Monthly Archives

October 2020

Can Penguins Smell?

Gentoo Penguin

Can Penguins Smell?

By Abigail Pietrow, Penguin Keeper

There are lots of common questions that I’m often asked as a Penguin Keeper at the Aquarium of Niagara:Can Penguins Breathe Underwater?”  “What do penguins eat?”Why are penguins black and white?” It sometimes seems like the curiosity directed towards our flightless feathered friends is endless, but is generally directed towards some common topics from day to day. I was surprised this past week by an uncommon question that came from two different individuals within the span of a couple of days: Can penguins smell? In order to answer that question I had to do a little digging, and what I found was pretty interesting!

What do seabirds smell?

Up until the mid-1900s it was widely assumed that birds did not have a sense of smell. This belief was based on the results of a few small studies, differences in nasal anatomy, and the fact that the olfactory bulb in most bird species (the organ in the brain responsible for the sense of smell) was much smaller than that of mammals when examined. More recently, scientists specifically studying this sense in birds have uncovered a very different truth – many birds have a well-developed sense of smell.

Tube-nosed seabirds in particular (Order Procellariiformes), like Albatrosses and Shearwaters, have highly developed olfactory systems. These systems are tuned to search out dimethyl sulfide (DMS), a very particular compound released when krill consume phytoplankton. Krill is an important food source for many seabirds, and following the scent trail of this compound can help these birds locate patches of food in the vast distances of the open ocean.

Consequences of DMS (Dimethyl Sulfide) Sensitivity in Birds

Unfortunately, feasting krill are not the only source of DMS in our oceans today. Plastic and micro-plastic pollution in our oceans is an ever-increasing environmental issue. An analysis performed in 2015 extrapolated that if pre-existing plastic ingestion studies from 1962-2012 were conducted under current oceanic conditions, then the percentage of seabirds surveyed with plastic in their digestive system would likely be closer to 90% compared to the 29% from previous decades.

It has been theorized in the past that the basis for this phenomenon is primarily visual – that plastic is eaten when it is mistaken for prey species while foraging.

A study conducted in 2016 sought to investigate other explanations for why seabirds ingest so much plastic debris. They tested the three most common types of plastic found in marine debris and found that after only one month in the ocean, these samples were coated in a biological film that produced DMS at a level detectable by tube-nosed seabirds. Their results suggest that part of the reason seabirds are eating so much plastic is because it smells like food to them too!

Sense of Smell in Penguins

Tube-nosed seabirds are generally considered to be some of the closest living relatives to modern penguins. While these evolutionary relationships are still under investigation, penguins do share some of the same adaptations for smell as other seabirds. African Penguins have been shown to have a similar sensitivity to DMS, as well as being attracted by the scent of this compound both on land and at sea.

They posses a single nostril called a “nare” on either side of their beak, and while their olfactory bulbs are relatively small compared to other seabirds, the organ is still larger than many land-based bird species. This reduction in size is paired with a reduction in the amount of olfactory receptor genes in their DNA and likely a reduced sense of smell compared to other waterbirds. However, some scientists hypothesize that this reduction in reliance on smell correlates with evolution of other adaptations penguins developed to hunt effectively under the surface like spherical lenses and flattened corneas for improved underwater vision.

Sniffing out Friends and Family

Penguins may also use their sense of smell for another important task. While many have now studied how birds can use their sense of smell for important functions like navigation and foraging, one fascinating study looked at how Humboldt Penguins (Spheniscus humboldti) might use their sense of smell to recognize mates or family members.

The scientists used oil samples from the preen gland of penguins to test whether individuals reacted differently to the scent of unfamiliar penguins than they did to family or neighbors.  They found that the studied penguins preferentially investigated unfamiliar and non-kin smells when presented with a choice. This could have implications for how penguins avoid inbreeding when choosing a mate in their natal colony!

What action can you take?

While penguins seem to be less likely to ingest plastic at the same rate as other seabird species, ingestion is not the only risk that plastic pollution in our oceans poses. Plastic entanglement is an issue facing many marine species, penguins included.

African Penguin entangled in discarded plastic.
Source: Avery, 2018.

Reducing your use of single-use plastics is one of the most effective ways to reduce your plastic footprint and helps keep plastic out of the world’s landfills and oceans! Instead of single-use items, reusable alternatives can be a planet-friendly way to make a difference for wildlife!

