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November 2019

The Antarctic Treaty Helps Antarctic Penguins

Antarctic Treaty, antarctica, Antarctic penguins, penguins, when was the Antarctic Treaty signed, what did the Antarctic Treaty do, how many countries signed the Antarctic Treaty, Environmental Protocol protects penguins, Environmental Protocol of the treaty

The Antarctic Treaty Helps Antarctic Penguins

By Megan Spofford

What is the Antarctic Treaty?

The Antarctic Treaty is a document comprised of 14 articles outlining laws about how to govern Antarctica, and was originally signed into agreement in 1959 (but officially enacted in 1961) by 12 different countries. These countries agreed to manage the location only with peace, and as a place for scientific research where ideas were shared amongst each other. Some of the countries had already lay claim to certain regions in Antarctica before the Treaty was signed, and although those particular regions may still recognize those claims individually, as a whole, they are not controlled by any particular nation per the Treaty. The area of coverage this pertains to is anything below 60º S latitude.

Signing of the Antarctic Treaty on December 1st 1959
Source: Antarctic Treaty Image Bank
https://atsimagebank.omeka.net/items/show/9

Who participates in the Antarctic Treaty?

As of 2019, there are currently 54 recognized countries that participate in the governance of the Antarctic Treaty. These comprise of the original 12, and 42 more who were added throughout the years (a full list is in the image below). Not all of the participatory countries are actively involved in research on the continent, however. While 54 countries may not sound like many in the grand scheme of things, in reality it truly is a substantial number because all the countries that are part of the treaty (regardless of conducting research or not) represent at least ⅔ of the world’s population. The leaders from each of the signatory countries engage in yearly meetings to address matters that concern the Treaty.

"Antarctic Treaty". United States Department of State. April 22, 2019.
Signing of the Antarctic Treaty on December 1st 1959
Source: Antarctic Treaty Image Bank
https://atsimagebank.omeka.net/items/show/9
Map of Territorial Claims in Antarctica
Source: CIA World Factbook

The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty

An especially important meeting occurred in 1991 in Madrid where Article 12 was addressed. This article explained that the limitations of the Treaty should be reassessed after 30 years (remember this Treaty was enacted in 1961!), and that if any of the participating entities were disgruntled with any part of it, the committee needed to address it. This is when the Environmental Protocol happened to be drafted. The Environmental Protocol set forth the recognition of Antarctica as a nature reserve, and protects the natural resources and native species of the area. This is the portion of the protocol that protects Antarctic penguins! It was officially enacted in 1998, and since then, revisions have been added to the protocol to better specify its purposes, or extend its reach.

How the Environmental Protocol protects penguins

The Environmental Protocol covers Antarctic flora and fauna (the fauna portion includes penguins). In particular, it gives native penguins and other animals the status of “specially protected species,” and explains that they cannot be removed, injured, killed, or disrupted by human activity (such as by motorized vehicles or pollution of the environment from waste). In some cases where any of these may have to occur for the purposes of scientific investigation, or to preserve the species, permits must be issued by members of the Antarctic Treaty, and researchers must be sure to limit the activity to affect as few individuals as possible. Other protections in this protocol outline that non-native species cannot be introduced to the island, and that the balanced ecosystem cannot be disrupted. Furthermore, population assessments must be conducted on native species regularly enough to evaluate whether they are continuing to thrive. If they are not, then the problems facing the population must be addressed.

Adelie Penguins on an iceberg

Some of the most recent additions to the Environmental Protocol that have beneficial consequences for native penguins include: guidelines for reducing plastic pollution in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean (held in Prague in 2019), a non-native species manual (created in Santiago in 2016), identifying important bird areas in Antarctica (at a gathering in Sofia in 2015), meeting of experts on climate change (conducted in Baltimore in 2009), and many more in between those years, or before.

