The Montréal Biodôme is one of the few zoological sites in the world – the only one in America – where the northern rockhopper penguin has succeeded in breeding in captivity. In 2016 three chicks were born there, and efforts to help safeguard the species are continuing.
“We know that other institutions in Europe, in Vienna and Edinburgh, among others, have successfully bred this species in captivity,” explains Dr. Emiko Wong, a veterinarian at the Biodôme. “But it’s not getting any easier. Despite our efforts, we’ve had no success in 2017.”
A magnificent but threatened bird
During a visit to the Biodôme you must have noticed this very special penguin. The Eudyptes moseleyi, to use its Latin name, is easily recognized: he sports a yellow line above each eye supplemented by a magnificent crown of yellow and black feathers right behind.
Today it’s in danger. In 2013, barely more than 240,000 northern rockhopper pairs were counted. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), its population has declined by 57 percent over the past 37 years.
Climate change the reason
There doesn’t seem to be a single major cause for the falloff; it’s more a question of unfavorable conditions coming together to put it in jeopardy. Among the accused, first comes climate change. Temperature variations alter the bird’s ability to breed while at the same time transforming the food chain in regions where it normally lives.
Contact with humans obviously plays a role. In certain regions, man has been an important predator of the species. And intense fishing along with oil drilling will have done damage to it.
Which is why efforts to improve its breeding in captivity are so important. “Across America and internationally,” explains Dr. Wong, “there are programs for managing captive populations that keep an eye on every institution where northern rockhoppers are found in order to identify success factors and thus improve our success rate.”
Some factors that can improve or harm the odds of captive breeding:
- The ambient temperature (there’s the possibility that northern rockhopper penguins breed at a slightly higher comfort temperature than other sub-Antarctic penguin species).
- Habitat layout and size.
- A good understanding or “fit”.
- The demography of the colony.