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Zoo Offers Polar Seabird Refuge
by Hector Douglas


July 29, 2004

When zoos first opened in America during the mid-1870s, they were merely exhibits of exotic animals from faraway lands. As natural habitats became fragmented, zoos increasingly have become stewards not only of their own collections but also of nature itself.

jpg Polar Seabird Refuge

Chris Edelen of the Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio exchanges greetings with a Blue-eyed Shag as a Black-faced Ibis looks on from its perch on Chris' shoulder. Both birds occur in sub-Antarctic Patagonia and the Blue-eyed Shag also breeds along the Antarctic Peninsula. Zoo researchers are studying polar seabirds in captivity to learn more about how to protect them in the wild. Photo courtesy Hector Douglas...
A zoo in Cincinnati, Ohio, focuses on protecting polar seabirds.

The sounds of zoo animals compete for attention with the whirr and buzz of cicadas emerging from 17 years of dormancy. Seven generations of cicadas have come and gone since the Cincinnati Zoo opened in 1875. Back then zoos provided entertainment to a public that could not easily travel. Today zoos are often the last line of defense for animals increasingly at risk in their natural habitats.

David Oehler is curator of birds at the Cincinnati Zoo. He says modern zoos play a crucial role in conservation and education.

Oehler said, "As far as the displays go and the work that we do, the animals are ambassadors of those endangered habitats."

Those animal-ambassadors include the Lowland Gorilla, the Cheetah, and the Sumatran Rhino; some of the world's most endangered wildlife. There are also animal ambassadors from cold places.

Stout and stately King Penguins, 3 feet in height, are crowding around Chris Edelen, the avian aquatics keeper, to receive their daily herring. It is breeding season and the kings are aggressive.

Chris Edelen said, "It's a slap fight. Every time a penguin gets near and so they are keeping one eye on the fish that I am trying to feed them and the other eye on the other kings."

King Penguins have no nests. Instead they incubate their egg while balancing it on their feet. The zoo has developed innovative techniques to study this.

Edelen said, "So what we have done is we have actually built an egg that has a small microchip in it that will take readings on light, humidity and temperature itself and we stick those underneath the King Penguins when they are nesting."

Edelen just returned from surveys in Antarctica. He says the numbers of seabirds there are declining. He points to a Blue-eyed Shag sitting on the rock wall as it waves its head back

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and forth in a snake-like motion.

Edelen said, "The bad news is around the coast of Antarctica they are just in decline and again in some colonies up to about 30 to 60 percent are just not coming back."

Edelen thinks the culprit is global warming. He says warmer temperatures are reducing the thickness and extent of sea ice and this is adversely affecting krill-the tiny shrimp-like animals that are the key food for fish and seabirds.

Edelen said, "No krill means that there is no food for the fish that feed off of it, which means that there is no food for the shags to eat, as well as feed their young at a critical time."

Just across the hall, we journey from the Southern Ocean to the sub-arctic Bering Sea. Here, small black birds with brightly colored bills and showy feather plumes are churning around in a pool of seawater. David Oehler says that people have come from East Coast and West Coast to see these birds.

David Oehler said, "This is the only exhibit with Least and Whiskered auklets in the whole world. So if you want to see them other than here you are going to have to go up to Alaska to see them in the wild."

That is the Whiskered Auklet calling. It is named for the exotic white feather plumes that adorn its face...and that is the sound of the Least Auklet. It resembles a little black and white speckled windup toy scampering about on the rocks. The zoo has successfully bred the auklets in captivity, but it has been a challenge.

Oehler said, "Well the breeding success is a work in progress, like the diet, and some of the other husbandry issues. We had to start very slow. We had to learn as we went."

That learning process led to studies on blood chemistry and physiology of polar seabirds in nature. Conservation monitoring programs were an outgrowth of this field research, and the zoo now monitors the health of seabird colonies in Africa, South America, and Alaska, and participates in surveys of the Antarctic Peninsula.



Story & photo courtesy Arctic Science Journeys. ASJ news is a production of the Alaska Sea Grant Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. The shortcut to the ASJ news home page is




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