African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) are in danger of extinction. Wild colonies along the coasts of South Africa and Namibia are threatened by the depletion of their food from overfishing, climate change, and pollution from incidences such as oil spills. So the penguin biologists at the New England Aquarium are doing all they can to keep the birds in our care happy and healthy, and that means maintaining a thoughtful breeding program.  

African penguin
African penguin (Spheniscus demersus)

We are very selective of which penguins are breeding; this is to ensure that we maintain a genetically diverse and healthy population. But it doesn’t stop with just the penguins here at the Aquarium. We participate in the Species Survival Plan (SSP) for the African penguins involving AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums)-accredited institutions throughout North America that also have African penguins. The breeding program is carefully monitored to produce the most genetically diverse population possible.

The genealogy of every African penguin born in the SSP is known, and each penguin is ranked based on how genetically valuable they are. This rank is determine by how well represented their genes are in the population. Then every two years, members of the SSP get together and, using the rankings, decides which penguins would make the best pairings. Sometimes the two penguins are already at the same institution, but sometimes penguins need to be traded to other places.

penguin pair
Look for bonded pairs of penguin in the exhibit!

The SSP meeting draws representatives from each participating institution for lively discussion. Think: NFL draft with all the trading that goes on. A lot of work goes into making sure the African population is well managed and self-sufficient! Once the pairs are approved, each institution can start the long and careful process of caring for breeding penguin pairs and (hopefully!) their chicks behind the scenes—more on that another time.

penguin chicks
During breeding season, penguin pairs stay behind the scenes as they raise their chicks.

It is not breeding season here at the Aquarium, and the African, rockhopper, and little blue penguin chicks born this summer are all grown up and on exhibit. But we are always busy caring for the penguins on exhibit, while behind the scenes we are also constantly working with other AZA institutions to make sure these amazing species thrive in our care. Our penguin volunteers and biologists also don wetsuits to give talks inside the exhibit twice a day. So come visit our lively penguin colony at the Aquarium and learn even more about our happy penguin pairs and the next generation of penguins in our colony!