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.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Antarctic Life Hung by a Thread During Ice Ages

Science News

Antarctic Life Hung By A Thread During Ice Ages

ScienceDaily (Feb. 20, 2008) — Frozen in time... frozen in place... frozen solid... All of these phrases have been used to describe Antarctica, and yet they all belie the truth about this southerly point on the globe. Although the area is covered in ice and bears witness to some of the most extreme cold on the planet, this ecosystem is dynamic, not static, and change here has always been dramatic and intense. A report published in the March issue of Ecology argues that the extreme cold and environmental conditions of past Ice Ages have been even more severe than seen today and changed life at the Antarctic, forcing the migration of many animals such as penguins, whales and seals. Understanding the changes of the past may help scientists to determine how the anticipated temperature increases of the future will work to further transform this continent.

Extreme cold and lasting darkness have always worked to limit the productivity of the microscopic algae in Antarctica. The availability of such algae drives the entire region's food web, from one-celled organisms to top predators such as whales and seals, making life in this region challenging for all kinds of animals.

But during the Ice Ages, animals in Antarctica faced conditions even more life-threatening. Massively thick and permanent ice covered most of the land, and sea-ice coverage around the continent was permanent. The Antarctic continental shelf was glaciated and most seafloor animals dodged extinction by emigrating into deeper waters.

Sven Thatje from the University of Southampton's School of Ocean and Earth Science (UK) has been studying geological records of the area for such insights. He and his team from the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge and the German Alfred Wegener Institute have found that penguins, whales and seals were very dependant upon areas of open water known as polynyas. The polynyas, the team contends, must have existed far south of the present winter sea-ice boundaries, and far north of the Antarctic shelf.

Polynyas have been important both in the past and today because they cause upswells of warmer water, and thereby help establish local food webs for many animals.

Thatje's team analyzed geologic and genetic records and found that during glacial periods the permanent sea-ice belt advanced much further to the North than it is now. In parts of the Southern Ocean, the summer sea-ice boundary was located where the winter sea-ice limit is today, and ice coverage was complete and a magnitude thicker than seen today. These boundaries would have forced a complete shut down of food supplies for most life, both from the sea and land.

Only species that are champions of cold weather adaptation in the present day, such as Emperor Penguins and Snow Petrels, were likely able to survive in locally restricted areas of biological productivity. Those animals, it seems likely, may have stayed in Antarctica during the Ice Ages.

But the polynyas were too isolated to support larger top predators, such as seals and whales, which had to move north to escape starvation. Many other penguin species lost access to traditional feeding grounds and ice-free breeding areas on land, which are crucial for their survival. Some of those animals may have thus been forced to emigrate as far north as the Patagonian shelf off the coast of what is now Argentina.

"Science is only now beginning to ponder what happened here during the Ice Ages," says Thatje. "This research is leading to a radical reconsideration of those time periods. Antarctic species are champions in adaptations to extreme cold and the harshest environmental conditions. Understanding how the stunning Antarctic fauna has evolved and coped with glacial-interglacial periods will help us to assess their sensitivity to current climate warming."

Thatje also notes that the animals of Antarctica are extremely vulnerable to warming temperatures. Their ability to survive in extreme cold is unique and has taken tens of millions of years to evolve.

Shifts in the distribution of animals over glacial cycles have likely been a very common phenomenon in region, he says. But given the fact that sub-Antarctic organisms are invading the area as temperatures rise, Thatje says it is time to assess how and if the Antarctic ecosystems will be able to cope with the new invaders.
Adapted from materials provided by Ecological Society of America, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS

Ecological Society of America. "Antarctic Life Hung By A Thread During Ice Ages." ScienceDaily 20 February 2008. 21 July 2008 .

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Dee Boersma's full paper

In her paper published in the July-August edition of the journal BioScience, Dee Boersma contends that penguins are the litmus test of our world's environment. In my next to last post, I included an article on this paper from Science Digest. Here is the link to read her entire paper.

I cannot help but thank Dr. Boersma for her dedication in reporting to the world the ever current situation of the penguin's plight. I call her the Patron Saint of Penguins and I commend her for bringing to us, an awareness that is needed for not only the penguins' survival, but our own as well.

National Geographic--Global Warming Freezes Penguin Chicks

..A gentoo penguin chick (center) is drenched by rain at Port Lockroy on the Antarctic Peninsula in January 2008. Unlike adult penguins, chicks lack water-repellent feathers and so become drenched during rainstorms. The chicks are then susceptible to freezing to death during nighttime's below-freezing temperatures.

Increasing rain in penguin habitats may be caused by global warming, making the precipitation one of many human-caused ills affecting the seabirds, a July 2008 paper says.

Photograph by Fiona Stewart via Jon Bowermaster..

