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In 2009, the status of African penguins in the wild became endangered which has greatly enhanced the role The Maryland Zoo plays in the conservation of this threatened species.(Image: Amanda Andrade-Rhoades)

Did you know the largest African penguin colony in the U.S. is in Baltimore?

As a lifelong resident of the DMV area, it always shocks me when I discover a hidden gem that I had no clue existed. And as a die-hard penguin lover, you can imagine how absolutely flabbergasted I was to learn that not only are there penguins within an hour drive of the city, but that the largest population of African penguins within the U.S. was just up the road in Baltimore! I was convinced that this had to be a recent development, otherwise I surely would have known about these little bundles of joy, but turns out The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore has housed penguins since 1967.

The zoo, located in Baltimore's historic Druid Hill Park, is home to more than 1,500 animals, which currently includes a population of 94 penguins; 87 of those can be seen in Penguin Coast, while the remaining seven have been hand-reared and are animal ambassadors for the zoo's special "Penguin Encounters" program. The zoo has really set the tone for penguin conservation in the U.S., and now has the largest breeding colony in the country. They have helped hatch 987 penguin chicks since 1967 and sent them all around the country when the need arises at any of the other 56 facilities with penguin colonies.

"The goal of penguin breeding is to protect the species and get a genetically diverse population in the country," said avian collection and conservation manager Jen Kottyan. "They are very endangered out in the wild, so the more we can learn here in these breeding programs, the more we can help the population out in the wild."

The Species Survival Plan (SSP) manages which penguins breed and when, and it's determined by how many of a penguin's ancestors are left. "What they'll say is 'Ok, penguin 52 only has 10 ancestors in the country, so he's pretty valuable -- we want to get his genetics out there,'" said Kottyan. "But then if he breeds and has 20 offspring, then they'll retire him for a while to diversify the population."

Currently, the penguins at the Maryland Zoo range in age from four months old (Sally -- named after Sally Ride -- hatched in March) to 31-year-old Boss, whose birthday is in October. Though wild penguins typically live 15 to 20 years, penguins in zoos or aquariums can live anywhere from 30 to 40 years, since they don't need to worry about falling ill and not receiving care, not having enough to eat or encountering predators.

Click through our photo gallery above for some absolutely awwww-inducing pics, and to learn more about the African penguin colony in Baltimore.