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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.

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:

Galapagos Penguins One of The Rarest Penguins in the World

Galapagos Penguin
Galapagos Penguin
Photo credit: Charles J. Sharp, Sharp Photography

Galapagos Penguins, One of the Rarest Penguins in the World

by Mike King

Far from the frigid weather of Antarctica, the Galapagos Penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus) is the only penguin species to venture into the Northern Hemisphere. As the name implies, they are native to the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador off the coast of South America. This bird is mostly black and white, with a pink tint under the bill. The white front is broken by a black bar just beneath the neck, and a white stripe curls to the eye through the otherwise all-black face. Like all penguins, Galapagos Penguins are flightless, and their wings have adapted into flippers that they use while swimming in the Pacific. 

What do Galapagos Penguins eat?

Galapagos Penguins feed on sardines, mullets, anchovies, and other small fish. They hunt by diving down under the fish, and catching their prey while swimming up through the fleeing schools. They can often be seen in day-long feeding flocks (multi-species gatherings of birds foraging together) with Brown Noddies, Brown Pelicans, and Flightless Cormorants. As the penguins drive schools of fish toward the surface, the other birds that cannot dive as well are able to feed. 

Galapagos Penguin
Galapagos penguin swimming.
Photo credit: Andrew Skujins

Galapagos Penguins have a different breeding strategy than most other penguins

Unlike most birds, Galapagos Penguins breed opportunistically year-round. This is a great adaptation for a very unpredictable environment. Wherever food is plentiful, they can mate. For the most part, Galapagos Penguins mate for life and take turns tending to eggs and young chicks. Once the chicks are three weeks old, the parents can begin to leave them on their own for short periods of time. 

Threats to Galapagos Penguins

Galapagos Penguins have faced severe population fluctuations since the 1970’s. Rising ocean temperatures have hindered the cold currents that bring fish towards their feeding grounds, leaving penguins to starve. High ocean surface temperatures have also led to a halt in breeding. There are only 1,200 Galapagos Penguins in the wild today. With numbers that small, population fluctuations can be catastrophic. Researchers suggest there is a 30% chance that Galapagos Penguins will go completely extinct within the next hundred years. Conservation of these penguins can be a major challenge. The entirety of the Galapagos Islands is a protected nature preserve, so what more can be done? 

As nutrient-rich cold currents become increasingly rare, less fish are available to the penguins. Many of the fish that do end up in the waters of the Galapagos are fished out by humans. This results in a large-scale absence of food for Galapagos Penguins. Oil spills can also kill penguins and their prey. The biggest issue, however, is human-induced climate change. The massive amount of carbon emissions produced within the last hundred years by human industries has contributed to the warming of our oceans, and increased the severity of El Niño. El Niño is a drastic change in climate that occurs irregularly around the equator in the Pacific Ocean. When El Niño is active, unusually warm currents arise around the Galapagos Islands. These currents are far too warm for the fish Galapagos Penguins feed on, and the result is catastrophic to their well-being. According to penguin researcher F. Hernan Vargas, two of the strongest El Niño events in recent history were in the years 1982-1983 and 1997-1998, which resulted in a 77% and 65% drop in Galapagos Penguin population respectively. As the climate continues to warm, these events will only happen more and more often, and the penguins may not be able to recuperate. 

Galapagos Penguin
Photo credit: Mike Weston

Many of us are growing accustomed to the constant warnings of researchers in regards to climate change. Galapagos Penguins are not the first animal to be negatively affected, and they certainly will not be the last. Although the biggest contributors to human-induced climate change are large corporations, there are still many ways that all of us can make a difference. Besides choosing political candidates that support the environment, many of us can make simple changes in our daily lives that will reduce the amount of carbon we are releasing into the atmosphere.

These changes include:

Galapagos Penguin
Galapagos Penguin
Photo credit: Richard Jenkinson
  • Taking public transportation or carpooling to work
  • Using high-efficiency appliances–or solar panels
  • Eating locally-produced foods
  • Eating less beef and dairy
  • Planting native trees and flowers in your yard
  • Reducing water usage
  • Reusing and recycling products and packaging

Making even a few of these changes in your life can be the first step toward a healthier atmosphere. Many of these changes actually save the individual money in the long run as well! Much damage has already been dealt by human activity to the Earth and the organisms that call it home; but if people prioritize environmental sustainability in their own lives, we can start to move toward a world where animals like Galapagos penguins can thrive for generations to come.

