Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Adelies are early victims of a trend that could devastate coastlines

Having missed World Penguin Day (April 25), I've got some making up to do on Adelies... here's the first of several articles...

Adelie Penguins Fall Victim to Warming
Penguins' struggle is a warning to world
Adelies are early victims of a trend that could devastate coastlines

By William Mullen, The Chicago Tribune, July 1, 2007

CAPE ROYDS, Antarctica -- On a cloudy spring day, the first gray Adelie penguin chicks are hatching out in round pebble nests strewn across a bleak, rocky coastline, poking their heads from beneath the snowy-white shirt front of an adult for their first blinking look at the world.

The nests are barely a wingspan apart, and the adults, peevish and quarrelsome by nature, sit as to avoid looking directly at one another. The odd arrangement helps the penguins watch for predators that lurk nearby in hopes of snatching a chick or egg. They are Antarctic skuas, a brown bird similar to a gull.

"One pulls the tail of the incubating penguin parent, and as the penguin turns and lifts to fend the attacker off, the other skua pulls out the egg and runs," said Adelie researcher David Ainley. "It's best if you are a penguin to nest next to birds that will watch your back while you watch theirs."

These days, however, Adelies are being stalked by a threat they cannot see and cannot fight off: the weather. The birds, which have adapted over millions of years to the most extreme climate on Earth, are beginning to die off by the tens of thousands as a result of global warming.

The Adelie penguin is regarded as an "indicator" species, an animal so delicately attuned to its environment that its survival is threatened as soon as something goes wrong. So as temperatures rise, Adelies are among the first to feel the effects, early victims of the devastating worldwide changes that scientists expect if the warming persists and intensifies.

Because of Antarctica's key role in regulating the global climate, change there is not simply a faraway event in a frozen wilderness. The continent is an ice machine that, if broken, has the potential to release massive amounts of water into the oceans and disrupt the flow of chilled currents that shape the world's weather.

Today, floating ice formations that are crucial to the Adelies' survival are melting and thinning. Tomorrow, experts fear the thawing Antarctic ice sheets may raise sea levels around the world, swamping coastal areas that are home to millions of people.

Along the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, which reaches farther north than anywhere else on the continent, average annual temperatures have risen 4.5 degrees in just the last 30 years. By comparison, the Earth's annual temperature has increased by 1.4 degrees in the last century.

In this vulnerable area, entire colonies of Adelie penguins have died because, researchers believe, the ice no longer extends far enough into the sea to allow the birds to reach their winter feeding grounds. Biologist William Fraser monitors a 50-square-mile area where 56,000 Adelies have perished.

"For our region I work in, the Adelies will be locally extinct within a decade," Fraser said. "One of the colonies we worked on for 30 years went extinct last year, from 1,000 breeding pairs to zero."

For now, such deaths represent a small fraction of the world's estimated 8 million to 10 million Adelie penguins, which live only on Antarctica. In fact, for many Adelie populations -- including the southern colony that Ainley is watching at Cape Royds -- warmer weather has actually made life a little easier for the time being. The higher temperatures have opened more breaks in the ice close to their nesting grounds, increasing access to open water. That makes it easier for parents to feed themselves and their offspring, and more chicks are making it to adulthood.

But the die-offs scientists are seeing in the warmest areas of Antarctica are expected to spread as temperatures continue to rise. If the warming continues, Ainley said, the Adelies ultimately will go extinct -- though it might take hundreds of years.

The reason is simple, he said: "Penguins don't see well in the dark."

Below the Antarctic Circle, the hours of sunlight shrink during winter until it is dark 24 hours a day. That is one key reason Adelie penguins migrate: They must travel far enough north so there is enough sunlight for a successful daily hunt. Otherwise, they will starve.

A warmer Antarctic climate may shrink the winter ice so much that it strands the birds too far south, in places where the sun doesn't rise, and the lights may go out permanently for the Adelies.

As Ainley succinctly summed up in his 2002 book "The Adelie Penguin: Bellwether of Climate Change": "Where there is no ice, there are no Adelie penguins."

When he first went to Antarctica to study penguins in 1968, Ainley's research interest was pure biology. But in the last 20 years or so, his research increasingly has had to deal with global warming as it begins to change the environment where the Adelies live.

Climate a growing factor

Indeed, climate change has crept into the work of scientists of virtually every stripe who work on the frozen continent -- biology, geology, paleontology, meteorology, glaciology. Belonging to no nation and having no permanent human population, Antarctica draws more than 4,000 scientists each year. The U.S. Antarctic Program spends more than $320 million annually on research there.

