The months of October and November 2016 were witness to some happy events taking place in the Biodôme’s penguin colony, with the birth of three northern rockhoppers. Since November 24, two of those chicks – at the time 34 and 33 days old respectively – have been removed from the habitat to begin their biomedical training program. Since at this point they were wandering from the nest and because their feathers hadn’t finished growing in, their safety had to be considered and they needed protecting from assaults by other penguins or from possible drowning. These new chicks mark a success for the Biodôme and a step forward in safeguarding the species in captivity.
Rockhoppers in danger
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the northern rockhopper penguin is an endangered species in nature. The various causes for its decline include the collection of eggs and adults until the 1950s, predation by wild or domestic animals on the islands where the bird nests, the decrease in food resources owing to intensive fishing, and possibly certain impacts having their source in climate change.
In captivity, the northern rockhopper penguin is also in difficulty. According to the zoo inventory system Species360 (formerly ISIS), only 12 institutions, four in North American and eight in Europe, keep this penguin. There are just 31 northern rockhopper penguins in North American zoos and only the Biodôme is successfully breeding the species. Over the last few years, the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) has managed this captive population by way of a red Species Survival Plan (SSP), since its demographics, its population growth rate and its genetic diversity are poor, and no guarantee of its long-term success.
Thinking of the future
The AZA’s SSP programs are designed to maintain captive and genetically diversified populations of certain animals over the long term based on recommendations promoting the mating of certain individuals. SSP programs can be classified as green, yellow or red depending on the likelihood of the long-term survival of the population maintained in captivity. In a red program, participating institutions are obligated to respect the specimen transfer recommendations, whose aim is to form new breeding pairs and thereby increase both the number of birds and genetic diversity.
It’s for that reason that the northern rockhopper penguin chicks born at the Biodôme in 2016 are so precious and provide some hope for the future. Since it opened in 1992, the Biodôme has seen the birth of 35 of these birds. Moreover, one of the offspring born this year comes from a new couple, formed by a male and a female from two American zoos and transferred to the Biodôme according to SSP recommendations. This baby is therefore part of a new family line, one that will contribute to increasing the genetic diversity within the population.