Well, waddle you know … check out these fun facts about the Polk Penguin Conservation Center!

Gentoo Penguin - Polk Penguin Conservation Center

  • More than 1,000 individuals – consultants, architects and tradesmen – worked on the project from start to finish.
  • While digging on the construction site for the building and parking lot, ink tattoo bottles from the early 1920s were found intact 10 feet below the surface.
  • The 360-degree, 4-D Endurance experience is more than 145 feet wide and 20 feet tall and utilizes five 4K laser projectors, nine water nozzles, four hurricane fans and one snow machine. The original 1912 recording of “The Wearing of the Green” can be heard – the song was playing on the ship’s gramophone the night the Endurance was crushed in the ice.
  • The oak lumber used on the Endurance 4-D experience is reclaimed from buildings and barns in metro Detroit that were salvaged. The oak was originally milled in the late 1800s/early 1900s and would have been the exact type and age of lumber used to build the original Endurance.
  • The real-life photo of the iceberg that inspired the exterior design of the building is incorporated into the Endurance 4-D experience (see if you can find it).
  • In order to complete the penguin habitat, two separate scaffold “worlds” were simultaneously created – one for the lower pool rock work and another for the ceiling. More than 100 pieces of scaffolding were installed and utilized during the process with more than 50 people working at one time.
  • Each element of rock work and ice work, both in the pool and out, was sculpted out of concrete completely by hand.
  • The penguin habitat has the ability to produce more than a yard of snow and ice per day.
  • The wave technology in the aquatic area is the same that is utilized at wave pools; there are three settings for the penguins to enjoy.
  • The largest acrylic viewing window in the underwater gallery weighs 37,000 pounds.
  • The heads-up display technology in the underwater gallery was developed in the automotive industry by Denso and is used in cars such as the new Corvette.
  • The penguin center has near net-zero water goals through the recirculation and treatment of the habitat- and animal-management pools, wash-down systems and exterior fountain-skate area.
  • A custom iridescent paint was developed for the metal panel system on the exterior, giving the building a different look depending on the time of day and angle of viewing. The paint is aptly named “Iceberg”.
  • The flags of 50 countries are displayed along the concrete benches in the exterior plaza of the penguin center. These countries comprise the Antarctic Treaty System, which regulates international relations with respect to Antarctica, Earth’s only continent without a native human population. The treaty, entering into force in 1961 and having 53 parties as of 2016, sets aside Antarctica as a scientific preserve, establishes freedom of scientific investigation and bans military activity on the continent. Three additional countries have signed the treaty since the Polk Penguin Conservation Center was designed (Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Iceland); their flags will soon be added to the plaza.
  • It’s All About the Penguins

    Just as the Detroit Zoo’s original Penguinarium set a new standard in 1968, the Polk Penguin Conservation Center redefines “state of the art” for captive penguin habitats. While providing a spectacular visitor experience, the animal habitat itself ensures an optimal environment for the welfare of the penguins, with the air temperature set to a near-freezing 37 degrees Fahrenheit and the water at 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The environment is designed to encourage wild behavior, from diving and porpoising to nesting and rearing young.
    Rockhoper Penguins - Detroit Zoo

    Our animal care staff all share the same long-term goal of better understanding how we can provide an environment that allows penguins to thrive and maintain the best possible health and welfare. Every aspect of the Polk Penguin Conservation Center is designed to meet the birds’ needs:

    • The lighting in the new habitat provides a much wider spectrum of wavelengths than their former habitat, with more ultraviolet light and improved nighttime lighting in the red wavelength ranges. The lighting intensity capacity is greatly increased and can be adjusted to mimic seasonal variation.
    • The flooring is designed to enhance foot health and prevent the development of a condition called “bumblefoot”, a common ailment in captive penguins. In some places, the floor is coated with a resinous material to provide cushioning, and in other areas the flooring has variable rocky textures, mimicking conditions seen in Antarctica.
    • The penguins have an enormous aquatic area for swimming, with the ability to circumnavigate the entire habitat. This results in increased activity levels and opportunities for natural porpoising and diving behaviors and helps them stay fit and healthy.
    • The water filtration system is state of the art in its design to maintain clear, clean, filtered water to meet the penguins’ needs.
    • The air quality is filtered and monitored for quality.
    • The nesting areas are designed to be easy to clean.

  • Another Big Step on Our Green Journey

    Detroit Zoo - Greenprint

    The Polk Penguin Conservation Center is designed as an environmentally responsible facility, consistent with our commitment to progressive resource management and environmental leadership. As such, designers, engineers and life-science and animal-welfare experts all addressed the needs of both penguins and visitors in the most energy-efficient and sustainable manner.

    The Detroit Zoological Society’s Greenprint defines a commitment to lessening our environmental impact on the earth. Our Education staff developed escalating “Shades of Green”, which are suggested actions for the community that illustrate how individuals can lessen their ecological footprint. Sustainable strategies and elements for the Polk Penguin Conservation Center have been organized by the three darkest shades of green – moss (dark), forest (darker) and evergreen (darkest).

