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Official magazine of the Biological Sciences Society
National University of Singapore
The Mudskipper, Sep 91

Presenting Big John and Co.
Penguins of the Jurong BirdPark

by N. Sivasothi, Masters student

peguins and penguins The keeper opened the door of the air-conditioned enclosure and we gingerly walked in, trying not to step on the feet of the penguins.
They crowded around us and kept up an incessant tattoo of exploratory pecking as we examined them. Suddenly, the soft-spoken freckled-faced girl next to me gave a yelp of pain as one of the Humboldt penguins gave her a vicious jab on the leg.
She shifted away to a safer position as I watched when suddenly, I too gasped in pain as that same individual jabbed me! The keeper, Pauline Chin, nonchalantly said, "That'll probably be Kaiser". When we examined our legs later, I discovered that the force of that peck had been so great as to tear my skin slightly, leaving me with a large bruise - the Mark of Kaiser.

Kaiser is but one of the 55 Humboldt penguins, (Spheniscus humboldti) to be found at the birdpark. There are in addition, 7 Rockhoppers (Eudyptes crestatus), 5 Macaronis (Eudyptes chrysolophus), and a solitary Little Penguin (Eudyptes minor). It is the Humboldts, naturally, who dominate the scene. One of the most startling things about the whole colony of Humboldts is that they are all said to be descended from an original number of only four penguins! The family tree may not reflect this because not all the relationships are known due to the absence of written records (see fig. 1).

The Humboldt penguins, declared an endangered species in 1981, were the subject of a study made by four of our 3rd year students which they presented during the Zoology congress last year*. They discovered that the precautions taken over the diet, hygiene and breeding of the penguins have resulted in a significant success for the efforts of Pauline and others at the Birdpark in increasing the population of the Humboldts. The success is amplified by the fact that the penguins, endemic to the Peruvian coast and Chile, have thrived under controlled conditions in tropical Singapore while the incidence of disease has been relatively low.

In 1973, slightly more than 40 penguins were purchased from a pet shop in London. Only two pairs (Big John & Josephine and Johny & Joanne) survived to breed. From them stemmed the rest of the colony which now boasts of 13 breeding pairs. Big John, a very large male, is held in high regard by all for he has been an active breeder and a good father. Not all parents are like him, however, for chicks and their parents are kept in a separate enclosure. Not having to face the competition for food that exists in the other enclosure, the bad parents gorge themselves to such an extent that they are too sleepy or lazy to feed their chicks and when Pauline comes by, she finds the hungry chicks begging for food. Such adults are relieved of their parental duties and the unfortunate chick is fostered out to a more responsible adult such as Big John. I think he is aware of his lofty position and the high esteem in which he is held for he held his head up proudly, slowly blinking his eyes as I gazed at him from a respectable distance.

The uninitiated would probably find it hard to distinguish one penguin from another, but the keeper, Pauline, who has been their friend and companion since 1982, recognises them as easily as we do each other. The basis of her identification is their personalities, facial characteristics and abdominal spottings. The latter may only be used as a temporary measure for after each annual moult, this spotting changes! Penguins pair for life once the female has accepted the male. The female is choosy about the depth of the nesting hole and the monogamous mate is forced to carry on evacuation of soil before the female signifies her approval by throwing in a pebble or two. The more experienced breeders, as such, dig deeper holes and the positions of these holes are specific in the enclosure for each breeding pair (see Fig. 2). Two eggs are laid and incubation, a duty shared by both parents, lasts for 39-41 days. When the fluffy chick hatches, it snuggles into a slit (present in nesting pairs) in the abdomen between the legs of its parents for warmth during the first ten days.

Pauline has been aiding the chicks to emerge from the egg when they hatch. This actually has the effect of weakening the gene pool of the colony for weaker chicks who would otherwise have failed to emerge from their eggs, now survive. As this is a closed colony, the resultant high rate of inbreeding would probably lead to an increase in the frequency of harmful traits. Junior, the last chick of the matriarch Josephine, is one of the few to have emerged unaided by the keeper. Actually, before she hatched, Pauline had all but given up hope on her-the egg which contained Junior was pushed out of its nesting hole many times and although Pauline repeatedly put the egg back in, it might not have been successfully incubated. Thus it was a pleasant surprise for all when she lifted Big John one morning and found the little chick floundering beneath its parent. Junior was subsequently hand-raised by Pauline. If you ever go to the enclosure, that female penguin with a heavily spotted abdomen who will amble up to the glass partition and peer at you unblinkingly through the glass in solemn silence is, in all probability, Junior. I think she has influenced her mate, Jantan to do this as well but he will, in addition, attempt to peck your fingers through the glass! In the little time that I have spent with the penguins, I have come to recognise distinct personalities. Unlike the other penguins, Jacky (a young female parented by Jantan and his first mate, the now deceased Bambi) does not peck very much but usually only nibbles. She is the easiest to identify too because of the distinctly large number of spots on her face. In a big hurry to grow up, she paired up with a male called Tung-Tung and started laying eggs at the age of two and a half, an all time record (the normal age at which all other females started laying eggs is between 3.5 to 5 years!)! When Pauline came back from Sea World in July 1988, she found a sickly Jacky with two infertile eggs and took the precocious youngster to another enclosure to recover. During her long absence from the rest of the colony, Tung-Tung paired up with another female, probably giving up poor Jacky for dead.

Though the penguins look cute as they waddle towards you with curious looks on their faces, the actions of individuals such as Kaiser caused me to reconsider my initial impression of them as gentle creatures living in perfect harmony. We were not the first victims of him for Kaiser has always been active and even as a juvenile, kept up the tradition of chasing and pecking the tails of the poor Rockhoppers (who already feel intimidated by the large number of the Humboldts) just as his father did before him. Another male was appropriately named Bomber for his diving runs into nesting holes of furious parents who would peck him. He never was undaunted but turned his head away from the jabs, probably even then, contemplating the next "bombing site". He has since been sold to a zoo in Sri Lanka and is probably still as eccentric as ever.

