It may only weigh a few pounds, but two of the biggest features of the Tennessee Aquarium’s newest Gentoo Penguin chick have already earned it an unofficial nickname.
Born on June 5 to experienced parents Bug and Big T., the large feet of the newest addition to Penguins’ Rock immediately inspired the moniker “Big Foot.”
“Our animal trainer Holly Gibson chose that name, and it is very fitting,” says Senior Aviculturist Loribeth Lee. “Besides his belly, the feet are the biggest thing on this guy right now! Penguin chicks have almost comically large feet until they grow into them. Having big feet helps Penguins to balance while they are so oddly shaped.”
This nickname is just a placeholder. It will be replaced by an official name, chosen from a crop of keeper-selected alternatives, during a public contest on the Aquarium’s Facebook page later this year.
Aquarium staff began noticing signs that the new chick was breaking out of its egg, a process called “pipping,” at 8 a.m. on June 5. The baby Gentoo was fully hatched at 3:30 p.m., a faster-than-average pace, Lee says.
The chick’s gender will remain indeterminate until November, when it can be properly assessed by staff during the colony’s next round of semi-annual physical exams. A drop of the chick’s blood will be sent to a lab, and the DNA results will be available a few days later.
For now, the Aquarium’s Penguin experts are closely monitoring the chick’s growth and health, Lee says.
“The first four weeks of a chick’s life are the most concerning, as there are lots of obstacles to overcome,” she says. “We will continue to keep a close eye on this little bird, especially making sure the nest stays clean and the chick continues to get fed by both parents.”
Until the arrival of its waterproof adult feathers in six to seven weeks, the chick will remain safely corralled with its parents behind a clear, acrylic “play pen.” This barrier around the nest keeps nosey neighbors at flipper’s length away and prevents the baby Penguin from accidentally tumbling into the water.
Despite the uncertainty of this early period in its development, so far the chick has exhibited robust vitals and a healthy appetite. And it is gaining weight at a healthy rate, which indicates the chick’s body should start catching up with its enormous feet soon.
“We like to see the chicks on the higher end of the weight range, as if they do have a drop in weight at any point, then it is less critical than a bird who is on the low end of the weight range,” she says.
The chick’s parents, Bug and Big T., are one of the exhibit’s most prolific breeding pairs, having successfully hatched four chicks: Roxie, Bobber, Rodan and Terk. In all, the residents of Penguins’ Rock have hatched 20 chicks since 2009.
“Even after seeing over 20 chicks hatch here, it never gets old,” Lee says. “It’s so exciting to have a new young one in the group and watching our guests enjoy their progress! The best part of my job is seeing thriving birds in the exhibit, and this one seems to be doing well so far.”
The chick will reach its full, adult size when it is about 75 days old and its full adult weight a few months later after its swim muscles develop.
The Gentoo Penguin (Pygoscelis papua) is known for flamboyant red-orange beaks, white-feather caps, and peach-colored feet.
They populate the Antarctic Peninsula and numerous islands around the frozen continent. They are also the Penguin world’s third largest member, reaching a height of 30 inches and a weight of 12 pounds.
Partial to ice-free areas (including coastal plains, sheltered valleys, and cliffs), they gather in colonies of breeding pairs that can number from a few dozen to many thousands.
Gentoo numbers are noted to be increasing on the Antarctic Peninsula, but they have plummeted in some of their island enclaves, possibly due to pollution or disrupted fisheries. They are protected by the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 and were classified as “Near Threatened” by the IUCN in 2007.
Tennessee Aquarium guests can learn more and interact with experts during Penguin presentations at 10:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. each day. The public can also keep an eye on the chick’s growth over the coming weeks by watching the live Penguins’ Rock web cam at: http://www.tnaqua.org/animals-exhibits/penguins-rock-cam/