Setting an example

Thankfully, the Antarctic Treaty provides key protections to the native penguins of Antarctica, which include Gentoo, Chinstrap, Macaroni, Adelie and Emperor. It also sets a precedence across the world for many things: international cooperation for peace, appreciation for the importance of science, and respect for native wildlife. If it can be done there, then hopefully our leaders can use the Antarctic Treaty as a model, and transpose those practices (sometime in the near future) to the rest of the world when dealing with similar issues.

The Antarctic Treaty and Environmental Protocol have done so much to protect penguins. We look forward to seeing what happens in the future. Please help us continue to provide you this type of information by donating to Penguins International.

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References

“Antarctic Treaty Meetings.” Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, www.asoc.org/advocacy/antarctic-governance/antarctic-treaty-meetings.

“Antarctic Treaty.” U.S. Department of State Archive, U.S. Department of State, 2001-2009.state.gov/g/oes/ocns/9570.htm#protocol.

“The Antarctic Treaty.” US National Science Foundation (NSF), www.nsf.gov/geo/opp/antarct/anttrty.jsp.

“Conservation of Antarctic Fauna and Flora.” Fauna and Flora | Antarctic Treaty, Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty, 2019, www.ats.aq/e/faflo.html.

https://www.ats.aq/e/protocol.html#

https://www.ats.aq/e/antarctictreaty.html

Penguin ticks are well-adapted hitchhikers

ixodus tick

Penguin ticks are well-adapted hitchhikers

by Nataly H. Aranzamendi

Considering that some penguins live on remote islands, it is remarkable that ticks have managed to arrive to all seabird colonies around the world. Let’s discover tick strategies for survival and colonization.

Penguins are not immune to the presence of parasites. Similar to other marine birds living in colonies, we find penguins constantly infected by ticks. Ticks from the genus Ixodes are the most widespread ubiquitous parasite in marine bird colonies. 

As any other live organism, penguins are susceptible to parasite attacks.

Ticks have limited mobility and the only way for them to travel long distances is transported with the aid of their hosts. Ticks can quickly reproduce and spread on land in bird colonies, thanks to optimal conditions of bird agglomerations: Their proximity and interactions between individuals. Understanding parasite distribution, speed of spread, and possible impacts for bird health is a central topic in disease ecology. 

Transmission of parasites at terrestrial locations therefore is expected, but something that has puzzled scientists for a very long time is how those parasites can be found even in the most remote places, indicating that parasites might be able to survive oceanic conditions. After all, when penguins finish breeding or molting, they go back to the ocean for weeks or even months. 

However, many species of penguins reproduce on isolated islands or scattered colonies with low connectivity between them, potentially limiting the ability of ticks to disperse and colonize new environments, or at least that is what scientists have always assumed.

Ticks can even survive on penguins while in the ocean

In a recent set of experiments1, scientists have tested if ticks had the ability to survive and resist oceanic and physiological conditions imposed by penguins when traveling from one place to another. 

Ticks from the genus Ixodes were collected from a colony of Little Penguins in Australia. The survival of these parasites was tested in several experiments. First, ticks were exposed to experimental regimes of varying depths. In the past, scientists used to believe that these arthropods were not able to resist water pressure conditions at deep dives. However, in the experiments all ticks were able to survive and passed the test of 60 m in depth, which are the distances that Little Penguins can reach.

Penguins swimming in the ocean. Ticks can survive on them for weeks!

When ticks are buried deep within a penguin’s feathers, they have enough adaptations to survive even the harshest conditions

Then ticks were exposed to several temperature regimes. Arthropods can be very sensitive to temperature, which might affect their basal metabolism and their ability to survive. However, in the experiments most ticks survived to temperatures within the ranges experienced in a penguin’s body at sea. Depending on the tick’s initial body condition, some arthropods stayed alive even after two weeks, which is longer than the majority of Little Penguin trips. 

Subsequently, ticks were tested in a regime of saline conditions and once again they passed the test. These parasites also prefer certain locations in the penguin’s body, commonly found in the inner ear, the head and the upper body of penguins.

