Marine biologists and UConn alumni discuss penguin rehabilitation

Marine biologists and UConn alumni, Josh Davis, Laurie Macha, and Eric Fox discussed African penguin conservation in a lecture hosted by the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History on Saturday, Nov. 12.  (Songqing Zhao/The Daily Campus)

Marine biologists and University of Connecticut alumni Josh Davis, Laurie Macha and Eric Fox spoke about African penguin conservation on Saturday in a lecture hosted by the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History.

‘From Poultry To Penguins: What Came After UConn’ highlighted the duties and research of Davis, Macha and Fox, who all are involved in the Mystic Aquarium’s African penguin colony as well as the current colonies down in South Africa.

The three animal science majors attributed their success to their experience at UConn. In particular, Macha said, a poultry science class she took gave her valuable experience in handling birds, understanding their physiology and formulating diets for the colony.

Davis emphasized how the skills he learned in university help him today.  

“We don’t think we would be able to do today without the experiences we learned at UConn,” he said.

Macha, who graduated from UConn in 1987 with a bachelor's in animal science and received her master’s in 1991, is the Supervisor of Pinnipeds and Penguins at the Mystic Aquarium. Macha is in charge of the current penguin colony and helps train the birds so that they can be safely fed, handled and exercised.

One of the reasons that the penguin colony is so important, Macha said, is because of the rapid decline in African penguin populations. Currently, there are less than 50,000 African penguins alive in the wild, a 70 percent decline in their numbers since 2000.

“They could very well disappear in our lifetime,” Macha said. “It’s a very grave situation.”

Threats such as predators, pollution, a reduction in food due to climate change and oil spills all lead to penguin deaths. In South Africa, Macha said, the penguins are sometimes seen as pests, and nesting areas have been destroyed to make way for new housing developments. Currently, the African penguin is on the Endangered Species List.

Oil spills in particular are highly fatal to penguin colonies, Macha said. In 2000, an oil spill around Robben Island, which houses one of South Africa’s most prominent penguin colonies, left over 19,000 surviving birds in need of cleaning and rehabilitating, Macha said.

One of the most devastating effects of oil spills on the birds, Macha said, is the fact that crude oil destroys the red blood cells of penguins once ingested, leaving them anemic. The oil can be passed on to their chicks as well when the parents regurgitate food for their young.

Macha went to South Africa and assisted in rehabilitating the penguins, she said. The trip was the beginning of a partnership between Mystic and the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, who helped organized the penguin rescue.

The organization collaborates with Mystic on the current penguin populations in the wild, tracking the breeding habits and growth cycles through a program called Earthwatch. Mystic aquarium also provides data from their own penguin colony as a baseline for penguin health in the wild, Macha said.

Those who attended the show said they enjoyed the variety of knowledge the lecturers had to present.

“I think it was a good lecture,” said Britt Barry, a New London resident who graduated from UConn herself in 1987. “I brought my daugher and her friend. I thought that it would be a good idea for her to see what UConn students did after [they graduate]. I liked the range of topics they talked about.”


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.