published Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga sends 11 baby penguins to Sea World

Sean Manning, 5, interacts with Nipper, a gentoo penguin, during the "Penguin Bon Voyage Party" at the Tennessee Aquarium on Monday.
Sean Manning, 5, interacts with Nipper, a gentoo penguin, during the "Penguin Bon Voyage Party" at the Tennessee Aquarium on Monday.
Photo by C. B. Schmelter.
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    Senior aviculturist Amy Graves interacts with Shivers, a Gentoo penguin, at the Tennessee Aquarium on Monday.
    Photo by C. B. Schmelter.
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The Tennessee Aquarium gave Chattanoogans the opportunity Monday to say “bon voyage” to 11 penguins before they’re sent out West to help maintain genetic diversity for the animal populations.

The 11 penguin chicks that were born at the aquarium since 2009 will be transferred to SeaWorld San Diego sometime in the next few months as a part of the loan agreement that brought 19 Macaroni and Gentoo penguins to Chattanooga in 2007, said Loribeth Aldrich, an aviculturist with the aquarium.

The agreement called for the aquarium and SeaWorld to split ownership of any new chicks, with the odd-numbered births belonging to the aquarium and the even-numbered ones going to SeaWorld, Aldrich said.

Although it isn’t often that SeaWorld changes the terms of a loan agreement, sometimes breeding loans are reconsidered and changed to allow “both institutions to manage their populations responsibly,” said Stephanie Costelow, the curator of birds for SeaWorld San Diego.

In order to better ensure genetic safety and diversity for the small population of aquarium penguins because of an uneven split of males and females, Aldrich said the aquarium opted to trade ownership of their six chicks for six adults known to be good breeders and likely to produce more chicks for the Chattanooga population.

“Our ultimate goal is to have an exhibit of around 20 to 25 birds that are our own,” Aldrich said.

In 2009, one Macaroni chick, “Pepper,” was born, followed by one Gentoo chick in 2010. In 2011 the penguins had no chicks, but in 2012 there were two Macaroni chicks born and three Gentoos, and in 2013 four more Gentoos were born.

“Every year the parents get a chance to be a parent, they get better and better at it,” Aldrich said.

Although the exact dates and logistics for transfer have not been determined, the penguins should be transferred to San Diego before the start of the breeding season, April 1.

Aldrich said the transfer of animals for population management purposes between organizations accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is common.

In fact, SeaWorld’s breeders would be considered the “penguin experts,” and the organization is responsible for breeding almost all of the penguins in captivity around the world, Aldrich said. As a result of this, the penguins born at the Tennessee Aquarium may not remain at SeaWorld San Diego and could be loaned to other facilities to begin new colonies, she added.

Once the penguins are transferred — either by air or refrigerated truck — they will have to be quarantined for a period of time to prevent any possible transfer of germs between the populations, and to allow the Scenic City natives time to acclimate to the difference in exhibit temperatures, which is around 20 degrees, Aldrich said.

The new chicks will then be “assimilated” into SeaWorld San Diego’s Penguin Encounter, which is “home to more than 350 birds representing five species, including Gentoos and Macaronis,” Costelow said.

Contact Alex Harris at aharris@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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