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December 2018

Fieldwork with penguins: A fishy business

Fieldwork with penguins: A fishy business

by Nataly H. Aranzamendi

An island that smelled like fish

In 2007, I visited Ushuaia in south Argentina to spend some time learning about whales and seabirds. The view at the “end of the world” or Fin del Mundo as it is locally known, was breathtaking. This corner of the world where mountains meet the ocean, is a fantastic place to find occasional whales and seabirds circumventing marine waters.

Moreover, the surrounding islands in the Beagle Channel are excellent breeding places for Magellanic penguins. As soon as I heard that researchers were studying penguins nearby, I signed up for the adventure.

The day to visit the island finally arrived. We were three people including the main researcher. The first thing I noticed when disembarking was the strong smell of fish and guano that came from the island. It was the middle of the breeding season and fish was the main food item.

We settled our camp and started the hard work. Turns out that when daylight lasts for over 20 hours and there are hundreds of nesting penguins, work days can get pretty full. Our routine started around 9am and finished around 8pm. Every day we visited more than 60 nests.

Gentoo and Magellanic Penguins on the beach
Penguins on the beach near a penguin breeding colony.

First, some facts about Magellanic Penguins

Magellanic Penguins are birds that live in coastal Argentina, Chile and the Falkland islands. They are medium-sized penguins reaching 61–76 cm (24-30 in) tall, weighing between 2.7 and 6.5 kg (6 – 14 lbs), in which males are larger than females. They breed in underground cavities, where they generally lay two eggs. Incubation lasts 39–42 days, a task that the parents both share in 10- to 15-day shifts. The chicks are cared for by both parents for 29 days and are fed every two to three days1.

The purpose of our visit was to put GPS trackers on some parents to find out how far and how deep they go to find food. We also needed to record how many of the chicks will survive at the end of the breeding season. Generally, parents have two chicks but often only one survives2.

Magellanic Penguin with its chicks

What’s it like working with penguins in the wild?

Each person had his or her own task. We would slowly approach the nest and one of us (the most experienced one) would take the male, the second person restraining the female (if both present) while the third person dug in the nest to extract the chicks, measure them and mark them. All of us worked as fast as we could.

My first unexpected surprise was that parents were extremely strong. Their serrated bills, which are adapted to hold slippery fish, were a real danger for our hands. Since our major concern was always the penguins’ safety, we had to do everything as calmly but as fast as we could, so protecting our hands was not a priority. The second unexpected surprise was the penguins’ defense mechanism, which is called “defensive vomiting.”3

Defensive vomiting is a mechanism used by several animals to scare-off attackers or predators. We discovered that not only parents knew how to make us flinch, but the chicks also joined in on their vomiting act. After visiting the first two nests, I realized that this work was not for people with sensitive stomachs.

Magellanic Penguins in their burrow

Our three-day experience continued just like that. Since we were in a protected penguin sanctuary, there was no real accommodation for humans. The island belonged to the penguins and we had no facilities besides our tent to clean ourselves properly. Those were the “fishiest” days I had to endure in my entire life. Although it was summer, temperatures were close to zero degrees Celsius (32 F), so that was just one more factor restraining us from dipping in the ocean which looked more and more inviting the dirtier we got.

And those penguins never stop making noise!

In the summer, penguins have limited time to breed, so they do not stop their activities. Even when it’s dark, they continue calling their partners as they return from foraging. This means that there is a constant loud concert of hundreds of penguins when you are trying to sleep.

I think those days were the hardest, smelliest days of fieldwork that I have had in my whole career. Despite all the challenges, however, it was amazing to experience such an adventure. We were fortunate to access such a plentiful colony. Magellanic Penguins are protected species and not everyone is lucky to look inside their lives. At times we were so smelly and covered with dirt, that in a certain sense, we felt part of the colony.

What do you think about Magellanic Penguins, their lives, and more? Are they your favorite penguin? If not, what is? Would love to hear what you think, what you learned, and more!

 

Visit our other recent blogs to read more about penguins:

References:

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magellanic_penguin

2. Scioscia, G., Rey, A. R., & Schiavini, A. (2016). Breeding biology of Magellanic Penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus) at the Beagle Channel: interannual variation and its relationship with foraging behaviour. Journal of Ornithology, 157(3), 773-785.

3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fleP9XxJFPY

Fish Beware! – Penguins Adapt Effective Means of Capturing Prey

Photo of King Penguin. Photo credit: saname777 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Fish Beware! – Penguins Adapt Effective Means of Capturing Prey

By Mike King

Scientists currently split the penguin family into 18 different species that occur all over the Southern Hemisphere. As these penguin species evolved from a common ancestor, they each gained unique traits. One of the most important traits that penguins have adapted is how they eat. Most people know that penguins swim underwater and catch marine prey instead of flying like other birds, but there is actually a lot of variation in the specific feeding behaviors exhibited between separate penguin species. From krill to fish, sea to shore, and even day to night; there is a lot to learn about how different penguins keep themselves, and their chicks, happy and healthy.

