Pam Schaller's interests include the research, captive husbandry, and protection of a range of exotic animals from California invertebrates to white rhinos. She is dedicated to learning about how species live in the wild and using this information to better care for and display them in captivity.
Visit the California Academy of Sciences on any given day, and you'll find visitors gazing wide-eyed at the giant anaconda, admiring the enormous freshwater fish of the Amazon, and marveling at the leafy sea dragons. But the animals that really capture visitors’ attention are the African penguins.
Pam Schaller, senior aquatic biologist, says penguins captivate people because we can identify with them so strongly.
“Penguins stand upright,” Schaller says. “Their locomotion on land is inherently humorous. They waddle. They make an obvious choice of mate, and establish long-term relationships. Both parents participate in rearing the young.” And, as countless jokes and New Yorker cartoons remind us, they look like they’re wearing tuxedos.
Visitors to the penguin exhibit should note some key behaviors as they watch these formally clad creatures go about their daily business. "Head gestures are meaningful," says Schaller, "Mates bow their heads to each other. Mated pairs also groom each other in a behavior called allopreening. Both the head gestures and physical touching reinforce their monogamous bond and often lead to successful reproduction." To make pair bonds obvious to visitors and Academy staff alike, the Academy places colored bands on the penguins' wings – birds with matching bands are a pair. Penguin couples will stake out territories and even fight to defend them. If you see a penguin scuffle in the exhibit, they’re probably competing for territory.
There is a definite social hierarchy in the Academy’s penguin colony. Through pointing (when a penguin lowers its body to the ground and point its beak at another penguin), biting, fighting and braying, dominant birds (usually older) establish a pecking order, and will literally put a juvenile bird in its place by chasing or herding if they feel challenged.
Despite the quarreling, penguins are, like humans, highly social creatures. For penguins there is safety in numbers. African penguins form colonies of 30,000 individuals or more. The larger the colony, the greater their ability to defend nests, eggs and chicks. Individuals and couples will take turns watching for predators. As Schaller says, “A single penguin is a nervous penguin.”
If we needed more proof of our love for them, penguins have been heavily featured in popular culture lately as the subjects of several documentary films (March of the Penguins, On the Wings of Penguins, Penguins Under Siege) and animated children's movies (Happy Feet, Surf’s Up, Madagascar).
Closest to home, the story of Pierre, an Academy resident, was chronicled in the children’s book Pierre the Penguin: A True Story. The book, written by acclaimed author Jean Marzollo and illustrated by Bay Area resident Laura Regan, recounts the saga of how Pierre, the colony’s patriarch, lost his feathers and gained global fame as the world’s best-dressed penguin. Pierre the Penguin has won several children’s book awards, including the California Reading Association’s Eureka! Gold Award for 2011.
Teach a penguin chick to swim. Hand-feed 17 noisy birds breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Act as an impromptu floating island. It's all in a day's work for Pam Schaller, who spends so much of her time in a wetsuit that she jokes she’s a semi-aquatic creature.
Her day at the Academy begins with a walk around the exhibit floor, checking on the various animals she’s responsible for (these include the alligator gars, Lake Malawi cichlids, Claude the albino alligator, and several others). Next, Schaller will prepare food for the 17 African penguins currently under her charge. When that's done, she takes on various maintenance tasks – cleaning and upgrading exhibits and making sure the animals’ environments are healthy and look great to visitors.
Later in the morning, she joins the rest of the Academy's biologists for a daily status meeting. Together they discuss animal relocations, new arrivals at the Academy, upcoming veterinarian visits, and which animals might be breeding or require special attention.
At 10:30 am Schaller begins the first of two daily public penguin feedings. She hand-feeds the penguins a diet of vitamin-enriched herring and capelin (nutritionally similar to the fish they consume in the wild and sustainably harvested) as they swim in circles around her. Adult penguins eat roughly 10% of their body weight each day, while growing juveniles consume up to twice that much. During the feeding, Schaller wears a microphone so she can communicate with the public on the other side of the glass wall, explaining what she’s doing, and answering visitors’ questions about penguin biology and conservation.