The Little Penguins of Middle Island

little penguin
Photo credit: Francesco Veronesi from Italy

The Little Penguins of Middle Island

by Mike King

Many of us think of penguins as adorable birds that live in the frigid temperatures of Antarctica. In the case of the Little Penguin, that is only half true. These birds live along the southern edge of Australia, along with its surrounding islands and New Zealand. As the name implies, the Little Penguin is the smallest of the penguin species. Another interesting characteristic of these birds is that their feathers appear blue when seen under the sun; but this is simply a mechanism of light used to trick your brain. All birds that appear blue actually have black feathers, but they layer the tiny hair-like structures in their feathers to capture the light in such a way that it appears blue! If you were to find a Little Penguin feather on the ground and smash it with a hammer, it would turn black in front of your eyes!

Little Penguins feed mainly on schooling fish. They hunt individually or in small groups of six or less birds. When fish are not available, they are also known to feed on squid and even jellyfish. Females can lay 1-2 eggs per year, usually in July. Parental care is shared by both the mother and father of the chicks, until they reach eight-weeks-old and fledge. Young fledglings are much smaller than adults, and have a bright blue color on their back that darkens with age. These birds have very few natural predators, unfortunately human activity has led to a decline in Little Penguin populations across Australia and New Zealand.

In the mid-1800’s, European red foxes were introduced into Australia for recreational hunting. Today, they are still prevalent as an invasive species and contribute to the decline of many Australian species, including Little Penguins. The threat posed by these foxes, as well as cats and dogs, has been a primary issue for ecologists. Numerous techniques have been implemented by researchers to try to save Little Penguins. One program in particular has gained global attention with a little help from Hollywood. 

Hundreds of Little Penguins live on Middle Island

Middle Island is a tiny island just off the coast of southern Australia and was home to a population of hundreds of Little Penguins; but when invasive red foxes crossed over from the mainland, they killed all but four. As the penguin population slowly recuperated, community members brainstormed ways that they could protect their beloved penguins from any future attacks. One man, a chicken farmer, came up with the idea to send one of his dogs to help protect the penguins from future fox invasions. The dog’s name was Oddball. He was a Maremma dog—a fluffy, lovable breed used by Australians to protect livestock from predators. For over 10 years, Oddball and other Maremma dogs donated by community members successfully protected the Little penguins from foxes. The penguin population increased tremendously. This incredible conservation success was adapted to a movie in 2015, appropriately named “Oddball.” 

Tourists boost conservation of Little Penguins

“Oddball” was well-received around the world, and has brought a large amount of tourism to the Middle Island area. This has helped to boost the economy of the area, which increases community support for the conservation of their Little Penguins. This is an incredible example of the impact conservation can have on the attitudes of people. There are now several community volunteer programs across the range of the penguins. Hopefully, with continued economic support from tourism, local legislatures will be prompted to pass laws that protect Little Penguins from other threats, such as entanglement in fishing nets. 

Photo of a family of Little penguins exiting their burrow on Middle Island.
Photo credit: JJ Harrison ([email protected])
Tula and Eudy, two of the Maremma sheepdogs that protect Little penguins on Middle Island.
Photo credit: Warrnambool City Council

Little Penguins on Middle Island are a conservation success

The story of the Little Penguins is a model for conservation successes around the world. When ecologists are able to get community members interested and involved in the process of saving a species, everybody benefits. The increased publicity of programs like the Maremma dogs of Middle Island will lead to the improvement of local economies, which in turn promotes community engagement with the protection of a species. Human activity often puts animals at risk of extinction, and human activity is often the only thing that can save them. 

Visit our other recent blogs to read about more penguin species:

Little penguin, also called a Fairy penguin or Blue penguin.
Photo credit: JJ Harrison ([email protected])

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Do all penguins love the cold?

Galapagos penguin
by Nataly H. Aranzamendi

All species of penguins are restricted to southern latitudes and most of us think of them in cold climates and Antarctic snow. But there are two species that venture farther north, reaching the equator. They are sun-loving penguins: The Humboldt and Galapagos Penguins.

