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February 2019

Gentoo Penguins–Fastest Flippers in the Falklands

Gentoo Penguin with its chicks

Gentoo Penguins–Fastest Flippers in the Falklands

by Mike King

Bird and nature enthusiasts often enjoy citing facts that highlight species whose abilities go above and beyond those of other animals. Some avian examples are the largest bird in the world (Common Ostrich), the smallest bird in the world (Bee Hummingbird), the world’s fastest flyer (Peregrine Falcon), and what scientists consider the world’s smartest bird (New Caledonian Crow). Gentoo Penguins (Pygoscelis papua) lay claim to a more abstract, but equally impressive title: the fastest swimming bird in the world. Observers have estimated that Gentoos can swim up to 36 kilometers per hour, however there is no true scientific evidence for this number. There is more than just speed to these birds, continue reading to learn more about how Gentoo Penguins use their superior swimming among other adaptations to survive in the wild.

Where do Gentoo Penguins live?

Gentoo Penguins live deep into the Southern Hemisphere, occupying Antarctica, Argentina, the Falkland Islands, and other small islands in and around the Antarctic Circle. Like many penguins, they are mostly black from head-to-tail except for a stark-white front. They have a somewhat unique appearance in relation to other penguin species because of the white “headband” that stretches over the top of their head from eye-to-eye. Their bill also has an interesting appearance due to the black coloration that extends above and underneath the crimson area where the beak parts. They are the third-largest species of penguin behind Emperor Penguins and King Penguins respectively.

Close up of a Gentoo Penguin

Information on the Gentoo Penguin life cycle

Gentoo Penguin tending its egg.

Due to the large range of Gentoo Penguins, their habitat and feeding preferences vary widely. They prefer areas with little to no ice including rocky cliffs, coastal plains, and valleys. They live in colonies that range in population from less than 50 to thousands of breeding pairs. Breeding pairs typically lay 1-2 eggs at a time in nests built from stones, moss, grass, and feathers. Gentoo chicks typically stay in their parents’ nest for about a month. Like most penguins, Gentoos spend all day out foraging. They forage mainly in the shallows, and their food preferences vary greatly by geographic distribution. Antarctic penguins chase the many abundant schools of krill on which so many marine animals rely within the Antarctic Circle. South American Gentoos spend more time chasing after small fish, squid, and crustaceans. They prefer shallow waters that are near shore, but will occasionally venture up to 16 miles (25 km) offshore and dive to 655 feet (200 m) deep in search of enough food to sustain a brood of chicks. A Gentoo Penguin can dive for food up to 450 times per day!

Gentoo Penguins can swim really fast!

As previously mentioned, Gentoo Penguins are the fastest diving bird in the world. This allows them to adapt to many ecological challenges including limited food and threats of predation from leopard seals, sea lions, and orcas. This is why they successfully occupy such a great geographical range. Due to previous habitat degradation caused by human interference in the ecosystem, the IUCN Red List had Gentoo Penguins previously listed as Near-Threatened as recently as 2016. Fortunately, they have now been moved to the Least Concern category thanks to steady population increases.

Although this is good news for the penguins, they still face a number of threats from humans such as fishing bycatch, pollution, climate change, tourism, and marine traffic. Oil spills occasionally poison local populations, and unfortunately the Falkland Islands are currently being evaluated by oil companies as a potential area to drill in the future. Algal blooms like the one that has been damaging marine ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico and Mid-Atlantic Ocean are intensified by a warming climate. These algal blooms are one of the biggest threats to Gentoo Penguin populations because they poison the shellfish penguins rely on for food. This caused a major mortality event in 2002, and it has taken years for the species to recover. A recent study has also identified tourism as a factor that harms reproductive success in breeding Gentoo Penguins.

As with many bird species, the main conservation action that is currently in place is a long-term population monitoring program based at several breeding colonies. Although scientists can use this information to better understand population trends and fluctuations, it falls short of a solution for the many issues Gentoo Penguins are dealing with currently. Conservation legislation is considered to be the most important step toward stabilization for the species. This includes the establishment of protected breeding habitat, the minimization of oil pollution and breeding colony disturbance, and close inspection of the ecological impacts of fishing operations. Although the list of conservation actions that are currently being implemented seems short in comparison to the list of threats, organizations like Penguins International are working hard to ensure that Gentoo Penguins have ample space to thrive in the ever-changing ecosystems of today.

Did you know all this about Gentoos? Let us know your thoughts. Also read more information about penguins in our other blogs:

Fish is a Superfood for Adélie Penguin Chicks

Adelie Penguin

Fish is a Superfood for Adélie Penguin Chicks

by Nataly H. Aranzamendi

Adélie Penguins are the most widespread species of penguins. They can be found along the entire coast of the Antarctic continent. Although Adélie Penguins live on sea ice, they need ice-free land to breed1.

