As Summer Begins, Maryland Zoo Monitors Penguins For Malaria

BALTIMORE (WJZ)–All our recent heavy rains and warmer temperatures are posing a threat to an unlikely victim: the penguin.

Alex DeMetrick has more on why this time of year puts penguins at the Maryland Zoo at risk.

It’s a parasitic disease most often connected with the tropics, but it’s here. And penguins are vulnerable.

The penguins have drawn crowds for decades at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.

“Yeah. They’re cute,” one girl said.

“They’re very interesting,” one boy said.

“We love the penguins. Do you like the penguins?” one mom said.

“Yes,” her daughter replied.

And the penguins have taken to Maryland, which breeds more of the birds than any other zoo in the United States.

But there’s a catch to captivity.

“They don’t seem to mind our Baltimore weather,” said Dr. Allison Wack, Maryland Zoo.

Mosquitoes love it.

This time of year, when a penguin is bitten it could be deadly.

“It’s one of the top causes of death in penguin captivity,” Wack said.

Wack is a Maryland Zoo veterinarian. The disease she watches for every year is avian malaria, which is common in the United States and worldwide.

People can’t catch it, but penguins can.

“They have about a 50 percent mortality rate, so if we just let them go we could lose half our birds,” Wack said.

So, not long after penguins are hatched they are carefully screened. Multiple blood tests look for the malaria parasite.

“If we find it in those first and second years, we’ll treat them. But in this way we allow them to be exposed naturally and they develop a natural immunity to it over time,” Wack said.

The penguin’s vulnerability in captivity is the result of where it lives in the wild.

Whether it’s the open water of South Africa or Antarctic ice, “they have not evolved with mosquitoes. They’re in windy, coastal areas, so mosquitoes if present blow inland. So they’re not exposed to the parasite,” Wack said.

The Maryland Zoo has lost some penguins in the past to malaria, but most have responded well to a combination of medicine and exposure to the disease and developed immunity.

The Maryland Zoo is one of the few in the world to use the treatment it’s developed. Almost all others rely on yearly doses of malaria medicine for its penguins.

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