Penguin Chicks Frozen by Global Warming?
John Roach
for National Geographic News
July 2, 2008

This January—deep summer in Antarctica—explorer Jon Bowermaster suffered through a five-day stretch of torrential rains on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula. The same cannot be said for thousands of downy penguin chicks.
Epic rains are unusual in Antarctica, even in summer, said Bowermaster, who had been in the region on an expedition funded in part by the National Geographic Society's Expeditions Council.

With daytime temperatures above freezing, the rains soaked young Adélie and gentoo penguins not yet equipped with water-repellent feathers (see video below).

At night, when the mercury dipped below freezing, the wet chicks froze.

(Related: "Adelie Penguins Extinct in a Decade in Some Areas?" [December 28, 2007].)

"Many, many, many of them—thousands of them—were dying," Bowermaster said.

The experience, he added, painted a clear and grim picture of the impact of global climate change.

"It's not just melting ice," he said. "It's actually killing these cute little birds that are so popular in the movies."

The freezing of chicks is just one example of how human activity is endangering about two thirds of all penguin species, according to a new paper based on decades of research and observations.

The conservation biologist behind the paper, Dee Boersma of the University of Washington, points out some of the many ways penguins are suffering, such as by ingesting oil from spills, by being run over by tourists, by having their nesting times confused by climate change, and by losing their prey to changing currents.
She and her colleagues have watched that population decline by 22 percent since 1987, with the biggest drop coming in 1991 after a major oil spill. The colony has also lost members to fishing nets, starvation linked to overfishing, and shifting ocean currents that force penguins to swim farther from their nests to feed.

Penguins are going about 60 kilometers [37 miles] farther to find food than they did a decade ago," she writes in the paper, published today in the journal BioScience.

Global Warming

Increasing temperatures are also affecting breeding populations in Antarctica by breaking up ice, changing precipitation patterns, and altering nesting times, Boersma writes.

In 2006 she visited the seasonal sea-ice home of the penguin colony featured in the 2005 movie March of the Penguins. The region was uncharacteristically ice free.

Apparently sensing danger, the penguins had marched the colony several miles farther inland to more protected ice. A windstorm a few weeks later broke up the ice, forcing the birds into the water.

While the adults could survive, the young chicks had yet to fully develop and most likely all died, Boersma notes.

In the Galápagos Islands a penguin population is down to just 2,500 birds from the nearly 10,000 that were there when Boersma first studied the birds in the 1970s.

More frequent El Niño weather patterns—believed to be a consequence of climate change—are pushing penguin prey further out to sea, which is causing the Galápagos seabirds to starve, she noted.

On South African islands, where penguins burrow into mound of seabird droppings to make nests, humans harvesting the guano for fertilizer contributed to a penguin population decline from 1.5 million a century ago to 63,000 breeding pairs today.

Even tourists, Boersma said, can wreak havoc on penguins. At Punta Tombo, Argentina, for example, vehicles ran over five penguins in January 2007.

"The visitors who flock to Punta Tombo are loving the penguins to death," she wrote.

Poster Species?

Boersma would rather see humans' affection for penguins focused into efforts to improve the birds' marine environments.

"If people really know that we're having this kind of effect on penguins, we might change how we do business," she said.

But Boersma isn't just interested in raising awareness.

She advocates the creation of an international institution that regularly monitors penguins to gain insight into changes in the ocean food chain and long-term climate variation. Such an effort would make the seabirds "marine sentinels," she said.

"If we can understand more about them, we presumably could reduce the problems that penguins and other species are having—and maybe save ourselves," she said.

The idea of using penguins as a poster species is not novel, according to David Ainley, an ecologist and penguin expert with ecological consulting firm H.T. Harvey & Associates in San Jose, California.

For example, Ainley noted the California-based Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the U.S. government in 2006 to list ten penguin species under the Endangered Species Act.

"Because penguins are so well known, [the center's] agenda was to use them as a kind of handle to increase awareness of climate change," he said.

Ainley said Boersma makes a "nice" case that penguins could serve as useful, attractive environmental monitors. In fact, several Antarctic penguin species are already monitored under the Antarctic Treaty System—a series of agreements among states operating on the continent—he noted.

Bowermaster, the explorer and writer, said any studies that highlight changes in the marine environment, especially those in Antarctica due to global climate change, are valuable.

"If you can use penguins to that end," he said, "I would say great."

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Science Digest: Penguins Warn of Ocean's Health

Rain has soaked this Adélie penguin chick in Antarctica before its feathers are capable of repelling water. Though the icy continent is in essence a dessert, coastal rainfall is becoming more common with changing climate. (Credit: Dee Boersma)
Penguins Setting Off Sirens Over Health Of World's Oceans

ScienceDaily (July 1, 2008) — Like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, penguins are sounding the alarm for potentially catastrophic changes in the world's oceans, and the culprit isn't only climate change, says a University of Washington conservation biologist.

