ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
At the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, there is a penguin named Pierre whose story is very remarkable. Pierre was arguably this year, the world's best dressed penguin. In reality, he was probably also the world's only dressed penguin.
And here to talk about this is Pam Schaller who is senior aquatic biologist at the academy.
Tell us the story of Pierre and why he needed clothes in the first place.
Ms. PAM SCHALLER (Senior Aquatic Biologist, California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco): Penguins are birds. They require feathers to stay warm. And in 2004, Pierre replaced all of his feathers with brand new feathers. And in 2005, those feathers were not replaced. And in 2006, he began to show signs that they would not be replaced again by having some bald patches on his tail and around his head. And as he got into late 2006 and early 2007, we decided to do some medical testing to find out what that reason was. And there was no conclusive studies to tell us what that reason was.
SIEGEL: He was fairly advanced than years as this was happening.
Ms. SCHALLER: Yes. Normally penguins live for about 15 years in the wild, and about 20 years in captivity. He was turning 25 this past February.
SIEGEL: Hmm. And the loss of the feathers posed real problems for him.
Ms. SCHALLER: A number of reasons, first of all that's their insulation that's what keeps them warm. And it's also how they identify each other. And so, with these bald patches that were beginning to appear, he was getting picked on quite a bit by some of the other birds, and he was also not swimming very often because he was very cold.
SIEGEL: So, what did you do?
Ms. SCHALLER: So, I tried to come up with a solution that will allow him to stay with the colony, and allow him to swim and stay warm, and looked at my own wet suit as a design, and clothes that I'd seen on dogs, and found what I thought to be something user-friendly for him. And it ended up being a neoprene vest that allowed his wings - flippers - to move.
SIEGEL: How long did Pierre wear this suit?
Ms. SCHALLER: He had it on for about six weeks. And what I started to notice because his tail's exposed that he was actually growing his feathers in, but as the feathers really began to grow in in full force, took the wet suit off, and he's been wet-suit free ever since.
SIEGEL: So, you came up with a treatment for baldness among penguins.
Ms. SCHALLER: That's what I'm hoping, if nothing else, we came up with a way to keep a bird comfortable in a similar situation.
SIEGEL: And what is the - what's the report on Pierre's social relations with the other penguins in the group?
Ms. SCHALLER: He is behaving as though he is once again the patriarch of the colony.
SIEGEL: Oh, he was mister big before all this began?
Ms. SCHALLER: Oh, yes, he was.
SIEGEL: I see. So, this was overturning of the social order when he was losing his feathers?
Ms. SCHALLER: Right, right. It really forced him to have to defend himself quite a bit. And now he's standing tall and strong - can swim and behave normally.
SIEGEL: Are there lots of pictures of Pierre from his - what he should wearing, wearing days?
Ms. SCHALLER: Lots.
Ms. SCHALLER: You can't help but take pictures of a penguin in a wetsuit.
SIEGEL: But nobody put goggles on him or things like that...
Ms. SCHALLER: No goggles or surfboard.
SIEGEL: No surfboard either. Well, thank you very much for talking with us about this theory of Pierre the penguin. Pam Schaller, senior aquatic biologist at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Thanks a lot.
Ms. SCHALLER: Thank you.
SIEGEL: And you can see Pierre's suit and some of his penguin buddies at npr.org.
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