The Heat Is Online

Unseasonal Warmth Strands Penguins on Rio Beaches

Rio summer sunbathers find surf, sand and penguins

Reuters News Service, Jan. 17, 2001


RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - Rio's picture postcard beaches are receiving some unexpected visitors this summer as, along with oiled-up sunbathers and volleyball players, dozens of half-starved penguins are stumbling ashore.

Due to apparent climatic changes, hundreds of Magellanic penguins failed to make it home to the chilly waters of the Valdez Peninsula in Patagonia by the time summer arrived in the southern hemisphere, a senior biologist said on Tuesday.

"This is totally atypical," said Valdir Ramos Jr., the chief mammal biologist at Rio's Zoological Garden, which has taken in the young orphaned birds. "In 2000 we received some 300 penguins, both alive and dead, and they just keep coming."

In a typical year, Ramos and his crew take custody of some 40 penguins between June and August when the young birds who followed currents north for winter run astray before returning to Argentina for the nesting season in September and October.

But from 1999, more and more penguins started to wash up on Rio's shores extending into the height of the summer in 2001.

"We can't talk about a 'penguin season' anymore, it doesn't exist," Ramos said.

Biologists speculate that the south Brazilian coast remained cooler longer over the last two years, stranding the young penguins when they tried to return home. But what no one knows is why, or whether the trend will be repeated this year.

The zoo's penguin aquarium, with a refrigerated cabin to stave off Rio's summer heat, is home to 16 healthy penguins, but dozens more are being nursed back to health in infirmaries at the zoo.

The youngsters are usually exhausted and hungry after swimming thousands of kilometers from Patagonia and many suffer from skin diseases or shark bites.

The Rio zoo has beefed up its food and medicine budgets and has scrambled to find new homes for the orphaned Magellanic penguins, 2-feet (0.6 meter) tall birds who have white bellies and a black stripe under their chins.

The zoo also had to create a travel budget last year to ship the birds off to other zoos due to "overcrowding." In neighboring Sao Paulo state, three zoos actually created new penguin aquariums to receive the birds.

While biologists would eventually like to be able to nurse the young birds back to health and then set them free, they want to ensure first that the reintroduced penguins would not carry new diseases back to Patagonia with them.

In the meantime, Rio's zoo hopes to educate sunbathers and fisherman on how to care for the penguins, which unlike some other species, prefer cool but not freezing temperatures.

"You wouldn't believe how many people put these penguins in freezers when they rescue them. And of course, they mostly die," Ramos said.

Story by Shasta Darlington