Connecting You to a World of Ideas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

How RFID Is Helping Penguins At The Cincinnati Zoo Swim More

Ann Thompson
It doesn't show it here (the penguins are taking a siesta break) but RFID is helping to promote swimming.

The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden's Little Blue penguins are swimming more thanks in part to technology that helps encourage it.

The smallest penguins in the world have their own exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo. It is one of two penguin exhibits that opened in 2020 during the pandemic. For that, the zoo is being recognized nationally.

Credit Ann Thompson / WVXU
Head Keeper Ricky Kinley holds Eggsy.

Little Blue penguins, or "fairy" penguins, stand between eight and 10 inches tall and weigh about 2 1/2 lbs. Early on, Head Keeper Ricky Kinley became concerned they were standing around too much.

"They can get a condition called bumblefoot, which is basically pressure sores on the bottom of their feet," he says. "So it's important they spend a lot of time off their feet swimming. But just like with humans, it's good to get a lot of cardiovascular activity, right?"

For decades Kinley has been working on different strategies to get them swimming more, including teaching the penguins to play with balls and introducing food in the water. In the last four years he and another researcher have been perfecting RFID, or radio frequency identification, which has been very insightful.

Kinley put tags on each of the penguins' wings. The antennas are hidden in the exhibit. This information provides data on how long each penguin is swimming and who their friends are.

The RFID tags revealed when the water is warmer, 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 rocks and warmed up their pool.

Eventually he would like the public to have access to the data.

"We could even have a piece of signage that's in front of the habitat, so when a bird swims by it identifies it for the viewers and then gives stats about the bird - the name, how much it swims, the band color," says Kinley.

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

Credit Ann Thompson / WVXU
The data equipment is housed where the penguins stay when they're away from the outside exhibit.

Ann Thompson has years of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported for WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV, Metro Networks and CBS/ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2019 and 2011 A-P named her “Best Reporter” for large market radio in Ohio. She has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. Ann reports regularly on science and technology in Focus on Technology