The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s Little Blue penguins are swimming more thanks in part to technology that helps encourage it.

The smallest penguins in the world have their own exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo. It is one of two penguin exhibits that opened in 2020 during the pandemic. For that, the zoo is being recognized nationally.

Little Blue penguins, or “fairy” penguins, stand between eight and 10 inches tall and weigh about 2 1/2 lbs. Early on, Head Keeper Ricky Kinley became concerned they were standing around too much.

“They can get a condition called bumblefoot, which is basically pressure sores on the bottom of their feet,” he says. “So it’s important they spend a lot of time off their feet swimming. But just like with humans, it’s good to get a lot of cardiovascular activity, right?”

For decades Kinley has been working on different strategies to get them swimming more, including teaching the penguins to play with balls and introducing food in the water. In the last four years he and another researcher have been perfecting RFID, or radio frequency identification, which has been very insightful.

Kinley put tags on each of the penguins’ wings. The antennas are hidden in the exhibit. This information provides data on how long each penguin is swimming and who their friends are.

The RFID tags revealed when the water is warmer, the penguins swim more. Only five of 17 penguin species live in Antarctica and the Little Blue penguins are not one of them. Kinley installed heated rocks and warmed up their pool.

Eventually he would like the public to have access to the data.

“We could even have a piece of signage that’s in front of the habitat, so when a bird swims by it identifies it for the viewers and then gives stats about the bird – the name, how much it swims, the band color,” says Kinley.

He says this is just the tip of the iceberg. The Cincinnati Zoo says its the only place in the world using RFID for penguins.

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