© Abigail Pietrow 2020

Abigail Pietrow is a penguin keeper at the Aquarium of Niagara, and works extensively with Humboldt Penguins. Any views or opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent those of the Aquarium of Niagara.

Did you know that penguins could smell? Let us know in the comments what you found most interesting! Please help us continue to learn more about penguins by donating to Penguins International.

Like our penguin blogs? Sign up for our newsletter to get them right in your inbox!

References

Coffin, H R, J V Watters, J M Mateo. 2011. Odor-based recognition of familiar and related conspecifics: a first test conducted on captive humboldt penguins (Spheniscus humboldti). PLoS ONE 6(9): e25002. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025002

Dell’Ariccia, G., Phillips, R. A., Van Franeker, J. A., Gaidet, N., Catry, P., Granadeiro, J. P., … & Bonadonna, F. (2017). Comment on “Marine plastic debris emits a keystone infochemical for olfactory foraging seabirds” by Savoca et al. Science advances, 3(6), e1700526.

Lu, Q. et al. 2016. Penguins reduced olfactory receptor genes common to other waterbirds. Sci. Rep. 6, 31671; doi: 10.1038/srep31671

Nevitt, G A. 2008. Sensory ecology on the high seas: the odor world of the procellriiform seabirds. The Journal of Experimental Biology (211) 1706-1713. doi:10.1242/jeb.015412

Pinto, M. B., Siciliano, S., & Di Beneditto, A. P. M. (2007). Stomach contents of the Magellanic penguin Spheniscus magellanicus from the northern distribution limit on the Atlantic coast of Brazil. Marine Ornithology, 35, 77-78.

Ryan, P. G. (2018). Entanglement of birds in plastics and other synthetic materials. Marine pollution bulletin, 135, 159-164.

Savoca M, M E Wohlfeil, S E Ebeler, G A Nevitt. 2016. Marine plastic debris emits a keystone infochemical for olfactory foraging seabirds. Sci Adv 2 (11) e1600395. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1600395

Watanabe M, et al. 2006. New candidate species most closely related to penguins. Gene (378) 65-73. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gene.2006.05.003

Wilcox C, E Van Sebille, B D Hardesty. 2015. Threat of pollution to seabirds is global, pervasive, and increasing. PNAS 112 (38) 11899-11904. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1502108112

Wright, K L B, L Pichegru, P G Ryan. 2011. Penguin are attracted to dimethyl sulfide at sea. The Journal of Experimental Biology (214) 2509-2511. doi:10.1242/jeb.058230

 

Sources:

Averett, N. (2014). Birds Can Smell, And One Scientist is Leading the Charge to Prove It. [online.] Audubon Magazine. Available from: https://www.audubon.org/magazine/january-february-2014/birds-can-smell-and-one-scientist [Accessed 07 October 2020].

Avery, M. (2018). Guy Shorrock – Plastic Perils and Penguins. [online]. WordPress. Available from: https://markavery.info/2018/01/28/guy-shorrock-plastics-perils-penguins/ [Accessed 07 October 2020].

Could playgrounds hold the key to protecting penguins?

Nature and wildlife garden

Could playgrounds hold the key to protecting penguins?
(And the rest of the world’s biodiversity)

By Beth Storey-Jones

The idea of teaching our children/young adults to be ecologically conscious citizens can feel daunting. But this is important now more so than ever before. Children are typically known for their curiosity and fascination with the great outdoors. However, due to the increasing reliance on technology, natural interaction is at an all-time low. A study carried out by Mental Health Foundation showed that 95% of 11-19-year olds use social media with 79% of them using it daily. Those that used it on a regular basis expressed that it manipulated their mood and how they saw themselves [1]. It is also widely understood that due to their physiology and metabolic systems, children are becoming increasingly more vulnerable to the environmental toxins pumped into our atmosphere every year [2,3]. With potential evidence of this being the unprecedented number of American children effected by asthma [4] and 1 in 500 UK children receiving a cancer diagnosis under the age of 15 [5]. These are just a few examples of the extremely important reasons why environmental health and education should be incorporated into our global educational systems sooner rather than later.

