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Friday, August 7, 2009

Penguins Defy Arranged Couplings at the California Academy of Sciences

Posted By on Fri, Aug 7, 2009 at 5:40 PM

click to enlarge IMG_0074_thumb_250x375.jpg
The illicit love of Howard and Safara
Last night at the California Academy of Sciences, a group of spectators at the African penguin exhibit squealed and cooed as twenty blackfoot penguins bopped around their rocky enclosure like so many wind-up toys. These particular blackfoot penguins reside at the academy, and not on their native islands off southwest Africa, because they are classified as "vulnerable" and local ornithologists are trying to breed them.

To the right of the exhibit, some of the fact-seeking visitors studied an informational sign. Because the penguins bray like donkeys, it explained, they used to be called "jackass penguins." Awesome. The sign also encouraged visitors to check out the colored plastic bands on the penguins' wings. Birds with the same color bands, apparently, are part of a mating couple. Once coupled up, blackfoot penguins are monogamous for life -- or so ornithologists say.

"Look at that!" a woman cried. Back inside the exhibit, a male penguin with a white and green-striped band had climbed on a female, whose band was not in view. "They're doin' it! They're doin' it!" a young man said, as the male began to gyrate atop the female, slapping her side with his wing. Seemingly unconcerned with the laughing, gawking crowd, the penguin continued his business for a while, then backed off the female and took a celebratory crap.

The female remained on her stomach for several awkward minutes, then finally stood up to stretch, sending a crackle of disbelief through crowd. The band on her left wing wasn't white with a green stripe. It was unmistakeably scarlet.

The questions seemed endless. Where were the jilted partner penguins? Did they mind that they had been cuckolded? Was this a rare case of penguin infidelity, or was everything we've always believed about true love and penguins a giant lie?

Andrew Ng, communications manager at the California Academy of Sciences, had some answers. Apparently, this young, illicit couple -- Howard and Safara -- had been caught "practicing" on each other before. They were essentially exploring their options, Ng said. But  chances are, their young love won't last.

You see, scientists have studied the DNA of all the penguins, and matched them up to best increase diversity in the gene pool. Safara is apparently a good genetic match for a penguin named Ocio -- but lately, Ocio hasn't displayed any interest. Ng wasn't sure if Howard had been matched with another female penguin yet, but he did know that the biologists are pretty serious about their arranged couplings.

"If we're adamant about forming a pair," Ng said, "we'll remove a couple to their own little behind the scenes suite, and hope the magic happens." But what if Howard and Safara don't want to mate with anybody else?

Ng didn't know, and the head penguin scientist is on vacation. When that scientist comes back, we want answers.

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Ashley Harrell

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