Ainley, an expert on sea birds and ocean environments, has made 28 trips to study Adelies in Antarctica and has been camping with the Cape Royds Adelies during their nesting season since the 1990s. Funded by the National Science Foundation, he had to abandon teaching because his field season from November to February is at the heart of the academic year.

A flinty New England native transplanted to California, Ainley is not a man of many words when one or two will do. Yet he is a tireless advocate for protecting the Earth's ecosystems, using his satellite phone in Cape Royds to lend support and advice to environmentalists all over the world and to deliver stinging rebukes to their foes.

At Cape Royds, where Ainley lives in a little hut a few hundred yards uphill from the Cape Royds colony, the work he does is typical of other ongoing projects on the continent. He uses a combination of old-school field observations and state-of-the-art technology to learn about the Adelies' past, present and future.

Because Antarctica has the world's harshest, most inhospitable environment, doing research there is often extraordinarily difficult. Adelie penguins spend barely three months on land. They live most of their lives traveling the high seas among enormous ice floes, a cold and dangerous journey that is impossible for humans to follow.

That means researchers such as Ainley can observe the Adelies only about a quarter of the year at best and mostly on land, leaving huge gaps in the knowledge of Adelie life cycles.

Where the Adelies actually go when they abandon land, and why, remained a mystery for a century, until Ainley and other researchers began to track their travels with new technology six years ago. What they learned had profound implications for the penguins' future.

Hallowed site for researchers

It's fitting this breakthrough occurred in part by studying the colony at Cape Royds, a bulge off the south end of Ross Island where the island butts up against the Ross Ice Shelf, which is frozen year-round.

Though relatively small, the colony is a hallowed site for penguin research. It was the subject of the first long-term field study of penguins anywhere, conducted a century ago by legendary explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew.

Much of Ainley's work today consists of monitoring the progress of chicks he has banded on the left wing, about 400 each year, as they grow up. If they live a full life, he might see them for 15 years or more.

Adelie life at Cape Royds begins in late October -- early spring in Antarctica -- when the adults return to land from their long winter migrations, ready to nest, mate and raise penguin chicks.

Adult Adelies, who pair up for life, are roughly 28 inches tall and weigh about 12 pounds, depending on the season. Their backs, long tails, wings and faces are black, but their fronts are white and each eye has a distinctive white circle. Swift and agile in water, the short-legged birds waddle on land slightly faster than 1 m.p.h. at best.

The males are the first to arrive at the nesting ground, followed by the females four or five days later, who set about looking for their spouses and the nests the males have picked out. Each of the birds brays a unique identity call, which results in a tremendous din, like an arena full of Rocky Balboas and Adrians shouting for each other.

Ainley knows penguins have been doing this at Cape Royds for at least 900 years from radiocarbon dating done on flattened, dried-out Adelie bodies that litter the nesting grounds. It so rarely and briefly gets warmer than freezing at the cape that old carcasses never rot.

The couples collect small stones and build up their nests, often fighting with thieving neighbors who steal their rocks. Once the nest is complete, the female soon lays one or two eggs, and the males take the first turn at incubation, waiting on the nest for several weeks while the females go off to feed.

Curious about these hunts, Ainley recently fenced off about 150 nests and attached tiny transponders to the adults. To enter or leave the enclosure, a bird had to cross a "weigh bridge" with a scale and a sensor attuned to the transponders. By comparing departure weight to arrival weight, he found out how much food it had foraged.

After the eggs hatch, much of the foraged food is regurgitated into the gullets of the chicks. Within two or three weeks of hatching, the chicks are nearly adult size, big enough to fend off the predatory skuas but so hungry that both parents must go hunting to feed them.

At about 9 weeks, the chicks begin to hunt on their own, said Ainley. "The chicks are wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, and go off to see the world. They get curious and have the urge to travel, and they seem to recognize the ocean as their destination."

The treacherous journey

The chicks grow up just in time. In late January, as the summer sunshine rapidly declines at Cape Royds, the penguins must begin their annual migration. The journey, through extremely treacherous weather and seas, is surely one of the most perilous migrations of any bird species.

Led by experienced members, this exodus occurs at every Adelie colony all around Antarctica, and the birds do not return to land until nine months later.

To flee the winter darkness, the penguins rely on the Antarctic pack ice, a seasonal phenomenon that grows outward in every direction from mainland Antarctica, extending from the shore like a vast shelf. By July, the ice reaches as far as 1,000 miles into the Southern Sea, temporarily doubling Antarctica's 5.4 million square miles.