Supervising the growing chicks as they learn to swim is one of Schaller's favorite activities. As they’re learning, she spends several hours a day in the water with them. “The penguins treat me like a human island,” she says, “When they get tired, they just climb right on.” Juveniles learn to swim in a shallow quarantine pool, where Schaller and others observe them until they’re confident and capable. Then the chicks are slowly introduced to the adult penguins and to the full extent of their Academy habitat, and chaperoned until they’re comfortable and socially accepted by the colony.
The rest of Schaller’s day is filled with a second public penguin feeding, meetings, and the innumerable other tasks that keep her most charismatic charges diving, braying, and representing their wild relatives with aplomb.
Though the Academy’s penguin colony is healthy and growing, their wild relatives aren’t faring as well. Based on major population declines (at least 90% over the 20th century), African penguins were designated as an endangered species in September 2010 by the IUCN and the USFWS. In 1930, there were roughly a million of these charmers in their native West African habitat, but penguin biologists now estimate that there are only about 25,000 African penguin pairs remaining in the wild. By comparison, the Academy gets about 30,000 visitors each week.
Penguin experts believe that commercial fisheries are largely to blame for the decline – fisheries continue to draw down stocks of the fish that African penguins consume, leaving them with an increasingly empty pantry. Climate change and shifting ocean currents are also causing the penguins’ preferred prey species to move, making it harder for the penguins to find them. The waters off South Africa contain major shipping lanes, and oil spills are frequent and deadly for African penguins. SANCCOB, the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, is the biggest rehabilitation center in the region, and responsible for successfully rehabbing tens of thousands of penguins affected by spills.
The good news is that African penguins are finding a strong ally in the Species Survival Plan (SSP), a program sponsored by the California Academy of Sciences and 53 other zoos and scientific institutions in the U.S. and Canada. The SSP’s goal is to ensure the long-term survival of a viable population of African penguins. Participating institutions have established a breeding program designed to promote genetic diversity and maintain a healthy captive population of African penguins. The captive population supported by SSP acts as a reservoir for genetic diversity, and could eventually be used to bolster wild penguin populations. Currently, there are about 800 African penguins living in SSP-affiliated institutions.
Institutions often act as matchmakers for the penguins, assembling couples whose genetic makeup will add to the overall genetic diversity of the captive penguin population. By tracking the genetics of breeding pairs and their offspring through a computer database, biologists are able to identify which birds are most valuable to the global gene pool. Essentially, they’re looking for the birds that are least related to one another, since they’ll share the fewest genes, and will add the greatest genetic diversity (new or under-represented genes) to the population as a whole.
Over a hundred African penguin chicks have hatched out at the Academy since 1983, and Schaller is currently working with the SSP to pair up some of the younger Academy birds with breeding partners from other institutions.
SSP institutions meet every two years to revise plans for their various projects, assess penguin population changes, and discuss the progress of their ultimate mission – protecting African penguins. The next meeting will take place in July 2011.
African penguins are one of several temperate penguin species, and are found on islands off the coast of South Africa and Namibia. They breed colonially, sometimes forming groups of 30,000 or more individuals. Breeding pairs dig burrows in guano or sand or build nests under bushes or boulders, and both parents actively rear young, taking turns foraging and caring for chicks. African penguins mate for life. In the non-breeding season, individuals take to the open sea to seek the schooling fish they feed on, traveling hundreds of miles in search of anchovies, sardines, and gobies. Average lifespan in the wild is 10-15 years.
The Academy exhibit closely mimics the penguins’ natural environment through both its physical variability and changing climatic conditions. The various physical features of the exhibit – water, rocky shore, cozy burrows – encourage the full range of penguin behaviors, and through sophisticated use of light and temperature controls, Academy penguins experience sunrise, sunset, and everything in between. Water and air temperatures in the exhibit also change to mimic natural seasonal cycles.
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What drew you to science as a career? There is flexibility and excitement in science that stimulates me. I am constantly excited about observing new environments, new situations and new interactions. Science is a method for me to understand and explain what I am watching. It allows me to meet and work with people that have similar passion. I am always learning, teaching and writing.
Current Expedition: African Penguin Species Survival Plan Meeting, July 2011
Selected Scientific Articles and Publications