Followers of the Two Oceans Aquarium's social media accounts have almost certainly seen video clips of our rockhopper penguins waddling about the Aquarium, wearing bring pink and blue "socks". You may be wondering, why?
To answer that question, we first need to take a quick look at the differences between wild penguins, and penguins being cared for in facilities, like the ones here at the Two Oceans Aquarium. Here are a few that are relevant:
- Because captive penguins are fed regularly, they do not need to spend as much time in the water floating around or traveling to distant feeding grounds (even though they do still spend hours in the water playing and exercising).
- The absence of predators and the high-quality diet means that captive penguins live far longer than wild ones, easily reaching double or triple their expected age in the wild.
- Because many captive penguins are rescued from distressing situations, e.g. confiscated from fishermen or washed up on coasts thousands of kilometres from home, they can have the scars and effects of severe injuries which they would not have survived without human help.
Those three factors - old age, appetite satiation, and possible discomfort from old injuries - means that captive penguins spend more time standing on land than their wild counterparts, and even if their habitat is immaculate, their risk of foot injuries and infections is higher, especially for older penguins with less effective healing and immune systems. This is a major consideration when designing living spaces for birds that are unable to be released back into the wild, like the rescued penguins the Aquarium cares for.
Bumblefoot is a particularly nasty foot infection that birds of all sorts can be affected by, and penguins with their broad, flat, moist feet are particularly susceptible. Although good husbandry practices, like regularly washing and changing the sand and rocks on the penguins' habitat significantly reduces the risk, older penguins like Teddy the rockhopper (who is almost 30) require extra care.
This is where the socks come in. When a small foot injury, a suspicious red spot, or some other cause for concern is noted by the penguin keeper, the foot is sterilised and bandages are used to prevent the possibility of infection and to allow small wounds to recover. Bumblefoot is a severe and potentially fatal infection - so swift action is always best!
It's the outer layer of veterinary stretch bandages that appear as the pink socks that have recently gone viral online.
Reef Wetsuits has also generously created pairs of wetsuit booties that protect these penguins' feet while swimming - so before diving into the Kelp Forest, they swap out their bandages for slick black booties!
So next time you see a penguin wearing socks, remember that it is for the same reason you do - to keep the footsies warm and safe!