Although penguins can travel much faster by swimming than by traversing the ice, they can swim for only a couple of hours at a time before growing exhausted. The birds rest on the floes, huddling together at night.

But the pack ice is foe as well as friend to the Adelies. If the birds do not keep moving, the pack ice will cut off their access to open water as it freezes up solidly behind them, preventing the penguins from hunting for food.

From ships leaving Antarctica for the winter, scientists have seen Adelies waddle, slide and toboggan on their bellies across huge tippy ice floes in heaving seas. When the birds reach the edge of the ice, they speed like torpedoes through the water, then propel themselves into the air to land on the next floe.

The penguins aim their route toward natural breaks in the ice called polynyas, formed by slightly warmer deep currents welling up from the depths. There, the Adelies know, they can hunt their prey, mostly Antarctic silverfish and krill, a tiny shrimplike animal.

"They aren't simply drifting randomly with the ice," said Fraser. "They're moving with a purpose, hopscotching across the ice to seek areas of high prey availability, which doesn't occur just anywhere, but in specific regions."

Researchers have never been able to follow the Adelies on the winter migration. But six years ago, Ainley and biologists at other colonies began attaching small leg-band sensors to some of the birds before their departure. When the penguins returned to nest, the researchers downloaded the information.

From sunlight readings taken every 60 seconds, scientists were able to figure out how far north the penguins had traveled. At the height of winter, the Cape Royds Adelies were several hundred miles north of the Antarctic Circle, or about 1,000 miles north of their nesting grounds.

"We were a little surprised," said Ainley. "We didn't know they traveled that far."

The finding brought into focus the fate that awaits the Adelies if global warming turns off their winter sunlight.

Shifts at the poles

Temperatures are rising worldwide, but the warming has been more severe in the Arctic and Antarctic, in part because the atmosphere is thinner at the Earth's polar ends.

In the Arctic north, the extent of the winter pack ice has shrunk by 20 percent in the last 50 years, and its average thickness has thinned by 50 percent. By 2100 -- when a United Nations panel predicts the planet's average temperature will have risen between 3.2 and 7.1 degrees Fahrenheit -- all of it may be gone.

At the other end of the world, the Antarctic pack ice has not been so severely disrupted. But in West Antarctica, where warming has been greatest, the ice has begun to shrink.

As it does, more than just penguins are at stake.

"The dangers of losing sea ice cover in the southern latitudes of the Southern Ocean is that the unique community associated with that cover would disappear," said Ainley. "The krill, fish, penguins and seals, the whole works. They'd be replaced by marine critters from the [warmer] sub-Antarctic."

In fact, the northern half of the Antarctic Peninsula already is undergoing that transformation, with plants and animals that cannot tolerate extreme cold and ice migrating to the area as it warms up.

Grasses not seen on the peninsula since humans arrived 200 years ago are now growing luxuriantly in northern areas. Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins, which don't rely on sea ice in their life cycle, are colonizing the peninsula.

As those species move in, the Adelies are disappearing. In the area Fraser studies -- the vicinity of the U.S. Palmer Research Station, along the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula -- tens of thousands of penguins have failed to return from their winter voyages, leading Fraser to suspect the birds cannot reach the food-rich areas they usually visit.

"Adelie populations where we work have decreased by 80 percent over the last 30 years," said Fraser. "We're at a point that of the 56 active colonies we work with, 80 percent of them are no longer numerically viable; they have too few pairs to sustain them."

Temporary benefits

For the moment, the situation is different for Ainley's penguins at Cape Royds, 2,400 miles away. The colony nests farther south than any other penguins in the world, and in this harsh environment a little extra warmth is, temporarily, welcome.

So far, global warming does not seem to have affected their winter migration, perhaps because area temperatures have not risen as much as they have along the peninsula. And thanks to new breaks in the ice near their nesting grounds, Adelie parents are finding it easier to hunt. More of their chicks are surviving, leading to a population boom.

"Right now global warming is doing great things for penguins in the Ross Sea," said Ainley. "Adelie penguins now probably are more abundant, continent-wide, than they've been for 3,000 years."

But the good times cannot last if the pack ice melts away, even at Cape Royds. Ultimately, the species will be trapped in places where it cannot survive the 24-hour darkness of winter.

"That's the nightmare scenario for Adelie penguins," Fraser said. "Below the Antarctic Circle, you begin to lose light very, very quickly. And unfortunately it's looking like a realistic scenario: the continuing disappearance of sea ice until there is no winter habitat left for them. They would go extinct."

