How RFID is helping penguins in the Cincinnati Zoo swim more

The little blue penguins at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens swim more, thanks in part to the technology that promotes them.

The world’s smallest penguins have their own exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo. It is one of two penguin exhibits that opened during the 2020 pandemic. The zoo is recognized nationally for this.

Little blue penguins, or “fairy” penguins, are eight to ten inches tall and weigh about 2 1/2 pounds. Early on, head keeper Ricky Kinley worried that they were standing around too much.

“You can get a disease called bumblebee, which is basically pressure points on the bottom of your feet,” he says. “So it’s important that you spend a lot of time swimming. But just like humans, getting a lot of cardiovascular activity is good, isn’t it?”

For decades, Kinley has worked on various strategies to get her swimming more. This includes teaching the penguins to play with balls and to bring food into the water. Over the past four years, he and another researcher have perfected RFID, or radio frequency identification, which has been very instructive.

Kinley put tags on each wing of the penguins. The antennas are hidden in the exhibition. This information provides data on how long each penguin swims and who their friends are.

The RFID tags show when the water is warmer and 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 stones and warmed their pool.

After all, he wants the public to have access to the data.

“We could even have signage outside the habitat. When a bird swims by it, it identifies it for viewers and then gives statistics about the bird – the name, how much it swims, the tape color,” he says to Kinley.

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

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