The “Surplus Energy Theory”

In 1855, Herbert Spencer released his works, Principals of Psychology, in which he introduced us to the “surplus energy theory” which suggested that the purpose of play for children was predominantly to “burn off steam”. This has since been rejected by many developmental theorists; however, it has still shaped how outdoor access is utilised in mainstream education [6].

When we consider a generic school playground or park, it is often filled with manmade structures, such as climbing frames, slides, and swings. Flat concreted areas for easy maintenance [7] and compact enough for surveillance. All of which are understandable, however these lack any kind of opportunity for children to connect with their natural environment, which is usually just a fence hop away [8].

Playground
Image 1: A standard school playground. Some may also have climbing apparatus. They vary in size but are often not so large that they cannot be monitored.  (Source: Tomas Tezanos B., Wikimedia Commons).

How to create this developmental interaction.

Aside from intensive urbanisation [9] children today are faced with other boundaries restricting them from this important developmental interaction, even while at home. These range from parents fearing their child’s safety, an example of this being “stranger danger” [10]. Additionally, it has been suggested that there is increasing pressure on children to spend more time learning and participating in a structured routine to contend with the ever-competitive career ladder.

As this societal grip grows, children are losing the understanding that nature exists as soon as they step out of their front doors. Reality is being replaced by the virtual and they are turning their heads to media. They are being conditioned to believe that nature is primarily found in faraway exotic places which they’re unlikely to ever experience [11]. This in turn severs any emotional connection and thus continues the exploitation of our natural areas due to lack of understanding and compassion [12].

Child and computer
Image 2: Children are becoming heavily reliant on technology, both in and outside of school. Technology is not a bad resource, but when abused or not moderated, it can have concerning lasting impacts. (Source: Hragaby, Wikimedia Commons).

So, what can be done to change this…

The simple first step could be to naturalise the play spaces that children utilise during break/lunch times at school. This may include some or all of the following:

  • Exchanging tarmacked areas with native grass, wildflower and/or vegetable patches, trees and shrubbery. All of which would benefit our native animal populations.
  • Introduction of different terrains and substrates such as sand, soils, and water which will also provide resources for many different species of animals
  • Access to the changing seasons. This will allow children to experience different types of weather, sounds and natural light. As well as a range of textures, colours, and materials.
rspb-flatford-wildlife
Image 3: RSPB Flatford is a fantastic example of how education and wildlife appreciation can go hand in hand. With a variety of learning opportunities and biodiverse greenspaces, including this wildlife friendly garden. (Source: RSPB Flatford)

Help children learn about the environment on their own.

Children need to be given the chance to interact with their natural environment on their own terms, through exploration and discovery. Teaching children about problems that greatly surpass their cognitive ability, such as climate change, overpopulation and deforestation to name a few, can result in anxiety and fear which often leads to dissociation – or in this particular case “biophobia” [13]. The flaw in environmental education, especially for younger children, is that they’re being made to understand and learn how to fix these types of issues before they have even been able to create a positive association and connection to their natural surroundings. By allowing them this time to develop a more personal experience, the more likely it is that they will become proactive regarding the bigger issues when the time comes [14]. Additionally, a growing selection of academic research suggests that there are more profound benefits when exposing children of all abilities to nature. Studies show that:

  • Children living with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) concentrate better after interacting with nature [15].
  • Wells (2003) suggests nature can help children cope better with adversity and stress.
  • Exposure to a range of natural environments can reduce or in some cases eliminate violent or anti-social behaviour, as well as bullying, vandalism and even littering [6].
  • Access to green areas from a young age helps develops a child’s sense of wonder, independence, confidence, and imagination. Which will also be beneficial throughout their lives [18].

But Beth, how does that in any way help penguins?!

Well, this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Children have an extraordinary ability to cause a ripple effect, their wonder and curiosity are often contagious, drawing in those around them to see and experience what they are. The simple task of naturalising play areas will not only provide many species with increased green spaces/corridors and resources that they so desperately need, but it will also allow each individual child to learn in their own unique way through exploration and experimentation, all while building their confidence, conscientiousness, and creativity. Their consideration for all life on Earth will develop instinctively and in turn will allow them to become our natural world’s biggest advocates, that natural world includes our penguin pals!