The struggles of the Adelies and other Antarctic species may seem remote, but experts say they are signals not to be ignored.

They note that although Antarctica has always gone through warmer and colder cycles, with retreating and advancing ice formations, the speed of the warm-up in the last half-century seems to set this era apart.

"The rate of change is accelerating at an unprecedented rate," said Ainley, "at least in the context of the last few thousands or tens of thousands of years."

The global significance of that change is the reason so much scientific firepower is being focused on Antarctica, from biologists watching how warming affects penguin colonies to geologists documenting deterioration of the massive ice sheets that cover the western continent.

"Climate change is very serious stuff, and that's the message Adelie penguins have been telling us," Ainley said. "Humans have to learn lessons from what these penguins are going through."

Iceberg was an early test for Adelies

Seven years ago, the largest iceberg in recorded history broke off Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf, a chunk of ice slightly larger than the island of Jamaica. For the Adelie penguins of Cape Royds, the iceberg soon would present a test of their ability to adapt to a changed environment.

After calving from the shelf, the iceberg broke in two and the larger piece slowly floated hundreds of miles west, reaching Cape Royds in early 2001. It lodged itself on the sea floor just north of the cape, next to a smaller chunk of ice that had arrived earlier.

The Adelie colony had just left on its annual nine-month winter migration. When the birds returned for the breeding season in October, they found their way blocked by the icebergs while still far out at sea. To get to their nesting ground, the penguins had to walk 50 miles or more around the bergs on jammed-up sea ice.

Slow and clumsy on their feet, the birds arrived exhausted, said biologist David Ainley. When the females left the nests to seek food in open water, leaving the males to incubate the eggs, they had to traverse the 50 miles all over again.

"The females walked out and never came back," said Ainley. "They didn't want to make the trip again."

The males stayed with the eggs for weeks, he said, "but when their mates never returned to relieve them, they finally got so hungry they ... abandoned the eggs in the nests."

The icebergs remained for four years before floating off, giving Ainley a chance to observe how the penguins reacted in subsequent breeding seasons.

Older Adelie pairs, he found, stubbornly kept returning to familiar ground even though fewer chicks hatched because of the difficult conditions. The colony, which had 4,000 breeding pairs in 2002 and was one of the fastest growing in Antarctica, now has barely half that number.

But many younger penguins abandoned Royds to join colonies miles away that were not blocked by the icebergs.

Ainley said he sees a lesson in this for the future. If global warming melts the ice around the Adelies' traditional territories so severely that it can no longer support them, some will simply perish.

But young pairs may head south, finding new territories in places that used to be too cold for penguins. That, Ainley said, may extend the species' survival -- at least for a time.

Story courtesy of "The Heat is On" @

Friday, April 24, 2009

Little Blue or Fairy Penguin -- Eudyptula minor

By Holland Quick

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Aves
Order: Sphenisciformes
Family: Spheniscidae
Genus: Eudyptula
Species: Eudyptula minor

Geographic Range

Eudyptula minor is found along the shore of Southern Australia, including offshore islands, to New Zealand (Lindsey 1986).

Biogeographic Regions:
australian (native).


Eudyptula minor prefers sandy, rocky beaches for landing at night and for nesting. The little penguin occurs in the temperate seas of Australia, feeding mainly in inshore waters around the mainland and offshore islands. Most colonies are found on sandy, rocky islands, around bases of cliffs, or near sand dunes (Lindsey 1986).

Terrestrial Biomes:
chaparral .

Aquatic Biomes:
coastal .
Physical Description
900 g (average)
(31.68 oz)

Eudyptula minor is a small, flightless bird. The little penguin has a silvery bluish-black dorsum, from the top of the head to the tail. The face and neck area is a lighter gray fading into white moving down. The underparts are white, including the undersides of its flippers. Eudyptula minor has a dark gray bill and silvery-gray eyes. The feet are white on top, with black webs and soles. No seasonal variation has been recorded, although there are a few subspecies with slightly different coloration. One such subspecies has entirely white flippers.

Eudyptula minor is the smallest of all penguins, with a length of 375-425 mm, and an average flipper size of 104 mm. These animals are slightly dimorphic with the male somewhat larger than the female, with a larger, deeper bill.

Fledgelings are similar to the adults, but with a shorter, slimmer bill. The dorsal feathers are a little lighter with a more blue appearance, but fade with wear (Lindsey 1986; Marchant & Higggins 1990).

Some key physical features:
endothermic ; bilateral symmetry.


