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Encore: The Dallas Zoo is part of a global effort to save wild African penguins


An algorithm is helping with some crucial work in the dating lives of penguins in Dallas, Texas. They are part of an international effort to save their species in the wild. Katherine Hobbs of member station KERA reports.


KATHERINE HOBBS, BYLINE: It's a windy morning at the Dallas Zoo. A colony of 11 penguins waddles clumsily towards their keeper, Kevin Graham. It's breeding season, and the zoo is counting on four bonded pairs to lay viable eggs - and not just because penguin chicks are cute. This group is responsible in part for the survival of their entire species.

KEVIN GRAHAM: If the worst happens and an extinction crisis becomes imminent, we have a population that could be the reservoir.

HOBBS: And the penguin pairs at the Dallas Zoo are no coincidence. They were matched up by a sophisticated algorithm that first analyzed their DNA and then linked them up with a genetically ideal partner. This highly scientific dating service - a, if you will - ensures eggs laid by a breeding pair will be viable and contribute to a genetically diverse captive population. But just because an algorithm says a pair is a good match doesn't mean they'll hit it off. Sometimes they need a little extra push, and that means they get their own enclosure and go on a penguin date.

GRAHAM: A lot of vocalization, a lot of body posturing, a lot of interacting - and that's if it goes well. If it doesn't, we hope they ignore each other. But penguins that don't get along are feisty.

HOBBS: So if the date goes poorly, the penguin could go mateless. But there's even a place for them - the Dallas World Aquarium. Here, Susan Schmid is the avian collection manager. Her collection of penguins, she says, is a sort of bachelor retirement community.

SUSAN SCHMID: They're adorable. I mean, you can't help but like them. They're cute. They're funny to watch walk.

HOBBS: While these penguins aren't a part of a breeding program, they do serve special roles as ambassador animals. Their job is to teach visitors about the efforts to save their wild cousins. The Dallas Zoo and the aquarium are at the forefront of this work. Every year, members of their staff travel to South Africa, where these warm-weather penguins live. That's right. Penguins aren't exclusive to Antarctica. These penguins migrate to nest off the blazing hot islands off Africa's coast. There, they call out to their lifelong mate and reunite at the same nest each year. But those nests are threatened by development, coastal erosion and illegal guano harvesting, the material used to make the nests. Julie Farrington's a zoologist at the Dallas Zoo.

JULIE FARRINGTON: Out there, it's traveling to all the different nesting sites where the penguins are still trying to nest.

HOBBS: Farrington and her colleagues help homeless penguin pairs by providing housing assistance in the form of artificial nests. These nests are about the size of a dog crate.

FARRINGTON: And it's getting those nests out there for the birds to use. And as soon as we get those nests down on the ground, birds are in them.

HOBBS: This year, the penguin matchmakers placed 350 nests in the wild. Meanwhile, at the Dallas Zoo, the keepers are still impatiently waiting to see if any new chicks will be joining the colony.

For NPR News, I'm Katherine Hobbs in Dallas.


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Katherine Hobbs