Dr. Kate Barlow
Image 4: Here we can see British Antarctic survey biologist Dr. Kate Barlow observing Macaroni Penguins on South Georgia Island. This sort of career may seem out of reach to a child but something as simple as creating greener spaces for them to ignite their appreciation for the environment around them will create a deep rooted  connection that they may hold on to for life. (Source: Natural Environment Research Council, 2015).

Please follow this link and sign the petition to help naturalise play spaces within the U.K. http://chng.it/vqqGNgwP

Environmental education for children can make a huge impact on penguin conservation. Let us know what you think. And please help us to continue to provide you with penguin news articles by donating to Penguins International.

Read more about penguins in some of our other blogs:

Like our penguin blogs? Sign up for our newsletter to get them right in your inbox!

References

  1. Mental Health Foundation. (2018). What new statistics show about children’s mental health [Online]. Mental Health Foundation. Available from: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/blog/what-new-statistics-show-about-childrens-mental-health [Accessed 22nd September 2020].
  2. Crom, W. (1994). Pharmacokinetics in the child. Environmental Health Perspectives. 102 111–117.
  3. Pastor, M., Sadd, J., and Morello-Frosch, R. (2002). Who’s minding the kids? Pollution, public schools and environmental justice in Los Angeles. Social Science Quarterly.  83, 263–280.
  4. American Public Health Association. (2007). Movement to reconnect children & nature. [Online]. American Public Health Association. Available from: http://www.apha.org/publications/tnh/archives/2007/Oct07/Nation/KidsandNatureNation.htm. [Accessed 22nd Sept 2020].
  5. Children’s Cancer and Leukaemia Group. (2014). Children and Young People with Cancer: A Parent’s Guide. [Online]. Children’s Cancer and Leukaemia Group. Available from: http://www.cclg.org.uk [Accessed 22nd Sept 2020].
  6. Malone, K. and Tranter, P. (2003). Children’s Environmental Learning and the Use, Design and Management of Schoolgrounds. Youth and Environments. 13, 87-137.
  7. Moore, R. and Wong, H. (1997). Natural Learning: Rediscovering Nature’s Way of Teaching. California, MIG Communications.
  8. Shell, E. (1994). Kids Don’t Need Equipment, They Need Opportunity, Smithsonian Magazine. 25, 78-87.
  9. Chawla, Louise, (1994). Knowing and Caring for the Natural Environment. Children’s Environments. 11, 175-176.
  10. Pyla, (2002). Eden in a vacant lot: Special places, species and kids in community of life. Children and nature: Psychological, sociocultural and evolutionary investigations. 279–305.
  11. Chipeniuk, R. (1995). Childhood foraging as a means of acquiring competent human cognition about biodiversity, Environment and Behavior. 27, 490-512.
  12. Schultz, W., Shriver, C., Tabanico, J. and Khazian, A. (2004) Implicit connections with nature. Journal of Environmental Psychology. 24, 31-42.
  13. Kellert, S. (2002). Experiencing Nature: Affective, Cognitive, and Evaluative Development. Children and Nature: Psychological, Sociocultural, and Evolutionary Investigations. Cambridge, The MIT Press.
  14. Harvey, M. (1989). The Relationship between Children’s Experiences with Vegetation on Schoolgrounds. Journal of Environmental Education21, 9-18.
  15. Faber Taylor, A., Kuo, F. and Sullivan, W. (2001). Coping with ADD: The surprising connection to green play settings. Environment & Behaviour. 33, 54-77.
  16. Wells, N., and Evans, G. (2003). Nearby Nature: A Buffer of Life Stress Among Rural Children. Environment and Behaviour, 35, 311-330.
  17. Louv, R. (1991). Childhood’s Future, New York, Doubleday.

 

Penguins International
PO Box 100483
Denver, CO 80250 USA
phone: 628-400-7301

Your Donation

Makes a Difference

Reach Out To Us

Hug t-shirt

Last sale before the holidays!

Now through Sunday. Shop now!

Penguin Hug

Send a Pen Pal to Your Favorite Person

It’s like getting a hug from a Penguin

Brighten Someone’s Day for FREE

Email your favorite people a positive message. It’s a penguin post called a Pen Pal. Send as many as you want for FREE.

Send Your First Pen Pal Right Now!

Brighten Someone’s Day for FREE

Email your favorite people a positive message. It’s a penguin post called a Pen Pal. Send as many as you want for FREE.

Send Your First Pen Pal Right Now!