[This was written by Fran Siebrits and published online by Wild Magazine www.wildcard.co.za, 2010]

We know that losing one’s hair is the aging process for some of us humans. But whoever would have thought that penguins may go through the same embarrassing ordeal… and not only on their heads, but all over their body!

Just as some people lose their hair, penguins may face feather-loss disorder. It was first noted in captive African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) chicks in a rehabilitation centre in South Africa. Later, the disorder was also found in wild Magellanic Penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus) in Argentina, South America, close relatives to our indigenous species. Two years after research into the loss of feathers began, the disorder was found in wild chicks in South Africa.

This disorder is new and rare in both South Africa and Argentina. In the case of the chicks, they seem to lose their down and either take a few weeks to get their juvenile plumage or they kick the bucket before being able to explore the oceans with a water-resistant adult ‘coat’. These little ones take longer to develop and are also smaller in size to those who have their normal feathers.

Even though the disorder is more common in African Penguin chicks in rehabilitation centres, mortality is higher in the wild Megallanic Penguins chicks with this disorder.

It is still unknown as to why penguins must face what can only be a humiliating experience. Losing one’s feathers can’t be much of a confidence boost. If researchers cannot explain why feather-loss disorder occurs, perhaps they can assist in inventing a spray-on-feather treatment for penguins who suffer from balding.

Pierre’s wetsuit

A wetsuit was fitted for Pierre the African Penguin at the California Academy of Science in San Fransisco when he started losing his feathers. He started balding in 2006 and was not swimming as often because of the cold which started to penetrate through. After six weeks in his new suit he was back to normal.

Did you know?

• The African Penguin was previously referred to as the Jackass Penguin because of the donkey-like braying sound they may.

• The black spots on their chests act as fingerprints; they are unique to the individual penguin.

• Female African Penguins have larger beaks than males (maybe they talk more, just like females in another species we all know only too well).

1. Published by The Waterbird Society [31 March 2010]

Authors: Olivia J. Kane1,*, Jeffrey R. Smith1, P. Dee Boersma1, Nola J. Parsons2, Venessa Strauss2, Pablo Garcia-Borboroglu3 and Cecilia Villanueva3

1 Department of Biology, University of Washington and the Wildlife Conservation Society, Seattle, WA, 98195, USA

2 Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, P.O. Box 11116, Bloubergrant, 7443, South Africa

3 Centro Nacional Patagónico CONICET, Blvd. Brown 2825 Puerto Madryn 9120, Chubut, Argentina

* Corresponding Author; E-mail: oliviaj@u.washington.edu

2. NPR [25 April 2008] http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=89951043