During the breeding season, Adélie Penguins form colonies clustered together in larger “mega” colonies which might contain thousands or even millions of individuals. These variations in size and location makes them vulnerable to climatic fluctuations. With the reduction of sea ice taking place due to global warming, most Adélie Penguin populations have decreased over the past 25 years1.

Every year between October and November, at the end of the southern spring and beginning of summer, Adélie Penguins go back to their colonies and build nests made of piled up stones. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs. Once the chicks are born, they remain in the nest for approximately three more weeks before joining communal crèches1.

It is at this moment that parents need to provide chicks with the best possible food available, in order to secure their survival. In a recent study2 that analyzed 20 years of data from 1996 to 2016, scientists have tried to understand which factors can guarantee the successful growth of Adélie chicks and their chances to survive their first year, so they are able to return to the colonies.

Some penguins are increasing while other penguins are decreasing.

Scientists compared two areas in Antarctica: the Ross Island colonies and the Anvers colonies2. Penguin numbers are increasing in the first island while decreasing in the latter. Both sites also vary in the total numbers of penguins. The first island has the largest and most dense colonies.

Another difference between both study sites is that penguin parents in the Ross colonies fed their chicks mostly with Antarctic silverfish and crystal krill, while parents in the Anvers colony fed chicks almost exclusively with Antarctic krill.

Turns out that the difference in diets at the chick stage has immediate consequences in their survival2. Survival rates for the chicks fed with fish were higher than those fed exclusively with krill. The “fish chicks” also had higher return rates to the colonies after they left their nests. The body mass of the “fish chicks” that returned compared to those who did not was a difference of 219 g, which is approximately 6.5% of body mass at that stage. This shows that the amount and quantity of food that a chick receives can eventually affect the demography of penguin colonies.

Does penguin fish prey stay consistent throughout the breeding season?

However, the competition between penguin parents increases as the breeding season progresses. This was inferred by the negative trend that the researchers found in the proportion of fish in a chick’s diet over time. Fish became scarcer as time progressed and some chicks even started losing weight. Such an effect was more noticeable in larger colonies2.

When digging more in the data, the researchers found that in order for parents to keep up with the chicks’ demands, they had to take longer trips and dive at deeper waters looking for fish.

So, it looks like even though most parents prefer to feed their chicks with nutritious fish at all times, it is not always so easy to do it. The fact that such important food sources can have plentiful consequences might also help to explain why some colonies have been recruiting small numbers of new individuals every year.

Do penguins have enough silverfish left to eat?



Photo Source: The Antarctic Sun

The good news for Adélie Penguins is that the stocks of Antarctic silverfish are not commercially exploited and for now their numbers have remained stable3. However, an urgent next step is to quantify the proportion of these fish in the diet of all Adélie penguin chicks in other colonies.

At the moment, it still remains uncertain how the current changes in climate will affect these penguins, their prey and this delicate balance. Adélie Penguins are one of the best studied birds in the world in relation to changes in the environment developing in the Southern Ocean, but there is still a lot that needs to be discovered.

The continuous reduction in sea ice cover plus increasing sea levels puts Adélie Penguins as perfect candidates for habitat loss. It will be necessary to keep Adélie Penguins under the spotlight, to track further changes in their colonies and to keep monitoring their chick survival, a very important life-stage that impacts the demography of this species.

What a diet these Adélies have! Did you know about this? Let us know your thoughts.

Also check out some of the other blogs we have:

Ainley, D. G., Dugger, K. M., La Mesa, M., Ballard, G., Barton, K. J., Jennings, S., … & Wilson, P. (2018). Post-fledging survival of Adélie penguins at multiple colonies: chicks raised on fish do well. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 601, 239-251.
Gon, O. & Vacchi, M. 2010. Pleuragramma antarctica. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2010: e.T154785A4633007. Downloaded on 30 January 2019.

Film – A Place for Penguins

Tom Parry A Place of Penguins Film

Documentary Film – A Place For Penguins

Ready to learn more about penguins? Find about about a great penguin film from a friend of Penguins International who put this together for his Master’s degree in film in the UK.

Film Bio

Africa is a continent famous for its wildlife. But there’s one resident that’s often overlooked, and many don’t even realise exists – the African penguin.

However, years of overfishing have seen Africa’s penguins plummet to frighteningly low numbers, with scientists at the University of Cape Town recently heeding the gloomy warning that the species could be extinct by the year 2026.

A Place For Penguins follows an unlikely duo as they team up and take on an ambitious, novel and entirely unique project – creating the world’s first artificially-induced African Penguin colony. This story demonstrates that science and art are not mutually exclusive. Conservation is a collaborative effort and if we are going to meet the challenges facing our planet we need to cooperate, think outside-the-box and break down traditional academic disciplines to unearth innovative solutions.