Breeding occurs mainly on off shore islands, and in some remote parts of the Southern Australian shore. The breeding season for E. minor is between August and December, with peak egg laying in August and November. The male and female copulate close to their nest, which usually is in a natural burrow or rock pile. In most cases the little penguin lays 1-2 white eggs, 3-5 days apart. Incubation begins after first egg is laid, but only partially until after the laying of the second egg, with both sexes shifting on and off every few days.

Eggs hatch within approximately 36 days, and chicks are semi-altricial, weighing about 40 g. They are brooded for first 10 days of life, and guarded continuously for the next 1-3 weeks, again with male and female alternating. At 3-4 weeks the chicks are guarded only at night, and then in later stages they are only visited at night by a parent for feeding.

Fledgling young (90% of adult weight) leave the nest for 2-3 days at a time, and then finally permanently. Eudyptula minor reaches sexual maturity after about three years of life in both sexes (Marchant & Higgins 1990; Heather & Robertson 1997).

Key reproductive features:
iteroparous ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; oviparous.


Eudyptula minor is a social bird, and is the most nocturnal of all penguin species. During the day it is either hunting at sea or in its nest sleeping. Little penguins live in loose colonies, composed of birds of all ages. They form small, very vocal groups when coming ashore at night, but then disperse to respective territories. The little penguin has a surprisingly diverse array of visual displays for many social situations. For example, fighting stances, warding off unfamiliar birds, and mating displays.

The little penguin has large range of calls, in addition to its visual displays. Sounds range from soft mewing notes, to loud screams, to growling, and even trumpeting calls.

Individuals undergo a complete body molt sometime from December to March, after the breeding season. This usually takes place at the breeding site and lasts from 10-18 days.

Eudyptula minor has a distinct sexual behavior. The male stands in a distinctive stance with flippers up, bill also pointed upward, accompanied by a braying call to attract a female. He will often build a nest to court her. Once male and female are mated they form a long-term monogamous pair, usually for life. Although they do not hunt for food together during the day they both come back to their shared nest at night.

Once a pair has bred and laid eggs both raise young together. Although eggs may sometimes be deserted there is no record of deserted young. Food is transferred directly from parent to young through regurgitation. Aggression between parents and children is rare, and only occurs when fully fledged young are driven from the nest. Adults are, however, aggressive toward young other than their own if approached for food. Fledglings usually migrate to different areas after becoming independent of their parents (Marchant & Higgins 1990; Heather & Robertson 1997).

Food Habits

Eudyptula minor eats small fish (10-35 mm), some cephalopods, including arrow squids and octopi, and less often small crustaceans.

Much of the feeding of E. minor takes place within the top 5 m of the surface of the ocean. However, the mean dive is appoximately 30m, with a maximum recorded dive of 69 m. The little penguin is usually found feeding singly.

Prey is caught with a pursuit-diving technique. When E. minor sights a school of fish it will circle around the school and then dive into the middle, grabbing a fish on its way through. In some cases the penguin will seek out stragglers from the school or eat solitary fish, always swallowing underwater.

The penguin feeds daily, roughly from dawn until dusk. An irregularity in food availability may explain the bird's low metabolic rate, as compared to other species (Marchant & Higgins 1990; Heather & Robertson 1997).
Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Eudyptula minor is common in and around Australia and is a relatively familiar species to the people there. Tourists gather to see the nightly "penguin parade", as the penguins noisily come ashore after a day's feeding. They are relatively common in inshore waters where pleasure crafts and other boats may glimpse the small bird (Lindsey 1986).
Conservation Status

IUCN Red List:
Least Concern.

US Federal List:
No special status.

No special status.

This species is a proctected native of Australia. It is common on remote islands and in a few areas of the mainland, where not disturbed by dogs, cats, and humans. Populations undergo severe crashes in some years, however, with many dead birds washing ashore. This is probably a result of food shortage or biotoxins.

This species is severly depleted where human populations have increased. They may be killed in fisherman's nets, when set too close to shore they inhabit, and also by domestic dogs (Heather & Robertson 1997; Parks and Wildlife Service, Tasmania 1998)
Other Comments

One important fact about Eudyptula minor is that there are five to six subspecies, which are debated by scientists. There are slight color variations between some of the subspecies. Generally there is accepted to be a cline around the New Zealand region (Lindsey 1986).


Holland Quick (author), University of Michigan.
Phil Myers (editor), Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan.

Heather, B., H. Robertson. 1997. The Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lindsey, T. 1986. The Seabirds of Australia. London: Angus & Robertson Publishers.