Penguins submerge underwater to dive for food, restricting the availability of oxygen for ticks. The group of scientists found that ticks had the capacity to close their spiracles (i.e. the organ that allows respiration) for periods that lasted longer than any penguin’s diving time.  The fact that penguins expose only their heads to breath after every immersion guarantees oxygen supply for the parasites found there, and could explain why the arthropods prefer certain body parts. 

In summary, penguin ticks have proved to be well armed to survive the harshest of conditions in terms of temperature, depth, salinity and starvation. Such characteristics might help facilitate the arthropod’s survival and dispersal, and their capacity to arrive at even the most remote islands. This would explain why scientists keep finding the same kind of parasites everywhere, even when islands are separated by thousands of kilometers.

These findings have answered a long-unconfirmed suspicion. The next step will be to understand the consequences that the presence of parasites have on individual penguin colonies and the risks for penguins when favorable conditions lead to increases in infestations. In the meantime, it is very likely that we will keep finding ticks attached to most traveling penguins. 

Did you know ticks attached to penguins (vs humans or pets, as we might commonly think). And that they could stay attached to the birds for so long? They are determined! Please let us know what you think. We also greatly appreciate any support you can give us by donating to Penguins International so we can continue to provide you this type of information.

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  1. Moon, K. L., Aitkenhead, I. J., Fraser, C. I., & Chown, S. L. (2019). Can a Terrestrial Ectoparasite Disperse with Its Marine Host? Physiological and Biochemical Zoology, 92(2), 163-176, doi: 10.1086/701726

Penguin Digestive Systems – Penguin preppers and their secret militia

King Penguin

Penguin Digestive Systems – Penguin preppers and their secret militia

by Emma Williams

Spending most of your life at sea creates a big problem for a penguin digestive system; what to do when you are on land, separated from your food source. Penguins have evolved an apparently simple solution. Penguins are hoarders. Extremely accomplished preppers, they carry their own personal larders with them. A penguin’s digestive system can become a perfectly adapted storage cupboard of undigested food. The food reserves are used sparingly when they come on land to moult and to breed.

The penguin digestive system allows them to build up large reserves of adipose tissue, protein and lipids

On closer inspection, the solution is not quite so simple. To get through often long periods of fasting, penguins build up large reserves of adipose tissue, protein and lipids. However, this ability is not sufficient on its own; they enlist the help of a secret militia without whom they could not survive: Gastrointestinal microbiota. Penguins are not alone in housing this army of helpers. Most animals, including ourselves, have co-evolved GI tracts teeming with useful microorganisms that play a vital role in digestion. In the “feast and famine” world of penguins, they seem to really have their work cut out.

The penguin digestive system is teeming with useful microorganisms that play a vital role in digestion

These mini ecosystems have been studied widely in mammals but have been largely neglected in penguins. This imbalance has now started to be addressed and a comparative study of GI microbiota in penguins1 has yielded some very interesting results. The researchers looked at the inhabitants of the GI tracts of four different species of penguin: King Penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus), Gentoo Penguin (Pygoscelis papua), Macaroni Penguin (Eudyptes chrysolophus) and Little Penguin (Eudyptula minor). They studied the gut contents of wild birds by examining their faecal samples.

A healthy Chinstrap Penguin in Antarctica

Thirteen different phyla were found in the penguins. The two most dominant were Firmicutes, literally strong skin, a phylum that are active in carbohydrate metabolism, and Bacteroides, a group of anaerobic bacteria particularly helpful in converting sugars. Both microbiota are also commonly found in mammals. Actinobacteria and Proteobacteria, vital for gut homeostasis, were also found to be strongly represented in the penguins. Each of the four species of penguin studied were discovered to possess different microbial makeups in their digestive systems. The prize for most diverse microbial composition goes to the Macaroni Penguin followed by King Penguin, and Little Penguin with Gentoo Penguin being a valiant runner-up.

