Penguin Genetics & Breeding in Conservation Care

African penguins are in danger of extinction. Wild colonies along the coast of South Africa and Namibia are being depleted due to overfishing, climate change, and pollution. Seneca Park Zoo currently houses 34 African penguins, and we are doing all we can to ensure proper care, which includes maintaining a successful breeding program.

We participate in the Species Survival Plan (SSP), which involves Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited institutions throughout North America that also have African penguins.  Every three years, Institutional Representatives (IR’s) from accredited zoos gather to discuss African penguin populations. These meetings are led by expert advisors, and we all work together to maximize genetic diversity, manage demographic distribution, and long-term sustainability of the population.

The genealogy of each African penguin born in the SSP is known and they are ranked bases on how genetically valuable they are. At these meetings, we use the rankings to decide who would make the best pairings. Sometimes the two penguins are at the same institution, but other times we may need to send birds to other places.

This year the meeting was hosted by Cincinnati Zoo and IR’s from zoos all over came to discuss the 1128 penguins, in 51 AZA accredited institutions. There are currently 600 males, 525 females, and 3 unknown sex.

Before the meeting itself, we are all sent a Wants and Needs Survey, where we talk about if we would like to grow our colony, if we need to move out birds, how many birds we would like to bring in, or if there are any birds that shouldn’t be included in breeding over the next 3 years. Exclusions could be due to things like, medical conditions or age.

Once we arrive at the meeting, it is kind of run like a football draft, and we are all trying to make the best possible matches for our colony based on genetics. We utilize tools such as a MateRx, and this tells us if a paring is genetically valuable or not. The goal for the African penguin SSP is to grow the population to 1503 penguins, which means, we as a group need to hatch 68-74 chicks this year.

When looking at the MateRx 1, 2, & 3 are highly recommended and they would like to see 4 chicks produced from that pair. If a pair is a 4, they can produce up to 2 chicks. If a bird is a 5 or 6, we do not breed. This year we have 2 different pairs that are able to produce 2 chicks each. Here is a sample MateRx, so that you can get an idea of what we reference during the planning period. This has been my second meeting that I have attended, and look forward to assisting the Penguin SSP in the future.

This was a very brief overview, but I hope this answers some of the questions I often get about why we sent a penguin to another zoo, or why we decided to hatch chicks from one pair and not another. Also, did you know there are nearly 500 other SSP’s? That means this process is happening for other species as well. African penguin IR’s will tell you that their SSP is the best though! 

– Kellee Wolowitz, Assistant Curator – Carnivores 

Ways you can help African penguins:

  • Adopt a penguin at SANCCOB – Adopt an African penguin or penguin egg that will be rehabilitated and released or adopt a ‘Home Pen’ bird that lives permanently at SANCCOB. Funds help to provide incubation, food, and veterinary treatment.
  • Donate to SANCCOB – Whether you donate your time or money, you can make a difference in the survival of endangered African penguins and other seabirds in distress. For more information, visit
  • Visit the Zoo to learn more about African penguins and the threats they face in nature through keeper chats, special experiences, and more.
  • Purchase sustainably sourced seafood – Purchase seafood caught or farmed in ways that support a healthy ocean. Ask your local grocer if they sell sustainable seafood and visit to learn more about eco-friendly options.


Recent News

Share This Post