Marchant, S., P. Higgins. 1990. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand & Antarctic Birds. Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.

Parks and Wildlife Service, Tasmania, 1998. "Wildlife of Tasmania" (On-line). Accessed March 23, 2001 at
2009/04/19 02:45:24.281 GMT-4


Quick, H. 2001. "Eudyptula minor" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 24, 2009 at

Information courtesy of Animal Diversity WEb @

Images courtesy of Flickr

Robotic Penguins

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ready for class? Penguin 101 is here:


Breaking The Animal Kingdom's Color Code

uploaded on October 25, 2008
by Matt West

wiinterrrs note: Could this explain why we have such a colorful example in the King Penguin? That by coloring, the predator would think venomous or dangerous? Something to consider?

Breaking The Animal Kingdom's Color Code

ScienceDaily (Apr. 21, 2009) — Research spearheaded by the University of York has used computer models to explain the evolution of the distinctive colouring of many species of wildlife.

Charles Darwin was fascinated by the colours of animals – he once wrote to his colleague Alfred Russell Wallace asking why certain animals were "so beautifully and artistically coloured".

It is a question that has intrigued biologists ever since. Now research spearheaded at the University of York (in collaboration with researchers from the University of Glasgow, and Carleton University in Canada) has used computer models to trace the evolution of this extravagant colouring.

Researchers in the York Centre for Complex Systems Analysis (YCCSA) sought to explain why most animals that have an anti-predatory defence, such as a sting or poison, tend to be brightly coloured.

Mimicry is common in nature. Defenceless species frequently evolve to look like a nasty species, so that potential predators cannot distinguish between the two – a good meal or an unpleasant experience.

Such mimicry is good for the defenceless species which predators can mistake for a daunting adversary, but is bad for nasty species which might be mistaken as a good meal.

The YCSSA research suggests that nasty prey may have evolved bright colours to avoid this kind of mimicry. Bright colours are harder for defenceless prey to mimic because they have a survival cost of increased detectability by predators. There are also many ways to look distinctive when brightly coloured, but limited scope for doing so when camouflaged, because camouflage needs to blend in with the background.

Lead researcher Dr Dan Franks, of YCCSA, said: “Our computer models show that this way of looking at the evolution of bright colours explains why in nature we generally find that the nastier the prey species (e.g. the more poisonous) the brighter the animal.

“The nastier the animal, the more it can 'afford' a bright and distinctive livery to copyright its appearance. It’s similar to the way that big companies closely guard their appearance in an attempt to build clear brand recognition.”

Journal reference:

1. Franks et al. Warning signals evolve to disengage Batesian mimics. Evolution, 2009; 63 (1): 256 DOI: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2008.00509.x

Adapted from materials provided by University of York.

University of York. "Breaking The Animal Kingdom's Color Code." ScienceDaily 21 April 2009. 22 April 2009 .

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

5 Questions for Penguin Scientist Ron Naveen

5 Questions for Penguin Scientist Ron Naveen
— By Laura McClure | Tue April 21, 2009 2:48 PM PST
—Photo courtesy Ron Naveen

Guest-blogging scientist Ron Naveen is the president of Oceanites, Inc., and the principal investigator of the Antarctic Site Inventory project. In honor of Earth Day, Julia Whitty and I asked him to answer a few questions about his work. He wrote the following dispatch from last week's Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Baltimore, MD.

Mother Jones: What are you doing right now?

Here I am, The Penguin Guy, ensconced in the chrome-glass expanse of the Baltimore Convention Center for my second week of this year's Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting. I've been going to The Ice for 25 years and to these meetings for 15, keeping an up-close and personal eye on the world's diplomatic community and whether it's truly conserving Antarctica for all future generations.

I count penguins. That's my life's work. The penguin population changes that my colleagues from The Fagan Lab at the University of Maryland and I detect—and our underlying analyses of how the warming Antarctic Peninsula affects these changes—will provide clues as to what's going to happen to those of us living in more temperate latitudes, decades down the line. My penguins, as the proverb goes, are "canaries in the cage"—or, more accurately, "canaries in The Ice"—sending us signals we shouldn't ignore.

So from my perspective, it's totally necessary to see how my work, and the work of so many other scientists, gets translated, used, and possibly abused in these meetings.

Nearly 400 diplomats, Antarctic program managers, logistics experts, and polar scientists from 47 countries attended this year, probably no more than a third of whom have ever visited Antarctica. All business is done in four official languages—English, Spanish, French, and Russian—with smatterings of Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, Czech, Portuguese, and other languages filling the air during coffee breaks.

