Singapore, 04 April 2011
– Belle, the Humboldt penguin at Jurong Bird Park, has been donning her very own ‘penguin suit’ recently, and it is not for a black tie, gala event at the avian wildlife park. The wet suit is part of a carefully managed holistic treatment programme involving husbandry practice coupled with necessary medications tailored to help Belle grow back her feathers.

The 10-year-old resident of the bird park’s Penguin Coast exhibit has been experiencing continued feather loss since last year, which spread gradually from her neck to her entire body, when she missed her yearly moulting cycle. Moulting is a natural occurrence where penguins grow a new coat of feathers by shedding the old one, typically before mating season. When penguins do not moult, the old feathers start to wear off, exposing the undercoat and skin. It is rare for penguins to remain featherless, but certain factors such as infection, stress, or hormonal imbalance can cause prolonged moulting, which was the case with Belle. This prevents her from swimming since penguins usually do not go into the water until they regain their natural plumage, as plumage plays a vital role in insulating them against the cold and helping them stay buoyant in the water.

The avian experts at the Jurong Bird Park then came up with a creative and resourceful idea to help the little Humboldt. They adapted a wet suit meant for humans, which Belle has been wearing for over two months.

“In our research, we discovered that two groups overseas – the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, US, and Marwell Wildlife in the United Kingdom – have been successful in treating moulting penguins with customised wet suits. These wet suits act as a natural feather covering, providing warmth and insulation. They also trap air and this helps them stay afloat,” said Ms Angelin Lim, the park’s Junior Avian Management Officer involved in Belle’s treatment.

The results have been very encouraging. Belle’s downy feathers have started to grow on her neck, sides of the chest and back regions. According to the park’s veterinarian Dr Melodiya Nyela F Magno, the adaptation of the wet suit, complemented with medical treatment, enhanced Belle’s recovery process.

“We gave Belle antibiotics and hormone replacement therapy as she had a hormonal deficiency. While we cannot really determine how much this helped in the initial stages, Belle started to show positive feather growth when we supplemented the medical treatment with the use of the improvised wet suit. We believe that this ‘penguin suit’ enhanced her normal swimming habits and with the exercise she was getting swimming, encouraged the production of endorphins, or what you call ‘happy hormones’ in the bird. She appeared much happier, was more active, and displayed a lot more of her natural behaviour,” said Dr Magno.

With the care provided by the keepers which contributed to her well-being aiding her recovery, Belle is now able to return to her enclosure progressively and socialise with the rest of the penguins for up to 20 minutes daily. She had to be housed separately during her recovery as she was being picked on by the other penguins for looking different. Being picked on is a natural reaction in penguin colonies where sick-looking birds tend to be easy pickings for predators, which endangers the colony.

As the improvised wet suit has improved Belle’s condition, the bird park is now in talks with several wet suit manufacturers who may be keen to undertake this creative project and design a customised outfit for her.

The Jurong Bird Park’s Penguin Coast, an upgrade of the former Penguin Expedition, is a climate controlled exhibit which features more than 96 penguins from six different species. It also includes the latest outdoor penguin enclosure showing African penguins, one of the few species that are adapted to the tropics.

Belle getting a helping hand to put on her wet suit
Belle, the Humboldt penguin, trying out her new wet suit in the water
Belle looking very comfortable in her wet suit