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Little blue penguin at Birch Aquarium dies following fungal infection

Magic, a little blue penguin who lived in a new exhibit at Birch Aquarium, died last week after a fungal infection.
Magic, a little blue penguin who lived in a new exhibit at Birch Aquarium in La Jolla, died last week after a fungal infection.
(Birch Aquarium)

Magic had been at Birch since October 2020 and was one of the residents of the aquarium’s new habitat for little blues.

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Magic, a little blue penguin in the care of La Jolla’s Birch Aquarium, died Dec. 8 after a battle with a fungal infection.

The 6-year-old penguin, who had been at Birch since October 2020 and was one of the residents of the aquarium’s new habitat for little blues, “became a favorite among our guests as well as our staff for his fun and loving personality,” Birch said in a statement. “He was a wonderful ambassador for his species, having awed and delighted thousands of guests. He will be missed.”

The aquarium stated that Magic had been battling the fungal infection aspergillosis for several weeks.

“Though our husbandry and veterinary teams have been working around the clock to provide him with the best care, he was not able to fight off the infection,” Birch stated.

Aspergillosis is an infection caused by a common type of airborne fungus called aspergillus. Birds are uniquely susceptible to it because of their specialized respiratory systems, according to Birch.

“Sometimes birds may have a challenged immune system due to underlying health causes or simply associated with breeding, changes in weather, their habitat, etc., [and] fungus infections are challenging to treat,” the statement said.

“[Magic] became a favorite among our guests as well as our staff for his fun and loving personality. He was a wonderful ambassador for his species.”

— Birch Aquarium

Birch Aquarium representatives declined to be interviewed about Magic’s death, but a spokeswoman told the La Jolla Light that aspergillus is present indoors and outdoors “and we are all exposed to it in the air we breathe.”

Most people breathe in aspergillus spores without getting sick. However, those with weakened immune systems or lung diseases are at higher risk of developing health problems because of aspergillus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Varying immune systems can make penguins more susceptible to infection, the Birch spokeswoman said. Aspergillosis is not spread among birds.

Birch’s Beyster Family Little Blue Penguins exhibit opened in July, making the aquarium the only one west of the Rockies to feature the smallest species of penguin.

La Jolla’s Birch Aquarium has some new little residents, and the public can see them when the Beyster Family Little Blue Penguins exhibit opens Tuesday, July 12.

Little blues, which generally are less than a foot tall and weigh about 3 pounds, are native to New Zealand and Australia.

The exhibit aims to tell the penguins’ story from hatchlings to adults and highlight the challenges they face. The 2,900-square-foot habitat features an 18,000-gallon penguin lagoon, multiple burrows, a sandy beach and native plants that mimic the coast of the penguins’ native lands.

The Beyster Family Little Blue Penguins exhibit opened in July at Birch Aquarium in La Jolla.
The Beyster Family Little Blue Penguins exhibit opened in July at Birch Aquarium in La Jolla.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

The aquarium originally had 15 little blue penguins, but last month Birch sent five of them to the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden as part of an international Species Survival Plan that aims to maintain the genetic diversity of certain species in zoos and aquariums.

The little blue penguins exhibit is included in the cost of general admission to Birch Aquarium, which is $24.95 for adults and $19.95 for children ages 3-17. Reservations are required for all guests, including aquarium members.

The penguins also can be seen live through a webcam at aquarium.ucsd.edu/penguincam. ◆