It is likely that diet, environment, and phylogenetic differences account for the variation in gut microorganisms. Another study that looked at the GI microbiota of Chinstrap Penguins (Pygoscelis antarctica)2 found that age played a part. There were significant differences between the internal communities of adults and those of chicks. Interestingly, these differences were also apparent between parents and their own offspring suggesting that environmental factors are more important than genetic factors in the chick microbiota.

As well as their vital role in nutrition and energy release, the GI army is also ready to fight inside the penguin digestive system. These micro-soldiers create a formidable force, a close-protection squad, shielding their host from marauding invaders: Pathogens. Bacteroides in particular benefit their host animal by preventing infection by potential pathogens that may colonize and infect the gut.

The complex community of microbiota defend against illness and disease. Little is known about this process in penguins. Indeed, researchers1 discovered many “unclassified” bacteria within penguin digestive systems. As yet we do not know the significance of these atypical army of residents, but they are likely to have some role in digestion as well as health and disease.

Worryingly, human pathogens have also been documented in the GI tracts of wild penguins1, including Campylobacter, Heliobacter and Streptococcus. The impact of these pathogens on the health of wild penguins is not yet known, although a human pathogen has been implicated in the death of a Little Blue Penguin in captivity3

Due to their tendency to live in dense colonies and to huddle closely together, penguins are particularly susceptible to pathogen transfer. The potential for catastrophic spread of disease is likely to be high.

Of course, if penguins are hosting significant numbers of human pathogens without ill-effects perhaps they might hold the key to human immunity.

What is clear is that penguins need their carefully evolved and sophisticated micro-militia within their digestive systems. They play a major role in the release of energy reserves, nutrition, metabolism and immunity. Disruption of these micro-ecosystems is likely to be disastrous to their hosts health and well-being. Knowledge and understanding of these complex inner communities and the relationship with their penguin hosts is still in its infancy. It is an exciting branch of study that just might provide new insights that lead to benefits for both humans and penguins. Long-live the penguin digestive system militia!

What amazing digestive systems penguins have. Please let us know what you learned by reading this blog. We enjoy bringing you this information. And we appreciate any type of support you can provide us, so please consider donating to Penguins International.

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  1. Dewar, M.L., Arnould, J.P.Y., Dann, P., Trathan, P., Groscolas, R., & Smith, S. (2013). Interspecific variations in the gastrointestinal microbiota in penguins. Microbiology Open, 2 (1), 195-204.
  2. Barbosa, A., Balague, V., Valera, F., Martinez, A., Benzal, J., Motas, M., Mira, A., & Pedro-Alio, C. (2016). Age-related differences in the gastrointestinal microbiota of chinstrap penguins (Pygoscelis antarctica). PloSone, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0153215
  3. Boerner, L., Nevis, K.R., Hinckley, L.S., Weber, E.S., & Frasca, S. (2004). Erysipelothrix septicaemia in a little blue penguin (Eudyptula minor). Journal of Veterinary Diagnosis, 16, 145-149.

Why Don’t Penguins Fly?

Penguins swimming underwater

Why Don’t Penguins Fly?

by James Platt

Most of the world’s bird species have the capability of flight. In fact, of 11,000 known species of birds, there are only about 60 species including the Common Ostrich (Struthio camelus), Great Spotted Kiwi (Apteryx haastii) and 18 species of penguin that cannot fly at all, which is about 0.5% of all bird species. Why these different species evolved without flight could be due to several reasons; each one will have evolved to fit into a niche within its own environment.

Penguins were originally thought to have evolved separately from flightless birds, until quite recently when fossil records from New Zealand were discovered. These fossils revealed that they had likely descended from the order of Procellariiformes and its closest relatives including the Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans) and Antarctic Petrel (Thalassoica antarctica). This could be considered unexpected since the albatross is a bird that travels huge distances in the air. So why would a bird that has massive wings and uses them to glide across continents suddenly evolve into a flightless, chubby penguin?

An albatross flying through the air
Photo credit: Linda Martin

Why did penguins evolve to swim instead of fly?