Some penguins love cold, some penguins love the heat

Penguins split their lives between two landscapes: in ocean waters when searching for their favorite fishes and squid, and on land when it’s time to breed or to change new feathers. The Galapagos and the Humboldt Penguins, like other penguin species, are top predators of marine food webs and key elements for the balance of southern marine food chains. Both species live in habitats that look quite harshly similar. The Humboldt Penguin likes to nest in guano mounds on rocky shores and cliffs, and similarly the Galapagos penguin likes rocky crevices and protected shelters. 

Although these penguins are sun-loving birds, they are still associated to relatively cold temperatures, as their distribution is mainly determined by the presence of the Humboldt Current, a current with cold waters that flow north from Antarctica all the way to the Galapagos. The Humboldt Current is one of the world’s most productive, filled with nutrients which are ideal for plankton and wildlife to thrive. 

Many threats to Humboldt and Galapagos Penguins

Both species of penguins have gone through dramatic population fluctuations. In the 18th century, Humboldt Penguins occurred by the “hundreds of thousands” before the guano exploitation started. Together with human exploitation and decrease of available habitat, these species have also been negatively impacted by water temperature fluctuations provoked by El Niño, an increase of invasive species, and new wildlife diseases to name a few threats. Here’s a summary of the most relevant facts for each species:

Facts about Humboldt Penguins

Humboldt Penguin

Humboldt penguin
Photo: Adam Kumiszcza

Humboldt Penguins (Spheniscus humboldti) used to be abundant in the 18th century. Historical records mention “millions of birds” along rocky beaches in the coasts of Peru and Chile. When the exploitation of guano began, penguins saw their nesting grounds being constantly disturbed and they quickly abandoned those areas. Moreover, their numbers decreased as a result of direct hunting of adults and egg harvesting. 

Their current numbers are calculated at around 30,000 individuals (accurate estimates unknown due to deficiencies in survey methodologies). Although population numbers seem stable and/or growing in some years, Humboldt Penguins are classified as Vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Sometimes when strong El Niño events hit, they can face years with up to ~60% mortality of individuals. The main reason for such dramatic declines is linked with their favorite prey: Anchovies and other small fishes swim deeper in cold waters or farther away from penguin’s foraging areas when El Niño’s warm waters invade the Humboldt Current. Unfortunately, it is very likely that El Niño events will become more frequent and less predictable in a warming world, endangering the probabilities of immediate recovery for Humboldt Penguins.

Industrial fisheries and the risk of entanglement on gill nets pose another threat for this species. Although Humboldt Penguins prefer to stay close to their nesting colonies during breeding, non-breeding individuals venture farther away during winter, as has been shown by recent tracking of individuals, increasing the likelihood of encounters with fisheries.  

Penguins and their eggs are also easy prey for invasive species. Rats, feral cats and dogs and even human activity have had an effect on nesting populations. Current management programs in the largest colonies of Humboldt penguins include the eradication of such species with preliminary positive results. However, this implies a gigantic amount of work and management programs now run mostly in protected areas and with limited budgets. 

Facts about Galapagos Penguins

Galapagos penguins

Galapagos penguins
Photo: Hjalmar Gislason

The Galapagos Penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus) can be found only around two islands in the Galapagos archipelago: Isabela and Fernandina islands. Like its closest neighbor the Humboldt Penguin, the populations of Galapagos Penguins have experienced dramatic numeric fluctuations (up to 80%) provoked by El Niño events, introduced species, and new diseases. 

The threat for this species, however, is potentially more dramatic than the one for the Humboldt Penguin, since their numbers do not exceed 5,000 individuals. Due to their restricted geographical location and limited numbers, the Galapagos Penguin’s current status by the IUCN is Endangered. 

Galapagos Penguins are also threatened by local fishing operations and the possible arrival of diseases such as bird malaria. Moreover, climate change may likely decrease the availability of its various fish prey which could possibly limit the chances of successful nests for this bird. 

How do we protect Humboldt Penguins and Galapagos Penguins for the future?

Species can persist if coordinated efforts by scientists, authorities, local fisherman and the general public start alleviating pressures coming from human sources. For example, the installation of artificial nests can potentially increase available habitat for both species and increase their chances of yearly nest success. 

