Wild Tracks

On behalf of the world's wild species

Penguin Elegance

Feathers are wonderful things.

They are lightweight yet powerful enough to allow birds to soar through the air. Their bright colors, crests and plumes are vital to breeding success, as the females choose the most visually appealing mate.

It stands to reason that something that important should be regularly maintained, and in the bird world, that is done by molting or shedding of the feathers.

Over time, feathers wear out and must be replaced. Most birds lose just a few feathers at a time which are replaced by healthy, shiny new ones. The ducks and geese however, chuff off all their old feathers over a short period, leaving them unable to fly and vulnerable to predation during the summer molting period.

Ralph in his spiffy new suit.

Ralph in his spiffy new suit.

Apparently one young Humboldt penguin in Marwell Zoo in the United Kingdom, has taken molting to a new level. Most penguins molt over a period of 4-6 weeks, but Ralph lost ALL of his feathers in one day. He’s completely healthy in all respects, and zoo staff have no idea why they ended up with a bald penguin.

Feathers also provide insulation against the sun’s harmful rays, so Ralph was in danger of severe sunburn, and would have had to be kept indoors until his feathers grew back. Not being able to swim with your buddies for three weeks just didn’t seem fair, so the zookeepers put their heads together.

The result was a rubber penguin wetsuit. Now Ralph has a spiffy new set of clothes to cover his featherless-ness and he can act like all the rest of the penguins. Apparently the flock gave his new duds a quick once over, then decided it was no big deal and lost interest.

This is yet another example of how nature is always surprising us. If Ralph lived in the wild and lost all his feathers in one day, he would not have survived. Why it happens at all is a mystery, but thanks to some very resourceful zookeepers, a new penguin fashion statement has saved the day!

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