Credits & Thank You’s

Filmed, Edited & Narrated by Tom Parry

Original Score by Gard Figenschou Eriksen

This film was made possible through the incredible kindness and hospitality of many hardworking and dedicated conservationists across the Western Cape. Special thanks go to Christina Hagen at BirdLife South Africa – the brains behind the ‘Penguin Colony Project’ – the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) and seabird biologist Alistair McInnes for his amazing support, for which I’m very grateful.

Also a huge thanks to all the crowd-funders who backed the project and helped get me and the University’s cameras to South Africa.

A Little About Me (Tom Parry):

A Place For Penguins is my first ever film and the dissertation project for my recently completed Masters in Wildlife Filmmaking at the University Of The West Of England.

I have experience of the art world, having spent much of my life aspiring to be an artist and building a portfolio of work. In 2013, I put this on hold to go to University and study Zoology, during which I worked with wildlife biologists around the world and developed a strong appreciation for the intricacy and vulnerability of nature.

I’m now working for the BBC’s Natural History Unit on their next landmark series Seven Worlds.

Turns out that not all penguins are explorers

Gentoo Penguins in their colony

Turns out that not all penguins are explorers

by Nataly H. Aranzamendi

How far do juvenile penguins travel to find a place to breed? A recent study of movement patterns of five penguin species show us that not all species move far, and this could have consequences for their future.

Being an explorer is good for most penguins

Dispersal is the movement of an organism from the place where it was born to a breeding site, or simply to a different location. Dispersal generally happens when individuals are young and, depending on the species, this could take months to years.
When young individuals decide to venture out of their known colonies for the first time, they end up doing something important for the conservation of populations — they take their genes to a new place.

The movement of individuals among different populations — between colonies for example — is very important for most animal species, as it’s a way to maintain genetic diversity and genetic connectivity.

Imagine a square occupied by a species, then imagine that the species is distributed in the four corners of this square. Now imagine that individuals from the four corners move freely within this area. Genetically speaking, the result would be a species with a constant interchange of genes. The opposite would be a square with its young individuals moving only in their respective corners and not breeding too far from home. Over time the later would result in a species with four differentiated populations if they never come in contact with each other.

What keeps a penguin from traveling somewhere?

As you might be thinking now, sometimes the free movement of individuals between locations can be blocked by barriers. Generally, we picture barriers as big walls or impassable mountain chains, but marine species can also face barriers located underwater or strong currents that mark the limit to free movement of individuals.

Using data from 32 colonies in five species of penguins, Dr. Gemma Clucas, Dr. Jane Younger and their collaborators have uncovered the movement of juvenile penguins. Following penguins in the wild can be a consuming task due to the location of remote colonies and the impossibility to tag a large number of birds. But thanks to the advancement of genetic tools, the patterns of dispersal can be inferred by looking at the genetic structure of the population. This is done by looking at the variations found in sections in the DNA between genes, known as SNP or single nucleotide polymorphisms.

Why do some penguins travel farther than others?

The researchers found that the differences between species could be determined by the habitat where a species was found. For example, Emperor penguins occupy the Antarctic continent, breeding mostly on sea ice. Even though they have colonies clustered by geographic regions, the researchers found that juveniles of Emperor Penguins can travel long distances between colonies facilitating “gene flow.”

A Gentoo Penguin tending to its egg

In contrast, Gentoo Penguins are distributed in colonies located closer to each other in comparison to other penguins. The difference though is that they possess an affinity for coastal foraging and, after breeding, juveniles tend to stay close to home. Such lifestyle might have caused the genetic differences found among groups of Gentoo Penguins.

Other penguins studied were King, Chinstrap and Adelie Penguins. All three species show differences in how they distribute their colonies and the geographic regions that occupy. However, as for the Emperor Penguin, their populations showed that dispersal of juveniles is occurring among most populations and apparently they do not face clear barriers in dispersal.

Why is it necessary to understand penguin dispersal?

The constant interchange of individuals between populations and the contribution of “new genes” could buffer threats for species. Genetic diversity is beneficial when species face new potential diseases, it helps populations in disequilibrium, e.g. too many old birds found or populations with low birth rates and survival.

As this study points out, understanding dispersal for marine species has become very important for scientists. Many marine environments are dramatically changing in a warming and overfished world and the limits of marine barriers are being altered. This can have effects on the persistence and distribution of penguins’ favorite prey items. The ability of individuals to colonize new locations will therefore be of utmost importance in a changing world.

Knowing which species are going to be more vulnerable to changes will help scientists to prepare for the future.

Does this amaze you about penguins? Did you learn something new by reading this? Please let us know.

Also please read some of our other blogs:

Reference: Clucas, G. V., Younger, J. L., Kao, D., Emmerson, L., Southwell, C., Wienecke, B., … & Lelliott, P. (2018). Comparative population genomics reveals key barriers to dispersal in Southern Ocean penguins. Molecular ecology 10.1111/mec.14896

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