Similarly, restricting access to breeding grounds for tourists, local fishermen and public in general has been a strategy that has proved successful for many other marine birds for which their nesting colonies have been re-populated. This strategy could also potentially work for these penguins.  

An urgent and forceful control of invasive species might have the strongest immediate impact on nesting birds and could boost population numbers and recruitment. 

Most importantly, public awareness constitutes a powerful tool for the preservation of any species. It’s crucial to understand the impact of our activities on the world (e.g. fishing, climate change) and the ways to mitigate our negative individual impacts. Hopefully, all these measures implemented could offer a more positive prospect for these sun-loving penguins and one day we might even see thousands of them again enjoying the sun on their rocky beaches. 

Have you ever seen Galapagos or Humboldt penguins in the wild? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Read more about Adelie Penguins and Northern Rockhopper Penguins!

Source:

http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/22697817/0

http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/22697825/0

Adelie Penguins – Nature’s Cutest Thieves May Play a Role as an Indicator Species

Adelie Penguin
by Mike King

Of the 18 penguin species currently recognized by science, none are quite as mischievous as the Adelie Penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae). These birds live in large colonies along the rocky banks of Antarctica. Adelies, like most penguins, are very dedicated parents. They build small nests out of stones to protect their chicks. Many of these parents even steal stones from other nests in order to protect their own! 

Adelie Penguins walk a lot!

Although Adelie Penguins fit the typical morphological description of most penguins (awkward, round, andAdelie Penguins stubby-legged), they are capable of accomplishing incredible physical feats. They migrate up to 31 miles every spring on foot! Like all penguins, they are also capable swimmers. Adelie penguin chicks are able to swim on their own at the young age of 9 weeks. 

The diet of the Adelie is quite unusual for that of a penguin. Most penguins feed almost exclusively on fish, but the vast majority of the Adelie’s diet is made up of tiny marine organisms called krill. Krill are small, shrimp-like crustaceans that provide a basic food source for countless marine creatures. Because of the constant threat of predation, krill are highly adapted swimmers. Adelie Penguins must swim with incredible athleticism and stealth in order to catch their food and survive. In a video released by penguin researcher Yuuki Watanabe in 2013, viewers are able to see from a penguin’s point-of-view just how chaotic these underwater chases can be. It is not difficult to appreciate the amazing balance of nature put on display by the competing survival abilities of both species. This ecological balance, however, can only withstand a certain amount of strain before it tips over. 

Adelie PenguinOften times, animal populations are threatened by humans due to overharvesting of their prey. In the case of Adelie penguins, however, an overabundance of their prey may be indicative of a greater ecological issue. According to the IUCN Redlist, Adelie Penguin populations have increased at a rate of about 2% per year since the mid 1990’s. This may sound like great news, but some researchers disagree. According to papers released by Fraser et. al. and Taylor et. al., the increase in Adelie Penguin populations may actually be linked to climate change. Fraser et. al. found that the loss of sea ice on the Antarctic continent has led to greater numbers of krill, thus increasing the survivability of Adelie penguins. Therefore, this massive increase in penguin population indicates just how much climate change can affect an ecosystem. More penguins may sound like a good thing, but in this case they may begin to outcompete other species and begin slowly hunting the krill to drastically low levels. Of course, this is only one issue melting sea ice can cause.

Adelie Penguins are indicator species of climate change

There has been growing concerns in the scientific community about climate change since the 1960s. Governments around the globe started to take action in the 1980s through legislative procedures. Many scientific studies have predicted massive extinction rates, flooding cities, the loss of pollinators (and also therefore fruit) will all be likely events if climate change is to continue on its current course. With the knowledge of how the Adelie Penguin population corresponds to climate change, scientists can begin to monitor the progress being made by rising ocean temperatures in a much simpler way than in the past. Adelie Penguins may now be used as an “indicator species”—a living organism whose presence and abundance can be used to tell us things about an ecosystem. The concept is not a new one; scientists have used indicator species such as marine invertebrates in order to determine the overall health of an ecosystem. Basically, we can monitor the population of Adelie Penguins in Antarctica, and use that information to determine how much sea ice was lost since the last population assessment. 

