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Detroit Zoo penguins prepare for debut at new conservation center

If you have any kind of affection for penguins – and really, who doesn't? – start making plans to check out the Detroit Zoo's Polk Penguin Conservation Center.

The zoo's biggest, most complex project ever is set to open its doors next week. 

The $30 million conservation center aims to be a state-of-the-art habitat for 83 King, Gentoo, Macaroni and Rockhopper penguins.

Scott Carter, Chief Life Sciences Officer for the Detroit Zoological Society, says part of the center’s goal is to maximize the animals’ welfare. To do that, zoo scientists spent a lot of time observing the penguins in their old habitat at the zoo’s penguinarium.

“We’ll continue that research here now that they’ve moved,” Carter said, “to compare some measures of well-being, and be able to say more definitively that we have created something better.”

That research involved travel to Antarctica, too. Carter says the iceberg-shaped space mimics the Antarctic environment as much as possible.

Amazingly, that requires the penguins to adapt to a new element: snow. “We added a snow machine, so it’s producing this giant mound of snow here,” Carter said. “Which the penguins are learning to navigate, because they didn’t have snow in the old exhibit.”

The exhibit aims to immerse visitors in the Antarctic environment as well. It includes a simulation of conditions onboard polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, complete with surrounding visual projections, sounds, and some light snow and mist.

A major goal is to educate visitors on how climate change and other human impacts are changing the Antarctic landscape.

That changing environment is creating “winners and losers” among penguin species. “Some species are seeing expanded range because there’s less ice; others are seeing less range because there’s less ice,” Carter said.

The exhibit also has a “spotlight on science” that will highlight the latest research in penguin ecology and other penguin-related fields.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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