At the State Department in Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton officially and formally opened the Meeting with the heads of Antarctic Treaty Delegations and a potpourri of foreign ministers.

Many of us streamed the Secretary's opening session on our laptops at the Treaty's Committee On Environmental Protection meeting here in Baltimore. Clinton created quite a splash with her pitch that, with respect to dealing with climate change, the "US is back!" That US representatives were essentially muzzled for eight years from pursuing climate-related matters in these meetings is astonishing, but hey, that was the last administration and, happily, a new era has dawned. See clips and quotes on The Oceanites Feed site I maintain.

MJ: What interesting discovery from your research do you pull out at cocktail parties to wow non-scientists?

One definite cocktail "stopper" is that you can't study penguins without becoming an expert in penguin guano! Observing the color of the penguins' guano clues us to their protein prospects and what's available in the maritime food market. If their guano is pink, they're eating krill; if the guano is white, fish and invertebrates are the meal du jour; and if green, they're fasting or starving, and ejecting stomach bile.

The broader cocktail theme is that everything depends on what I describe as "The Four Vitals" necessary for continued existence, whether you're a penguin, a human, or a small invertebrate: Is there food to eat? Is there a sufficient home or breeding territory? Can progeny successfully pass genes to the next generation? And is the climate satisfactory? A species' long-term survival is put at risk if any one of these factors goes out of sync.

The Antarctica Peninsula's rising temperature and plummeting Adélie penguin population brings these Four Vitals to sharp focus, especially with respect to food and weather. Since 1957, the temperature's risen by 5° F (2.8° C) year-round, and by 9° F (5° C) in winter. As an example of the downward trend throughout the Peninsula, the Adélies at my Petermann Island study site have declined 60 percent since Louis Gain, the biologist on Jean-Baptiste Charcot's 2d French Antarctic Expedition, first counted them in 1909.

In recent decades, Peninsula Adélies have shown a proclivity for krill, the small, finger-sized, and protein-laden shrimp I call "The Power Lunch" of the Antarctic. By contrast, from fossil and eggshell isotope records, we know that, eons ago, Peninsula Adélies used to eat both fish and krill. So, now, as my research teams and I see many of our Adélies spewing more and more white guano, perhaps we're witnessing another shift in Adélie penguin feeding priorities.

MJ: What issues should the public be hearing more about from scientists?

The public should be hearing MORE from scientists, they should be meeting MORE scientists, and scientists generally should be doing MORE and MORE, as a matter of public relations, to "spread the word" about their findings.

I recently heard the statistic that more than 70 percent of the American public has never met a scientist! And, for sure, if one watches cable TV, it's clear that science is often misrepresented and skewed, and that the scientific method isn't understood.

We pose and test hypotheses and we don't publish a whit unless we can demonstrate to our editors, with a 90 percent or 95 percent confidence, that our results are what they are. But what we publish today is, simply, the current news. Tomorrow there will be new theories and hypotheses to test, new results and theories to report, and science will march forward in different and more complicated ways, explaining better how Earth's biological and physical processes actually work.

MJ: Where are the bottlenecks between science & policy?

A young attendee at a recent penguin talk of mine worried: "Where will the penguins go when all the ice melts?"

As well, we might ask where we humans will go when coastlines are flooded, major cities are underwater, and our Four Vitals are harder to sustain.

The young generation gets it. Unfortunately, the bottlenecks lie with the older, crustier crowd that's supposed to be translating our work into policy. For example, the science community has done an amazing job laying out what is known about climate change, the 4th Report of the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change being the most notable example. The evidence is clear: We humans have caused a spike in temperature that, potentially, will have devastating effects in the years to come. Carbon emissions worldwide must be substantially and radically reduced, else we potentially go the way of dinosaurs.

We shape policy by putting data and papers on the table for the politicians—the best available science, and now it's time for them to take these products forward constructively. Could be a carbon tax. Could be a stringent cap-and-trade system. And certainly, it means a revised, international climate agreement to take us forward. That's why Hillary's remarks opening this Antarctic Treaty Meeting are, and were, so well received. Yes, the US Is Back! And it's time to move the international community forward on this issue, the major issue of our time, our new 21st Century.

Being at the Antarctic Treaty Meeting is to network among politicians/diplomats, scientists, the environmental community, and user communities (e.g. the tourism industry) to find common ground that will, indeed—and hopefully, conserve Antarctica—perhaps, even, the planet—for future generations.