It would seem that even amongst penguins, it is the female who displays greater fury. In fact the deeds of Kaiser pale in significance beside those of Forfie, daughter to Big John and Josephine (the 2nd pair). She has a record that seems to expose a deficient moral fibre! In 1985, she started to consistently attack Josephine in an attempt to upstage her mother from the nesting hole so as to become the mate of her father, Big John. A violent example of an Oedipus complex? Whatever the case, Forfie finally succeeded in killing her mother, probably beating her with her hard flippers and pecking her viciously on the back of her neck when Josephine, already inactive during her moulting period and further weakened by an illness, was too weak to resist. After a considerable period of time, Big John finally relented and paired up with his daughter and the two have been together ever since. Perhaps the only clue to this strange relationship is in the way Forfie behaves when Big John feeds their chicks. Often, instead of helping him, Forfie competes with the chicks for food - reminiscent of that time when as a chick, she too was fed by Big John, her father & mate.

penguinThe normal aggressiveness in the colony is also evident by the fact that Pauline feeds the parent who happens to be caring for its chick during feeding time separately. If she doesn't take this precaution, the parent would momentarily leave the chick unattended to get its share of the food in the mad scramble that ensues during feeding time. Other adults would then seize the opportunity to attack and kill the helpless chick. The grisly sight of a chick with its abdomen and neck torn was a sickening reminder to Pauline when she was still new to the job that there was a lot more she had to find out about the behaviour of these creatures before the colony would flourish in her care.

Not everyone is bloodthirsty though. Twiggy, one of my favourite penguins, is unbelievably good natured for a male and never gives me the mandatory 4 to 5 pecks which usually precedes any physical contact with the other penguins. He is also a favourite with Satay, a daughter of Forfie's. They are not a breeding pair as yet and this is evident for Twiggy's beak is not yellowish nor does it bulge like those of breeding males. His temperament is totally due to nature rather than nurture for it was Kaiser's father who fostered him

The Rock-Hoppers and Macaronis are timid compared to the Humboldts. They were nervous about my approach and certainly didn't crowd around to inspect me. When Pauline tosses the fish (Harengula spp.) into the pool, the Macaronis do not compete with Humboldts but wait patiently behind her as she put their share, separately, in their favourite part of the enclosure. The Rock-Hoppers too have their share of domestic troubles. The last time I was there, a pair of them had yet to patch up their differences. Apparently the female was not being submissive enough and the disgruntled male had banished her from the nesting hole. I saw her standing a little way off while the male moodily contemplated the wall in front of him. They will definitely get together again but in the meantime, they will have to go through this trying period without the help of a counsellor!

Satay is an operation-scarred veteran. The last count was three and she is scheduled for yet another one. All her problems stem from her appetite for twigs. She managed to swallow quite a number without the knowledge of her keeper who detected the first one when she saw the end of a twig sticking out of Sat.'s celiac. Unable to simply pull it out, Dr. Thiruchelvan, the Birdpark's director decided to operate. By this time, Satay had vomited several times; the first time throwing up a lot of blood! The operation was successful and everyone thought Satay's troubles were over. Her listless mood remained, however, and again there were signs of blood in her vomit. Realising that yet another stick was stuck in her body, the second operation was carried out. The twigs could not all be discovered simultaneously because they cannot keep a penguin under anaesthesia too long for it would be dangerous. Hence only the minimum incisions are made. Imagine their horror when yet another stick was detected! This time, while the operation was being conducted, Dr. Thiru realised that the twig stuck in her body was forked - a complication to the entire procedure. Satay survived even that but as I write, she is standing listlessly amongst the others and even the presence of Twiggy cannot diminish the pain of yet another twig stuck inside her body. She can be considered lucky though, for Fatso, another victim of an unfortunate appetite for twigs, died despite efforts to save him.

The penguin enclosure is to be renovated and facilities upgraded to ensure that the success of the past years will be maintained and extended to the other species of penguins. Problems continually crop up such as disease or the temperature requirements of the different species - what is ideal for the Humboldts may be suppressing breeding amongst the Rock Hoppers and the Macaronis. However, Pauline is no novice and her close observation of each individual in the colony will ensure the well-being of Big John & Company as it has done so all these years. Perhaps one day soon, since there are similar efforts in zoos and birdparks around the world, Spheniscus humboldti will finally be taken off the list of endangered species.

P.S. During a recent trip, I found out that Kaiser had died. Twiggy, however, is doing well. Junior did not bother to say hello - too busy at his nesting site. Jacky was lonely and followed me around. Satay died during another operation after she had eaten plastic grass in the new enclosure. Big John is alive and doing well and was I glad to see him!

Pauline Chin, who revealed what genuine care and concern can do for the well-being of an animal. Paulin Koh, whose invitation to "go and play" with the penguins proved to be the best thing I did this hols; also for the information and help she gave.

This article was written just after my 2nd year exams (April 1989). Meant to submit it to the June 1989 issue but somehow never did. The Penguins are now in a special enclosure which also contains sections with puffins and other Icelandic birds. However, the characters here haven't changed so I decided to take this article out of the cupboard and dusting it before handing it over to Malik.

* Koh, Paulin, Khow Chui Ping, Kong Boon Keng & Jaqueline Oei,1988. A study of the Humboldt Penguins (Speniscus humboldti) at the Singapore Jurong Bidpark. Paper presented at the VIth Zoology Congress.
© N Sivasothi, 2001