This winter the Toledo zoo has been hot-hot-hot with animal births. First came the holiday births of two African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) chicks and then a polar bear cub!
The penguin chicks hatched on November 24, 2015 and November 27, 2015. Both chicks are being cared for by their parents off exhibit in the Penguin Beach indoor “living quarters.” Like all babies, penguin chicks are fragile so their progress is being carefully monitored by the Zoo veterinary and animal care staff. The Zoo is cautiously optimistic about being able to put them on exhibit with the other 19 colony members in warmer weather, but a timetable has not yet been established.
African Penguins nest in burrows with the parents taking turns incubating the eggs during the approximately 40 days before hatching. Babies hatch a slate blue-gray color with short, fluffy feathers. Adult African Penguins are black and white with black spots on their chest that are unique to each individual bird. The black and white coloring is a form of natural camouflage known as countershading, meaning the white abdomen protects them from predators below while the black backs protect from predators above.
Chuck Cerbini, curator of birds at the Toledo Zoo explains the young birds gain mobility, weight and size quickly. Each week the chicks almost doubled in weight and at about 40 days old, the new chicks weigh approximately six pounds.
“They are the size of an adult African Penguin, but they look nothing like their black and white parents. They are still fluffy with short dark gray feathers,” Cerbini explained.
Adults stand approximately 27 inches tall and weigh between four and a half and eight and a half pounds. The species is native to the southern coast of Africa (Angola, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa) and their diet consists of fish and krill. African Penguins are warm weather birds also known as Black-footed Penguins and Jackass Penguins because of their braying or donkey-like vocalization.
African Penguins are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) as an endangered species due to commercial fisheries and shifts in prey population due to climate change. As an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the Toledo Zoo participates in a Species Survival Program (SSP) to ensure a future for African Penguins and both chicks were results of SSP breeding recommendations.
The polar bear cub was born on December 3, 2015. Sixteen-year-old mother, Crystal, is caring for the cub off-exhibit. The Zoo’s animal care staff is carefully observing the cub’s progress through a monitor in the den; as in the wild, the two bears will stay secluded until the cub grows substantially.
“This is the fifth time polar bear cubs have been born at the Toledo Zoo, for a total of seven cubs since 2006,” said Dr. Randi Meyerson, assistant director of animal programs. “We are very excited about the successful birth and rearing of this cub. Crystal has always demonstrated great maternal care. The cub still has a lot of important milestones [to achieve] before going on exhibit, but we are cautiously optimistic that both mom and cub will continue to thrive.”
In addition to being the assistant director of animal programs, Dr. Meyerson coordinates the polar bear Species Survival Plan (SSP) established by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Through this cooperative breeding and conservation program, zoos across the nation work together to maintain a healthy population of the great white bear. Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as a vulnerable species and as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act due to loss of Arctic sea ice from climate change.
Wild polar bears mate from March to May. Pregnant females then dig a birthing den in the snow in late fall and give birth to one to three cubs during the winter months. At birth, polar bear cubs are about 12 inches long, weigh only about one pound and are blind and toothless with short, soft fur. The cubs are completely dependent on their mother but will grow rapidly by drinking the mother’s milk that is 31 percent fat. The mother and cub[s] will not emerge from the den until the cub[s] reach 20 – 30 pounds and can safely travel together to the sea ice for feeding.
In recent years, some of the 19 known sub-populations of polar bears have seen decreasing numbers due to warming Arctic temperatures which causes a reduction in sea ice. Sea ice is the main location for polar bears to hunt seals, breed and construct dens. “We hope that this cub will inspire visitors to care about polar bears and also to learn what we as humans can do to reduce our carbon foot print and help polar bears in the wild,” said Dr. Meyerson.
The Toledo Zoo & Aquarium is open daily at 10 a.m. and is located on the Anthony Wayne Trail (US 25), four miles south of downtown Toledo. For more information, please visit toledozoo.org or call 419-385-4040.