Photo: A penguin in a wetsuit
Pierre the African penguin wearing his custom wetsuit.

Photograph by AP Photo/Eric Risberg

A custom-crafted wetsuit may have helped Pierre the African penguin, seen here, recover from a bout of baldness.

Biologists at the California Academy of Sciences commissioned the gear after Pierre began shedding his insulating, waterproof feathers, leaving him with an embarrassingly exposed behind.

Unwilling to plunge into the academy's penguin tank, Pierre ended up shivering on the sidelines while his 19 peers played in the water.

"He was cold; he would shake," said Pam Schaller, a senior aquatic biologist at the academy.

When a heat lamp failed to help, Schaller turned to Oceanic Worldwide, a supplier of dive gear based in San Leandro, California.

"We were really excited to do it," said Teo Tertel, company marketing specialist. "We heard most of these penguins only live to 20, and our little buddy there was already 25. Anything we could do to help them, we were all for it."

One concern was that the other penguins would reject Pierre in his new duds, which fastens with Velcro at the back, covers Pierre's torso, and has small openings for his flippers. But in fact, they accepted his sleek new look.

In the six weeks he has been using the suit, Pierre has gained weight, grown back feathers on his hind parts, and is again acting like his feisty, alpha-male self.

Schaller can't say for sure whether the wetsuit allowed Pierre to recover, but "certainly we were able to keep him comfortable during a period of time that would have been very difficult for him to stay comfortable."

With his plumage restored, Pierre is being now weaned off the suit.

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