So long, Happy Feet

By Rebecca Priestley In Science

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30th August, 2011 Leave a Comment

Happy Feet on Peka Peka Beach, photo Mark Mitchell/NZ Herald

The day I visited the lost emperor penguin, it was snowing at Wellington Zoo. The lions were surveying the city through a haze of white, the Himalayan red pandas were gambolling happily in snowy treetops, Keza the chimp had wrapped himself in a blanket and was catching snowflakes on his tongue and the humans were smiling and laughing.

But Happy Feet, the young penguin that arrived at Wellington Zoo in June, was unimpressed. Although it was Wellington’s second coldest day on record, with snow falling intermittently throughout the day, he had to be coaxed out of his refrigerated room and pushed into his saltwater pool. Once there, he swam a few laps, but was soon back in position: standing sentry on a mound of party ice, his beak held high and his black toes lifted and curled, as if cradling the egg he may one day nurture through an Antarctic winter.

Emperor penguins breed in Antarctica, some 3000km south of New Zealand. After hatching on the stationary sea ice, the young birds spend months in the cold Southern Ocean, swimming and feeding on fish, krill and squid. They don’t usually swim this far north. This young penguin was found on Peka Peka Beach, north of Wellington, in June. He was taken to Wellington Zoo’s hospital, The Nest/Te Kohanga, after his physical condition deteriorated; he overheated and, with no snow on offer, gulped down mouthfuls of sand and twigs in a mistaken effort to cool down.

Lisa Argilla treats Happy Feet, photo Kate Baker

Wellington Zoo’s manager of veterinary science, Lisa Argilla, met the penguin at Peka Peka, where she and representatives from the Department of Conservation, Massey University and Te Papa made the decision to bring him to Wellington. “He looked so sad and miserable and he was coughing up sand and sticks,” said Argilla. “The protective instinct took over and we just wanted to get him to the zoo to try and fix him up.” By chance, Argilla, who treats everything from sumatran tigers to tiny meerkats, is a penguin specialist, with a master’s thesis on yellow-eyed penguins under way and experience caring for Wellington’s little blue penguins, four of which are resident at the zoo.

Argilla’s first task was immediate veterinary triage to assess the penguin’s condition. A full physical examination, under anaesthetic, revealed he had about 3kg of sand in his digestive system, “right to the top of his oesaophagus”. Over the following week, with some help from Pacific Radiology and Wellington endoscopic surgeon John Wyeth, the penguin was subjected to a series of procedures to flush the sand from his stomach. Then he graduated from being fed a slurry of fish to a diet of whole fish and electrolytes to help him build up strength.

Because of her experience with penguins, Argilla found her main challenges came not from Happy Feet’s anatomy but from his size and strength. But compared with yellow-eyed and little blue penguins, both of which “bite a lot”, the 27kg, 98cm tall emperor penguin was “pretty chilled out, though he’ll beat you with his flippers if given the opportunity – we’ve all sustained quite a few bruises from handling him”.

A wild emperor penguin might seem exotic for an urban zoo, but The Nest, which was named Best New Large Exhibit at the 2010 Australasian Zoo and Aquarium Association Awards, was designed to accommodate New Zealand’s native wildlife. Although most of the focus of The Nest is on caring for the zoo’s own collection – which can involve anything from eye surgery on a baby baboon to stomach biopsies on two vomiting cheetahs – wildlife triage and veterinary care is an important part of its work.

During the emperor penguin’s two-month stay in Wellington, he shared The Nest with 740 storm-battered prions, a giant petrel – one of the only species to prey on emperor penguin chicks – a harrier hawk, a red-billed gull and a baby fur seal that had been hit by a car. Before this facility opened, “depending on what was wrong with them, they would have either gone straight to a rehabber or been euthanised,” says Wellington Zoo chief executive Karen Fifield.

An important aspect of The Nest’s work is that it’s all done in visitor view. “In the old days of zoos, veterinary work was part of the cool stuff that all happened behind the scenes,” Fifield says. Today, visitors can watch medical procedures through the transparent walls of the surgery and treatment room and listen to vets discuss what they’re doing. “Nothing is hidden from view.” Not even the post-mortems, which are popular viewing. So after six anaesthetics, five x-rays, the removal of 3kg of sand and more than 250,000 hits on the TV3 webcam set up at the zoo, Happy Feet will leave his temporary home on August 29, courtesy of Niwa research vessel Tangaroa.

Once the ship’s lattitude is about 53° south – after about four days’ sailing – he will be released. That won’t be the last we’ll hear from him. With a GPS tracker attached to his neck feathers, he will be tracked for about six months, until he moults.

“I’ll miss him,” says Argilla, “but when these animals are in hospital they don’t display many of their normal behaviours. Releasing an animal that you’ve cared for is one of the best parts of this job.”

Follow Happy Feet’s progress south at
@Lost_Penguin or nzemperor.com or ourfarsouth.org/Happy-Feet.aspx.

ERUPTION CITY

The Auckland of a beautifully illustrated new book has a sensational history, full of “fusiform bombs”, “superheated steam”, “pulsating episodes” and “ballistic trajectories”. And it’s not over yet, according to recently released book Volcanoes of Auckland: The Essential Guide – the city’s volcanic field remains active and a new volcano could erupt anywhere at any time. The good news is that seismometers should detect magma movement, giving geologists anything from two days to several weeks’ warning of an impending eruption.

The birth of a new Auckland volcano would be accompanied by intense earthquake shaking, bulging and cracking of land and, if the rising magma encountered water, an explosive eruption in which “all traces of suburbia” would be destroyed across a crater up to 1km wide.

Beyond the crater, deposits of ash, searing gas explosions, powerful shock waves and a rapidly travelling superheated blast would destroy everything in its path. This would be followed by “fire-fountaining, fiery explosions and lava flows”. Beyond this zone of destruction, ash build-up could collapse roofs, damage motors and cause power outages.

But the city would go on. The authors predict that although an eruption could destroy several suburbs, it would not bring Auckland to a standstill; rather the rest of the city would be “disrupted by traffic congestion, power outages, the potential impacts of ash fall and unexpected house guests from the evacuated area”.

If you’d prefer not to think about a new volcano erupting in the middle of Auckland, flick straight to page 99. More than half the book is devoted to an illustrated guide to Auckland’s 50 volcanoes, from Rangitoto, which erupted 600 years ago, to Pupuke and Onepoto, each about 250,000 years old. This section of the book includes stunning aerial photographs, historic paintings and maps, and information about the geology, landforms and human history of each volcano.

VOLCANOES OF AUCKLAND: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE by Bruce W Hayward, Graeme Murdoch and Gordon Maitland (Auckland University Press, $59.99).


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