Thursday, July 31, 2008

An interview with David Ainley

Letters from Antarctica: Interview with Penguin Researcher David Ainley

Patricia Ballou

David AinleyIt has been four months since I left Antarctica but the stories of those striving to understand this dynamic continent and the array of polar science continues. Dr. David Ainley is a remarkable scientist with 40 years experience researching Adélie penguins. His achievements include; a PhD from John Hopkins University, numerous published works within the science community and authorship of five books. A standout among these accomplishments is the book, The Adélie Penguin: Bellwether of Climate Change. Penguin Science : What is it, how does it explain adaptations to climate change and who is involved? Everyone has a soft spot for the feathery inhabitants of Antarctica. So few humans make the journey to the southernmost land mass that when these flightless creatures encounter people, they tend to act like they've known you all their lives. With all the niceties set aside, it is thought that these penguins are the bellwether of polar climate change and the studies conducted on Adélie penguins by David Ainley and other scientists are set to reveal some interesting trends.

Patricia Ballou: What type of research have you been conducting and name the major players in the Adélie penguin studies?

David Ainley: We are funded by the National Science Foundation, Office of Polar Programs , U.S. Antarctic Program , and I work for H.T. Harvey and Associates . This is our 12th season working on this particular penguin project . The study of Adélie penguins was undertaken because we noticed their colonies were increasing dramatically in the Ross Sea area, but declining in the Antarctic Peninsula region. Smaller colonies in the Ross Sea are increasing in size and far more rapidly than the larger ones. These noticeable changes are based on aerial censuses taken by Landcare Research - Manaaki Whenua, New Zealand.

PB: What areas are you and cooperative scientists focused on? What type of research is being conducted?

DA: The photo reconnaissance takes place around the beginning of December. Resources limit Landcare's ability to conduct annual surveys for every colony so some colonies, especially those in northern Victoria Land, are counted every few years. They collaborate with us by contributing scientists to help study four colonies of interest: Cape Royds, Cape Crozier, Cape Bird and Beauford Island. Every year our teams go to these areas and track, record and study Adélie colonies and fossil remains from times gone by. The bones left behind have stories to tell about environmental conditions of that time and how these birds adapted to climate change.

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