Listed as “Least Concern” by the IUCN Redlist, Adelie Penguins have not taken center stage in any major conservation movements. However, with the information we now possess, we will be able to conduct more studies on Adelie penguin populations and their effects on krill populations to gain a better understanding of how rapidly climate change is melting sea ice in Antarctica. This small, stone-stealing bird is much more than a cute video to be laughed at. It is a looking glass into the health of our Southern Ocean, and may shed light on how quickly we must act to protect it. 

Next stop — Northern Rockhoppers Penguins!

Sources:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/a/adelie-penguin/

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/invertebrates/group/krill/

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-japan-penguins-stealth/adelie-penguins-cool-efficient-killing-machines-idUSBRE90N04I20130124

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/jan/21/penguins-lethally-efficient-hunting-machines-video

https://www.jstor.org/stable/24053308?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00237945

http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/22697758/0

http://roadtoparis.info/2014/09/05/history-climate-change-research/

Meet the Northern Rockhopper Penguin

Northern Rockhopper Penguin

Northern Rockhopper Penguins

by Mike King

Off the coast of South Africa lives one of the world’s most iconic and charismatic birds – the Northern Rockhopper Penguin (Eudyptes moseleyi). These birds, native to the southern islands Gough, Amsterdam, and the Tristan archipelago, are one of 18 different penguin species alive today. Unfortunately, they are also one of the most endangered.

Northern Rockhopper Penguins have the longest crest feathers of any penguin species

Northern Rockhoppers are striking in physical appearance. These penguins have a slate-colored back and head, and a white front and underside. The most unique morphological feature on these birds is certainly the long, frayed yellow feathers extending like long eyebrows across their forehead. The most noticable difference between Northern Rockhoppers and Southern Rockhoppers (Eudyptes chrysocome) is that the “eyebrow” of the Northern variety is significantly longer than that of their Southern relatives.

Northern Rockhoppers are stout, athletic birds. Like all penguins, they have modified wings that act as flippers to help them glide gracefully through the water. Aptly named, these birds often hop around awkwardly on land; but they occasionally slide on their bellies on smooth downhill landscapes. Their diet consists mostly of krill, but as opportunistic foragers they will also readily eat fish and squid when they are available. 

Once a common sight on islands in the Southern Ocean, the Northern Rockhopper Penguin population has declined at a rate of 3-4% per year since the early 1970s, totaling at a 57% decline. So what has contributed to this drastic population decrease, and what can be done to reverse the current trend? 

Northern Rockhopper Penguin
Photo: Lorna Moffat, Edinburgh Zoo

Threats to Northern Rockhopper Penguins

Predation-

Several introduced species pose threats to Northern Rockhopper Penguins. Chief among these species were feral pigs, until their eventual eradication in the 20th century. Dogs and introduced mice also pose certain threats, though there is a lack of data quantifying the magnitude of their impact on the birds.

Climate change-

Although scientific data quantifying the effect of climate change on penguins is still in the process of being conducted, researchers have reason to believe that abnormalities in the Earth’s natural climate can negatively affect birds like penguins. The main reason being studied is that rising ocean temperatures in the areas in which Northern Rockhoppers live are leading to the decline of fish for the penguins to eat.

Human activity-

Human activity is by far the harshest threat to the Northern Rockhopper Penguin. For years, the birds were killed for feathers, hunting bait, and bushmeat. Their eggs were also harvested to feed the people of the island until as recently as 2011. The rapidly increasing development of human housing, roads and cities have led to a severe decrease in habitat availability for the penguins as well.

Conservation of Northern Rockhopper Penguins

A series of laws recently passed in the Tristan island community has sectioned off an entire island to the penguins for habitat without the threat of human intervention. This provides a large area for the penguins to hunt, breed and raise their young. Citizens have also taken action by putting up a fence to keep penguin predators away from the island. Ultimately, the future of the Northern Rockhopper Penguin relies on the continued research, outreach and community education for the benefit of this species.

Northern Rockhopper chick
Photo: Lorna Moffat, Edinburgh Zoo
Northern Rockhopper adult and chicks
Photo: Lorna Moffat, Edinburgh Zoo
Penguins International
PO Box 100483
Denver, CO 80250 USA
phone: 628-400-7301

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