CASL student Jennifer Zavalnitskaya looks at penguin behavior as Detroit Zoo intern

October 2, 2017

The biology and environmental science major studied them in the zoo’s new Polk Penguin Conservation Center, the largest facility for penguins in the world.

penguin research
penguin research
Jennifer Zavalnitskaya studies penguins at the Detroit Zoo’s Polk Penguin Conservation Center, the largest facility for penguins in the world.

Thor shares a look with a young boy holding a stuffed animal. Kong swims in his expansive pool. Sassy relaxes in a nest that’s not hers.

And—sitting in the Detroit Zoo’s Polk Penguin Conservation Center, the largest facility for penguins in the world—senior Jennifer Zavalnitskaya records their actions.

“They have colored bands on their flippers so that you know who is who,” says Zavalnitskaya, who is majoring in biology and environmental science. “But you get to know them without looking at their bands after a little while because of their personalities.”

Serving as a research volunteer to study penguin behavior in their new habitat—it opened in 2016—she watched and noted their activities to help the zoo understand the welfare impacts of the new space. She started at the zoo in November 2016.

“The data is still being analyzed, but the penguins are swimming much more than they did in their former exhibit space. And in the Penguinarium, the four species of penguins spent less time together; here, they intermix more,” Zavalnitskaya said of the center, which received the 2017 Exhibit Award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “I’d say those are all signs they enjoy the new habitat.”

Zavalnitskaya, who began visiting the Detroit Zoo as a child, said she didn’t realize students could conduct research there until she attended a Detroit Zoo field trip for Associate Professor Anne Danielson-Francois’ Behavioral Biology course.

“It was shared that research internships were available,” she said. “My first response was, ‘There’s a job where people observe cute animals to engage them and give them the best habitat possible? Sign me up.’”

Not only did Zavalnitskaya get to assist with research for the zoo, she was allowed to do her own study as well.

“Jen has been a great member of our penguin observation team,” said Matthew Heintz, research associate for the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare, Detroit Zoological Society. “Beyond data collection, she has always been eager to discuss recent observations and results, and took the initiative to do a small research study to help us better understand penguin swimming behavior.”

While watching scuba divers clean the 326,000-gallon tank—a group goes in multiple times a week—Zavalnitskaya noticed a small change in penguin behavior. So she asked to explore it further.

“I wanted to see if the divers’ presence really did affect them. For some penguins it did, and for others it didn’t. Just like us, some penguins are more social than others. There was a difference, but it may have been personality related.”

Zavalnitskaya said she’s done collecting research for the penguin project, but the zoo invited her to continue to study animal behavior at the newly expanded Edward Mardigian Sr. River Otter Habitat. And she’s accepted.

She said her courses, along with Detroit Zoo training, has given her confidence in her abilities and shown her that she’s found the right path.

“I’ve always been an advocate of taking care of the Earth and I really enjoy learning about animals and helping give them a voice,” she said. “You can build a life, a career, around giving them a better life.”

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