Northwestern Engineering Students Make Booties for Chicago Penguins

Engineering students develop specialized booties for the Shedd Aquarium's feeble-footed aquatic birds

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Rockhopper Penguin
Shedd Aquarium / Brenna Hernandez

Chicago‘s Shedd Aquarium has turned to an unlikely place to help some of its feeble-footed penguins. Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering freshman students have designed customized footwear to help alleviate bumblefoot, uncomfortable lesions that older penguins sometimes develop from standing too long on rough surfaces, the Chicago Tribune reports.

The “Tuxedo” is a six-winged, waterproof bandage that swaddles a penguin’s foot and protects the region between its toes. Made from purple (in honor of Northwestern) kinesiology tape, the bandage protects the sore with a piece of neoprene foam, according to the Tribune. The Shedd, which houses a fully-outfitted hospital for its occupants, has previously tested a sandal prototype on the ailing aquatic birds, but the shoe made for some difficult waddling.

Shedd Vice President Dr. Bill Van Bonn tells TIME that his staffers even tested an ultra-cling wrap used for food to try to protect the animals. “The idea was to see if we could use the same principles as human medicine,” Van Bonn says. “To fashion an orthopedic device that would take the pressure off the foot.” Thanks to Northwestern’s budding engineers, the problem is finally resolved, although Van Bonn says no penguins have started using the product yet.

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For the university’s engineering students, this isn’t just about doing good deeds but earning real credits.  The engineering curriculum includes solving real problems for real clients, and the bootie is just one of about a dozen tools the school has created for the Shedd over the past seven years. The partnership is the result of a 2005 Shedd donor dinner, where McCormick alumnus Bob Shaw met with then-senior director for animal care Van Bonn. Van Bonn lamented how sometimes the aquarium’s exotic animals called for specialized tools that are not commercially available. “I said, ‘I know where I can get some of that engineered for you,’” Shaw told the Tribune.

Students meet with a designated Shedd point person periodically throughout the term, choosing a project from the aquarium’s running list of ideas. Other innovations include a machine that can electronically deliver anesthesia to a fish, a decompression chamber for sea horses, a vest to carry ultrasound equipment and a device called  the “endo-grabber”, which is used to remove foreign objects from an animal’s stomach. Van Bonn recalls the tool being shipped to a California aquarium to retrieve a child’s shoe from an alligator.

This term students are focusing on sea otters. Lisa Takaki, senior director of Shedd’s marine mammal department, tells TIME that Northwestern’s engineering upperclassmen are working on an interactive puzzle they call the “Otterly Amazing Maze,” which can keep the animals active and stimulated. “Otters are like monkeys of the sea. They’re very tactile animals,” she says. ” So we challenged the students to come up with different forms of enrichment that would engage our sea otters.”

Takaki said the students researched the natural history of otters as well as visited the aquarium to meet the friendly mammals in person. The game, which is expected to be finished this June, is designed to challenge otters by allowing them to push objects through the maze.

MORE: Brazil Biologists Investigate Death of More Than 500 Penguins

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