An emperor penguin chick that hatched at SeaWorld San Diego last month has overcome many obstacles to become its first new arrival in more than a decade, the marine park announced Wednesday.
Although 22 other emperor penguin chicks have been born at SeaWorld in recent decades, this latest is the first since 2010. The San Diego Marine Park is the only facility in the Western Hemisphere where emperor penguins can be seen. The only others, outside of Antarctica, are in China and Japan, said Justin Brackett, curator of birds at SeaWorld San Diego.
SeaWorld waited more than a month to announce the rare birth because of the physical and medical challenges the chick faced, while the veterinary team worked tirelessly to make sure it survived and thrived, Brackett explained. The penguin’s egg was laid on July 7 and the chick didn’t hatch until September 12, though not on its own.
The Veterinary team at SeaWorld not only had to help the chick break through the thick shell that had been its home for more than 60 days, but they also had to perform abdominal surgery on the little bird.
“It was a huge success in terms of coordinating our veterinary staff, and open abdominal surgery is a big deal for a small animal like this,” Brackett said. “He was under 24-hour care for the first month or so.”
The chick is doing so well now that it is on its way to being exhibited at SeaWorld in three or four weeks.
But from the beginning, the evolution of breeding was in the air. Normally, the mother emperor penguin would pass the egg to the father to help incubate, but that never happened, so SeaWorld had to take over that task. When ready to hatch, the chick was able to break through the shell membrane, but was unable to break through the hard outer shell because of a malformed beak, Brackett said.
“So our specialist team and our veterinary team decided that assistance was the only way to hatch the chick safely,” he said. “In the case of an emperor penguin, that means slowly cutting off pieces of the shell to help the chick get through. The process takes three days. At the end of that three-day period, we hatch the chick and have we have one of our first emperor penguin chicks in over a decade.”
But the chick is not out of danger yet. In the normal incubation and hatching process, most or all of the egg yolk is absorbed by the chick, but that did not happen in this case. The veterinary team closely monitored the newborn during the first important days after its birth and saw that it was not gaining enough weight, so they decided to operate to remove the yolk from the bird’s stomach. Without the surgery, the chick may not survive, Brackett said.
The intervention was successful and soon the SeaWorld care team saw the chick eating more and gaining weight. Although he has yet to reach the ideal weight for his age, he is on track to do so, Brackett added.
“It’s like a premature baby, it grows at the expected rate and eventually gets on track,” he said. “The chick is evolving normally, eating well and its weight gain is sufficient, so we trust its prognosis. “I wish we had been in this place weeks ago.”
Although the baby penguin will soon be ready to make its public debut, it won’t be able to enter the water for several months, Brackett said, because its soft fur isn’t waterproof or capable of heating it in water. .