Oil pollution, depletion of fisheries and rampant coastline development that threatens breeding habitat for many penguin species, along with Earth's warming climate, are leading to rapid population declines among penguins, said Dee Boersma, a University of Washington biology professor and an authority on the flightless birds.

"Penguins are among those species that show us that we are making fundamental changes to our world," she said. "The fate of all species is to go extinct, but there are some species that go extinct before their time and we are facing that possibility with some penguins."

In a new paper published in the July-August edition of the journal BioScience, Boersma notes that there are 16 to 19 penguin species, and most penguins are at 43 geographical sites, virtually all in the Southern Hemisphere. But for most of these colonies, so little is known that even their population trends are a mystery. The result is that few people realized that many of them were experiencing sharp population declines.

Boersma contends the birds actually serve as sentinels for radically changing environment. She advocates a broad international effort to check on the largest colonies of each penguin species regularly-- at least every five years -- to see how their populations are faring, what the greatest threats seem to be and what the changes mean for the health of the oceans.

"We have to be able to understand the world that we live in and depend on," she said. "It is the responsibility of governments to gather the information that helps us understand and make it available, but if they can't do it then we need non-governmental organizations to step up."

For 25 years, working with the Wildlife Conservation Society and UW colleagues, Boersma has studied the world's largest breeding colony of Magellanic penguins at Punta Tombo on the Atlantic coast of Argentina. That population probably peaked at about 400,000 pairs between the late 1960s and early 1980s, and today is just half that total.

There are similar stories from other regions. African penguins decreased from 1.5 million pairs a century ago to just 63,000 pairs by 2005. The number of Galapagos Islands penguins, the only species with a range that extends into the Northern Hemisphere, has fallen to around 2,500 birds, about one-quarter what it was when Boersma first studied the population in the 1970s.

The number of Adélie and Chinstrap penguins living on the Antarctic Peninsula, the northernmost part of the continent, has declined by 50 percent since the mid-1970s. Other species in Africa, South America, Australia, New Zealand, the Falklands Islands and Antarctica also have suffered significant population declines, Boersma said.

She recounts watching in 2006 as climate anomalies wreaked havoc on breeding of the same population of Emperor penguins that was featured in the popular 2005 film "March of the Penguins." The colony bred in the same location as in other years, where the ice is protected from the open sea and wind keeps snow from piling up and freezing the eggs. But in September, with the chicks just more than half-grown, the adults apparently sensed danger and uncharacteristically marched the colony more than 3 miles to different ice. The ice they chose remained intact the longest, but in late September a strong storm broke up the remaining ice and the penguin chicks were forced into the water. While the adults could survive, the chicks needed two more months of feather growth and buildup of insulating fat to be independent. The likely result of the climate anomaly, Boersma said, was a total colonywide breeding failure that year.

Changing climate also appears to be key in the decline of Galapagos penguins, she said. As the atmosphere and ocean get warmer, El Niño Southern Oscillation events, which affect weather patterns worldwide, seem to occur with greater frequency. During those times, ocean currents that carry the small fish that the penguins feed on are pushed farther away from the islands and the birds often starve or are left too weak to breed.

These problems raise the question of whether humans are making it too difficult for other species to coexist, Boersma said. Penguins in places like Argentina, the Falklands and Africa run increasing risks of being fouled by oil, either from ocean drilling or because of petroleum discharge from passing ships. The birds' chances of getting oiled are also increasing because in many cases they have to forage much farther than before to find the prey on which they feed.

"As the fish humans have traditionally eaten get more and more scarce, we are fishing down the food chain and now we are beginning to compete more directly with smaller organisms for the food they depend on," she said.

As the world's population continues to explode and more and more people live in coastal areas, the negative effects are growing for both marine and shore-based habitats used by a variety of species. There is an urgent need to begin monitoring those negative impacts, Boersma said.

"I don't think we can wait. In 1960 we had 3 billion people in the world. Now it's 6.7 billion and it's expected to be 8 billion by 2025," she said. "We've waited a very long time. It's clear that humans have changed the face of the Earth and we have changed the face of the oceans, but we just can't see it. We've already waited too long.

"The Discovery Channel and public television are very popular for their nature programs, and those featuring penguins are especially popular. But we don't want to just have them in our television sets. We want to have them out in the world."

The research was funded by the Wildlife Conservation Society and other foundations and donors.

University of Washington. "Penguins Setting Off Sirens Over Health Of World's Oceans." ScienceDaily 1 July 2008. 1 July 2008 .