Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Penguins Gone Wild!

Moody Gardens, located on Galveston Island off the coast of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico, began in the 1980's as a hippotherapy riding program for people with head injuries. Today it is a premier educational/recreational facility. Moody Gardens provides horticultural therapy, education and employment for persons wih a wide range of physical and emotional disabilities. A part of the complex houses three separate pyramid shaped buildings serving the public as educational facilities. The pyramids are Rainforest and IMAX theatre, Discovery Pyramid which houses the NASA exhibits and other science exhibits, and the Aquarium Pyramid.

My favorite exhibit at Moody Gardens is in the Aquarium Pyramid, opened in 1999, and it is the penguin exhibit. The penguin exhibit is in the South Atlantic section of the aquarium. The natural habitat of the penguins is simulated in a two level exhibit. Visitors can view the penguins above and below frigid Antarctic waters. Caves under an ice sheet allow visitors to see penguins swimming in their natural habitat. They are quite the little performers and they love a crowd!

Four types of penguins inhibit the exhibit. They include the King, Chinstrap, Rockhopper and Gentoo penguins. The exhibit is patterned into rocky beaches to mimic South Georgia Island, the penguin's native habitat.

Well, something very interesting started the afternoon before Hurricane Rita landed on Galveston Island. The biologists are calling it "penguins gone wild"! Lots of penguin love was observed by the curators and courtship behavior, such as elevated penguin heads, was rampant. Necks stretched, beaks raised, downy chests puffed out, all to look taller for the ladies. The lovefest was very helpful from the scientists' point of view as penguin research is costly and nesting sites are difficult to reach in the wild. Penguin sex remains a bit of a mystery!

The exhibit's lighting system mimics the light cycle of Antarctic islands where the penguins originate. The month of October begins the natural breeding season for penguins and the lights are on for 18 hours. By December, the lights are on for 22 hours. Penguins, for the most part, mate for life. Some of the biologists, though, say they've seen some hanky-panky.

After thirty-nine days of incubation, the first successful gentoo penguin to hatch at the aquarium did so after being conceived the night Hurricane Rita struck the Gulf Coast. The chick weighed 3 ounces and was 4 inches long. It will be adult size in 75 days. The sex is unknown as of yet, it will be determined through blood work. If the chick is a girl, it will be named Rita. If the chick is a boy, it will be named Cane (short for hurricane).

A second egg is to hatch very soon. A baby brother or sister is on the way.