Scientists are not sure how long ago penguins lost the ability to fly, but it’s thought that as the birds’ wings became more adapted for swimming, they lost the lengthy surface area of feathers needed to hold the birds aloft. It is more difficult for flightless birds to escape from predators like leopard seals; but the reward is well worth the risk. Since the wings of the penguins have evolved into streamlined flippers, they are able to swim with incredible grace and agility through great depths of water in search of food. Emperor Penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) can routinely dive well over 200 meters while holding their breath for up to 20 minutes! This can be very helpful for catching Antarctic Silverfish, which spends most of its time between 200 and 300 meters below the surface. This is just one example of how penguins evolved alongside their food source, enabling them to keep up with their prey as the fish began to swim deeper and faster.

Penguins porpoising in the ocean
Gentoo Penguins

How do penguins find food?

While Emperor Penguins spend their time diving to great depths in search of fish, other penguin species have their own methods for finding food. Gentoo Penguins (Pygoscelis papua) are extremely fast swimmers, although it’s important to note that reports of top speeds on various websites of 22 miles per hour are unsubstantiated and their top speed is currently unknown. Galapagos Penguins (Spheniscus mendiculus) utilize a technique where they dive beneath schools of fish, then swim upwards and drive the fish toward the surface. This traps the fish between the penguins and other species of seabirds at the surface that cannot dive so they have nowhere to escape. Many species, like Little Penguins (Eudyptula minor) stay in the water all day to find enough fish to feed themselves and their offspring.

Penguins almost always live in close proximity to other vertebrate species. Whether it’s seals, fish, or even other penguins, there is bound to be some competition for food. This is why penguins have evolved many ways to fill their own ecological niche.A niche is an organisms place in the ecosystem, where most of the resources they need to survive are readily available to them. Ecological niches help animals ensure the survival of their own species by avoiding harmful interactions with other species. A good example of this is Gentoo and Emperor penguins. While both species live and hunt in Antarctica, they do not compete for resources. Emperor Penguins make deep dives in search of fish, while Gentoo Penguins speedily cruise near the surface of the water in search of krill. This division of foraging techniques is the line between the ecological niches of the two species.

Sometimes, when resources are scarce, animals must adapt new techniques to continue providing enough food for themselves and their offspring. Until just this year, scientists believed that male Emperor Penguins fasted for 115 days while they incubate their eggs. This would be a monumental task for these birds who, like all organisms, need energy to metabolize and survive. If an adult Emperor Penguin dies of starvation while incubating, his offspring also would not survive. A recent research article written by Gerald L. Kooyman et. al. in January 2018 may shed some light on how Emperor Penguins survive this long period of incubation. There is a colony of penguins near the Ross Sea in Antarctica that is one of the strongest of all Antarctic populations. A team of researchers set out to examine why, at a latitude much farther south than most other Emperor Penguins, this group was faring so well. It turns out, the males in this colony do not participate in the 115-day annual fast. In the dead of winter, when days are very short, these penguin males relinquish their parental duties to the females for one night; to dive for fish–in the dark. Prey becomes harder to see at night, as do predators. These Emperor Penguins, however, have taken advantage of the underutilized populations of fish found in the Ross Sea after dark. This adaptive trait has allowed their population to become one of the most stable of any penguin species in the world.

Photo credit: https://nauticallog.blogspot.com/2010/12/ross-sea-whaling.html

Penguins have to constantly adapt to survive, however.

Much like penguins developing different foraging behaviors, animals are constantly adapting to the challenges presented to them by nature. As problems arise, organisms must find ways to overcome them. This incredible race for survival drives all living things to further evolutionary advancement, and results in the splendid array of biodiversity we know in our world today. However, for the first time ever, one species has advanced itself so greatly that it threatens to irreversibly tip the balance of nature toward destruction. Because of climate change, illegal hunting and fishing, and over-exploitation of natural resources, humans are at risk of causing the largest mass extinction in the history of the world. Although animals, like the Emperor penguins of the Ross Sea, are capable of rising above challenges presented by nature, it can be difficult or impossible for them to evolve quickly enough to face challenges brought on by human industry. In order to halt this catastrophic extinction event that has already begun, immediate action is needed. Legislation must be passed to protect natural habitats, awareness must be raised for issues affecting wildlife around the world, and small changes must be made in each of our lives to benefit the Earth instead of exploiting it. It is up to humans to help the ecosystem return to its natural state, for the benefit of ourselves and all other organisms that call the Earth home.

What do you think about penguins and how they capture prey? Would love to hear what you think, what you learned, and more!

 

Visit our other recent blogs to read about more penguins:

Penguin Feather Weight Contest!

Have you ever wondered how much a Gentoo Penguin feather weighs? Well, maybe not but this will be good trivia to stump your friends at those upcoming holiday parties! Take a guess at how much the below feather weighs (in mg) and the closest answer will receive a free 2019 Penguins International photo calendar!

How to enter? Post your answer in the comments section at the bottom of this page. The first person with the closest answer wins! It’s so easy. Answer will be posted and winner announced later this week! Good luck.

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