To understand why they may have evolved in this way, first we must understand flight. Flight in birds is a tricky thing; it is a perfect balance between forces (lift, thrust, gravity and air resistance) that allow the bird to move through the air quickly and efficiently. Birds evolved hollow bones to allow them to be lighter and, therefore, lift off the ground much easier. They also have air sacs built into their body to keep a streamlined aerodynamic body shape that allows them to reduce air resistance. Birds need to stay light because the heavier they are, the more difficult it is to take off from the ground (Tobalske, 2007). In the case of some flightless birds like the ostrich, which weighs over 100kg, its wings would have to be huge to get it off the ground. Instead, they are incredibly fast runners. Similarly, with Emperor Penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) that can weigh about 25kg, it would take large wings to fly and would not be very energy efficient. So they evolved to “fly” in the water instead. Now some penguin species have branched off and become much smaller and lighter than the Emperor Penguin, such as the Little Penguin (Eudyptula minor) at just 1.5kg, but by this time they were a fully distinct order of birds and had adapted to dominate the water.

An Emperor Penguin tobogganing on the snow
Photo credit: Mike Zupanc

It is believed that the Emperor Penguin is the oldest species of penguin and therefore was the first bird to try to dominate the ocean and land on the continent. But why in such a cold, harsh environment, and why would it become flightless? Well, it’s complicated and there could be many other reasons. There is a total lack of land predators which means they don’t have any immediate threats to fly away from. There is also an abundance of sea life to eat and a lack food resources on land, so they adapted to thrive off the oceans and then live on land, away from their biggest predator, the leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx). There are also many benefits to being flightless. Penguins have the opposite to most birds, they have incredibly dense bones that allow them to dive and swim better. Where most birds would have air sacs to stay aerodynamic, penguins can fill some of that extra space with a larger stomach and carry much more food for itself and its offspring — up to a 1/3 of its bodyweight. They can also dive much deeper than flying seabirds they may be in competition with and this allows them to make the most of what their environment has to offer (Alexander, 1999).

Part of the reason penguins swim is because flying is an energy-intensive activity

One more reason they may have lost the ability to fly is that flying is an extremely high energy activity and they need all the energy they can retain to stay warm (Elliott et al, 2013). Most birds use their energy for flying and the bird that is best at conserving its energy is the penguin’s closest relative, the Wandering Albatross. It uses wind to extend its glide times and allow it use as little energy as possible during its migration. It seems that this wasn’t energy efficient enough for some individuals and they evolved into penguins over the millennia as swimming is much more efficient because there aren’t as many forces to contend with (Culik and Wilson, 1991).

The evolution of the penguin and its loss of flight is far from a complete story and I suspect we will find out more in the coming decades as more fossils are uncovered. Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Isn’t it nice to learn why not all birds fly? Some of us might assume that just because something has wings they won’t always stay grounded.

We hope you enjoy learning this about penguins and we love bringing you this information. Please consider supporting Penguins International by donating to us today.

And read more about penguins in some of our other blogs:

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King Penguins

References

Culik, B., Wilson, R. and Bannasch, R., 1994. Underwater swimming at low energetic cost by pygoscelid penguins. Journal of Experimental Biology197(1), pp.65-78.

Alexander, R. (1999). One price to run, swim or fly?. Nature, 397(6721), pp.651-652.

Culik, B. and Wilson, R. (1991). Energetics of under-water swimming in Adelie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae). Journal of Comparative Physiology B, 161(3), pp.285-291.

Elliott, K., Ricklefs, R., Gaston, A., Hatch, S., Speakman, J. and Davoren, G. (2013). High flight costs, but low dive costs, in auks support the biomechanical hypothesis for flightlessness in penguins. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(23), pp.9380-9384.

Tobalske, B. (2019). Biomechanics of bird flight. Journal of experimental biology, [online] 210(18), pp.3135-3146. Available at: https://jeb.biologists.org/content/210/18/3135.short [Accessed 8 Jul. 2019].

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