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Dallas Zoo Tries to Save African Penguins

African penguins | Image by Sergey Uryadnikov/Shutterstock

Dallas Zoo is playing its part in a worldwide initiative to save wild African penguins.

With its numbers dropping over 97% in the past 100 years, this species is endangered and conservation efforts are the only way to ensure its survival.

Dallas Zoo plays two significant roles in the ongoing conservation effort. First, its zookeepers travel once a year to South Africa to install artificial nests roughly the size of dog crates.

Bird Island, located just off South Africa’s west coast, is the biggest known breeding ground for penguins. As of 2021, there were 1,853 breeding pairs there.

This season Dallas zookeepers placed 350 artificial nests in the wild for these penguins.

Another way the zoo is helping the conservation effort is through its own local breeding project.

At Dallas Zoo, a colony of 11 African penguins is cared for by keeper Kevin Graham. In fact, Dallas has a very similar climate to where these penguins originated off Africa’s coast.

The penguins’ breeding season spans from March to May, with females laying one to two eggs that will need to be incubated for up to 41 days.

At Dallas Zoo, this is a critical time for its four bonded penguin pairs, per NPR. If they manage to lay viable eggs, this small colony could serve as a reservoir to help ensure the survival of the entire species.

Given the high stakes, breeding pairs aren’t just thrown together haphazardly.

The zoo uses a highly scientific “dating service” that first analyzes the penguins’ DNA and then matches them with a genetically ideal partner. This ensures that the eggs laid by a breeding pair will be viable and can contribute to a genetically diverse captive population.

But matching penguins based on their DNA isn’t a guarantee of success. Just like with humans, attraction and chemistry play a crucial role in mate selection.

“A lot of vocalization, a lot of body posturing, a lot of interacting” are key indicators that a “penguin date” is going well, Graham explained, per NPR.

But what happens if penguins don’t find a match?

They enter a sort of bachelor retirement community at the Dallas World Aquarium.

“They’re adorable. I mean, you can’t help but like them. They’re cute. They’re funny to watch walk,” Susan Schmid, the avian collection manager at the Dallas World Aquarium, told NPR.

While these penguins aren’t part of a breeding program, they serve to help educate visitors about the efforts to save their wild cousins.

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