penguin Conservation Center when construction wraps up this April.

Zoo officials said the aquatic birds – 10 females and 10 males – currently are chilling in a special quarantine area at the Penguinarium. People can recognize the long-tailed penguin by the white stripe extending across its head and its bright red-orange bill. It is the third-largest penguin, reaching a height of up to 30 inches and a weight of up to 20 pounds.

The newest flock joins three other gentoos who arrived at the zoo nearly a year ago, as well as a colony of king, rockhopper and macaroni penguins.

Officials chose the gentoo species based on it being a cold-weather species and, therefore, compatible with the other species and the environment at the Detroit Zoo.

All 80 penguins will live in the Polk Penguin Conservation Center, which currently is under construction on 2 acres of zoo property near the front entrance. When all penguins are in their new home, renovations will begin on the Penguinarium to turn it into a bat conservation center.

Zoo officials said that when the Penguinarium was built in 1968, it was a state-of-the-art facility and the first of its kind in any zoo or aquarium; however, after nearly 50 years, it was time to redefine “state-of-the-art” for penguins.

“The Polk Penguin Conservation Center will be the largest and most extraordinary facility in the world for penguins,” Detroit Zoo Communications Manager Jennie Miller said in an email.

A signature feature of the penguins’ new 33,000-square-foot home will be a chilled 326,000-gallon, 25-foot-deep aquatic area with views above and below the water. Visitors will be able to watch them dive, which is something people would not be able to see in the wild.

“Gentoo penguins are fast swimmers and divers and spend a lot of time in the water, so their new aquatic habitat will be an ideal environment for them,” Scott Carter, Detroit Zoological Society chief life sciences officer, stated in a press release.

According to Miller, a lot of research went into the development of the center’s design, including several people actually crossing the Drake Passage en route to Antarctica and observing thousands of penguins in the wild.

“World-renowned polar ecologist Dr. Bill Fraser was a consultant in the design, which was done by Jones & Jones — architects of Disney’s Animal Kingdom and our Arctic Ring of Life — and Albert Kahn Associates, architects of our Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex,” Miller said via email.

According to Miller, when visitors enter the building, they will descend a series of ramps and be surrounded by 4-D effects that simulate crossing the Drake Passage en route to Antarctica, including arctic blasts, waves and cascades of ice crashing into the sea.

Zoo officials said the gentoo penguin is the fastest-diving bird, with paddle-shaped flippers that help it reach speeds of up to 22 miles an hour underwater.

Once construction is complete, the birds will be moved to their new home and will have some time to acclimate to their new surroundings before it opens to the public.