    Moss green strategies minimize loads, demands and materials. Examples include:

      • Light-color exterior and a reflective roof to reduce heat gain
      • Renewable and recycled materials
      • Some locally manufactured materials and systems
      • Low-flow fixtures
      • Daylight harvesting, which utilizes daylight to dim or shut off electric lights in order to reduce energy consumption
      • Native and water-efficient vegetation
      • Natural “rain garden” storm drainage concepts


    Forest green strategies conserve water and energy, elevate efficiencies and incorporate considerations beyond the facility. Examples include:

      • Textural glass to reduce bird strikes with energy-conscious glazing, plus high-performance insulated pattern glass with double low-emissivity coatings
      • Dark skies exterior light philosophy
      • Photocells (sensors that detect light and convert it to energy)
      • Low- to zero-emitting interior materials and finishes in animal and human spaces


    Evergreen strategies strive to take energy conservation farther. These include closed systems for reuse and regeneration, wildlife conservation, and the creation of meaningful connections for people that inspire stewardship. Examples include:

      • Recirculating habitat and husbandry pool water and utilizing condensate to prevent water loss through evaporation
      • Recirculation of water in the fountain area
      • Bird-friendly spectral lighting that does not disorient migrating birds
      • Habitat design that encourages natural penguin behaviors
      • Water and air temperature that provide thermal comfort for penguins
      • Inspiration and education through architectural design that communicates the message of climate change
      • Skylight glazing that allows ultraviolet radiation for penguin well-being

  • It Took a Lot of Penguin People

    Penguins in Antartica

    Planning for the Polk Penguin Conservation Center included visits by key project leadership to Antarctica to observe and experience how penguins live in the extreme environments to which they are uniquely adapted, as well as extensive consultation with experts in penguin conservation and climate science. The penguin center’s design was developed by a team including Detroit Zoological Society executives and biologists, world-renowned architects, and leaders in visitor experience and educational programs in informal settings such as zoos and museums.

    Dr. Bill Fraser - Penguin ExpertPreeminent polar ecologist and penguin expert Dr. Bill Fraser, director of Polar Oceans Research Group, is a key member of the design team. Since 1974, he has worked in Antarctica monitoring the activities of Adélie penguins and documenting environmental change. A book called “Fraser’s Penguins” by Fen Montaigne documents his work and underscores the unsettling changes that have occurred in the Antarctic Peninsula in recent decades. Dr. Fraser’s knowledge and insights on Antarctica and penguins have been invaluable in the design of the new penguin center.

    The Polk Penguin Conservation Center was designed by Jones & Jones, architects of Disney’s Animal Kingdom as well as the Detroit Zoo’s Arctic Ring of Life and National Amphibian Conservation Center, and by Albert Kahn Associates, architects of the Zoo’s Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

    The following individuals and companies were instrumental in the planning and execution of the Polk Penguin Conservation Center.*


    • Alan Cobb, Albert Kahn Associates
    • John Hrovat, Albert Kahn Associates
    • Mario Campos, Jones & Jones
    • Johnpaul Jones, Jones & Jones

    General Contractor

    • DeMaria/Wharton-Smith



    • Dr. Bill Fraser, Director, Polar Oceans Research Group
    • Brian Mooney, President, Integrity Building Group
    • SimEx! Iwerks Entertainment
    • Through the Learning Glass (TLG), LLC


    Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) Design Committee

    • Dr. Stephanie Allard, Director of Animal Welfare
    • John Anderson, former Director of Park Operations
    • Scott Carter, Chief Life Sciences Officer
    • Dr. Ann Duncan, Director of Animal Health
    • Ron Kagan, Executive Director and CEO
    • Diane Miller, Chief Program Officer
    • Edgar Parks, DZS Advisory Board Member (deceased)
    • Stephen Polk, Vice Chair of the DZS Board
    • Tom Schneider, Curator of Birds
    • Gerry VanAcker, Chief Operating Officer
    • Bonnie Van Dam, Associate Curator of Birds

    *Names and professional titles are as of 2016.

  • An Antarctic Adventure

    Shackleton’s 1914 expedition

    Imagine seeing this help-wanted ad posted just over a century ago: “Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.” In response to this solicitation, polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton was purportedly flooded with bids from more than 5,000 men eager to take their chances on a voyage to cross the icy southern continent of Antarctica.

    Shackleton’s 1914 expedition became what has been called the greatest survival story of all time – an 18-month struggle to lead his 28-man crew to safety after their ship, the aptly-named Endurance, was crushed in the pack ice. These many years later, inspiration born of Shackleton’s legendary Antarctic experience and epic crossing of the Drake Passage can be found throughout the Polk Penguin Conservation Center, from the building’s dramatic exterior to the icy 4-D effects that greet visitors upon entering.

    Be sure to check out “Sir Ernest Shackleton Endurance Expedition 1914-1917: Triumph Against All Odds” inside the penguin center.  This extraordinary exhibition recounting the legendary Antarctic explorer and expedition is  free with Zoo admission. On display are 150 photographs taken by Frank Hurley – a member of the Endurance crew – as well as video clips and replications of artifacts from the expedition. This amazing exhibition is a testament to the heroism, leadership and human endurance of Sir Ernest Shackleton.