Penguin-Centered Design Is A Real Thing

Zoologists are using the design process to create artificial nests for endangered African penguins.

Design doesn’t just solve problems for people. It can also help save animals’ lives. Case in point: A team of zoologists has decided to build artificial nests for endangered African penguins. The nests, which are made of ceramic-like insulation, are designed to keep two baby chicks and one adult penguin cool in the hot African sun.


The number of African penguins has been dwindling for decades. There were once a million pairs of breeding birds, located primarily in South Africa and Namibia; now, there are only 25,000 pairs. This is mostly due to overfishing, climate change, and the harvesting of guano, or penguin poop. The latter has been especially detrimental: African penguins typically make their nests in heaps of dried guano that have been built up for decades, providing the right protection and temperature control to raise young chicks. But guano also makes good fertilizer because it’s high in nitrogen, so people started harvesting it, leaving the birds without the building material for their nests.

“By providing these nests, we’ll hopefully be improving the nest success of the penguins, and help them become more resilient to the changing happening in the environment,” says Dan Ashe, the CEO and president of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which is running the project.

But how do you design something for penguins when you can’t get their feedback? According to Kevin Graham, a supervisor at the Dallas Zoo who’s worked with birds for the last 25 years and the primary designer on the project, you start with understanding the user–though in this case, the user happens to be a penguin.

[Photo: courtesy Association of Zoos & Aquariums]
It does present some unique challenges when the user has a hard time telling us what they’re looking for,” Graham says. Instead, he looked at what the penguins need to successfully raise their chicks, particularly the size and temperature of the original nests. Then it was time to prototype.

Graham and his team came up with 15 different prototypes, with different designs and different materials. “Each one of those had a high-accuracy sensor inside of it and heat emitter and humidity control that simulated the effect that a penguin family would have on the inside of the nest,” Graham says. “It took a little bit of engineering to create fake penguins.”

Then came testing. The 15 prototypes were set up in South Africa, in a protected area, under a controlled environment. The sensors inside collected data on temperature, humidity, wind speed, and barometric pressure every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 90 days–creating about 275,000 data points for analysis.


Three prototypes came out on top, but they all shared the same design: a two-part structure with a central structure covered by a protective shield that hovers about two inches above it, creating a layer of insulation. The three were narrowed down to two, both of which are made of keraforce, a local insulation material frequently used in construction in South Africa that’s similar to ceramic in its properties. The material is supposed to be durable enough to last between 10 and 15 years, and is recyclable. Each needs to be hand-built, and the AZA will use local labor from a public works project to make the nests. Now the final two designs are being sent for more testing in the wild and in at least four participating zoos later this year. Graham will have a live feed of the sensor data in Dallas.

[Photo: courtesy Association of Zoos & Aquariums]
This isn’t the only time people have created artificial nests to save birds from extinction. Ashe points to one of the successes in the history of conservation–wood duck nest boxes. He says that in the 1920s and ’30s, a lot of the forested freshwater wetlands in the United States were drained, leaving little habitat left for the wood duck, a native animal to the States. If the Endangered Species List had been around at the time, Ashe says, the wood duck would have been on it.

But instead of allowing the wood duck to die out, people began to build nest boxes for them so they’d have a place to raise their chicks. “It was those nest boxes that helped the population to get through that bottlenecks before the forested wetlands could come back and we could provide protections,” Ashe says. “Now they’re one of the most abundant birds [in the country]. We’re hoping the same thing will happen here with this South African penguin.”

About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.