Getting rid of their old winter coats and dreaming of a beach body, two African penguins on the shores of Camden’s Adventure Aquarium are going through their annual molt.
Twenty-seven-year-old Cliff and one-year-old Cornelius weren’t the best looking guys on Penguin Island this week. Senior biologist Jennifer Duffy says they went bald overnight, in what is called a catastrophic molt.
“When they first molt you’ll come in and they will literally be standing inside a ring of feathers that will have fallen off their body overnight,” she said. “Because they’re using their feathers to insulate their bodies, it’s more advantageous to molt once rather than have holes essentially in their wet suit all year round.”
Stranded on the beach while others swim, the nearly bald birds stick close to their nesting spots, feeling less social than usual.
“You won’t see them milling around quite as much as they might normally, because I don’t think they’re very comfortable when they’re molting,” said Duffy.
After a month-long diet of six herring or squid a day, Cliff and Cornelius have gained a third of their body weight, and it’s easier for them to overheat, so handlers at the Aquarium make sure can they can get some shade by simply bringing them inside, out of the direct springtime sun.
In the wild, it’s not such an easy operation for a molting penguin to find shelter.
In nature, molting penguins will do everything from searching out rocky outcroppings to hiding in tall grass. Or, when options fail them, they may even hide in a mound of their own poop.
“They will dig a hole, literally. They might just excavate a cavity or they might dig a hole in the guano and you might find them in a little burrow,” said Duffy.
Back at the aquarium, Cliff’s girlfriend Mouse keeps a close eye on him. Cornelius, still an adolescent, is single and keeps to himself. Duffy says Cornelius, also known as Corndog, was sticking close to his brother, but recently they had been fighting.
She notes there is no guarantee that a partner will help out their molting spouse. It depends on the couple.
“Some of the more, shall we say, dedicated couples are a little bit nicer to their boyfriend or girlfriend if they’re molting,” Duffy says. “The maybe not quite as dedicated, they don’t bother too much.”
In a couple weeks, both will be back to normal, with new swimming suits just in time for summer.