MJ: What keeps you up at night?

That we're leaving Earth in worse shape and hastening our and the penguins' demise. Yes, those beautiful little animals are sending us signals about what we're doing, in the longer term, to ruin our own home.

In our post-truth, post-factual age of instant gratification, these penguins make me think. They should make all of us think, though humankind, as yet, isn't primed to absorb the messages they're sending about an inevitably hotter future. There are no clear, black-and-white solutions averting the potential consequences of global warming and we shouldn't delude ourselves into thinking we can steer the planet.

But, because we think, because we conjure the future, we can't help but realize that we can make better choices, though we have no guarantees we can change outcomes.

On the front lines with the penguins, I therefore wonder whether we'll ever think seriously about generations and changed lifestyles, rather than wobbling about seeking the immediate pleasures of our present, flickering moments of life.

Ron Naveen is the President of Oceanites, Inc., a US-based nonprofit science and education organization, and the principal investigator of the Antarctic Site Inventory project. He is the author of Waiting To Fly (New York, William Morrow, 1999) and The Oceanites Site Guide To The Antarctic Peninsula, 2d Edition (Chevy Chase, Oceanites, 2005), and the lead author/photographer of Wild Ice: Antarctic Journeys (Washington, Smithsonian Press, 1990).

Article appears courtesy of Mother Jones@

Friday, April 17, 2009

Southern rockhopper penguin (Eudyptes chrysocome)

Southern rockhopper penguin

Primary images: Eudyptes chrysocome chrysocome
Last 2 images: Eudyptes chrysocome fiholi

Kingdom Animalia
Phylum Chordata
Class Aves
Order Sphenisciformes
Family Spheniscidae
Genus Eudyptes (1)
Size Length: 52 cm (2)
Weight 3 kg (2)


Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1).


Previously classed as a single species, the rockhopper penguin has now been split into a northern (Eudyptes moseleyi) and southern species (Eudyptes chrysocome) (3). Although both species are similar in appearance, the distinctive yellowish plumes extending from the yellow line above the eye are significantly shorter and less dense in the southern rockhopper penguin (2) (3). The body is small but robust, with slate-grey upperparts and white underparts, the bill is short and reddish-brown and the eyes are red. Juveniles can be identified by the lack of adult yellow markings (2).


The southern rockhopper penguin breeds on a number of Southern Ocean islands. Two subspecies are currently recognised, Eudyptes chrysocome chrysocome, which is found in the Falkland Islands, Isla Pinguino, Staten Island, and islands off southern Chile and Argentina, and Eudyptes chrysocome fiholi, which is found on several subantarctic islands to the south of New Zealand and South Africa (4).
UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre


Nesting occurs on cliffs and rocky gullies, and chosen sites are usually situated near to freshwater, either natural springs or puddles (2).


A gregarious species, the southern rockhopper penguin breeds in large colonies that may comprise over a hundred thousand nests. Breeding pairs are monogamous, and usually return to the same nest every year. Egg-laying commences around November, with the female usually producing a clutch of two eggs of unequal size (2). Although, in general, only the chick from the larger egg survives to maturity, populations on the Falkland Islands frequently succeed in raising both (5). Incubation takes around 33 days, with both parent birds taking it in turns to sit on the eggs for extended periods of a time, whilst the other forages for food. Incubation is aided by a bare patch of skin on the lower abdomen (known as a 'brood pouch') that allows greater heat transfer to the egg. Once hatched, the male will remain to brood the chick for the first 25 days, whilst the female regularly brings food back to the nest. After this time, the chick is able to leave the nest, and will congregate with other chicks in small groups known as 'crèches' whilst the parent birds forage (2).

In order to maintain its waterproof coat, the southern rockhopper penguin engages in frequent grooming, which helps to flatten the feathers and to spread a waxy substance that is secreted just below the tail. Grooming is also an important social bond between pairs. After breeding the southern rockhopper penguin forages extensively in order to build up fat reserves in preparation for its annual moult. It takes around 25 days for the penguin's coat to be fully replaced, at which point it leaves the land and spends the winter months foraging at sea, before returning to shore to breed in the following spring (2). The diet of the southern rockhopper penguin is composed of a variety of oceanic species, such as crustaceans, squid, octopus and fish (4). Groups may often feed together and dives may be to depths of up to 100 metres (2).


Some southern rockhopper penguin nesting colonies have recently shown dramatic falls in numbers of breeding pairs. The Falkland Islands once housed the stronghold for southern rockhopper penguins, but over the last 60 years, numbers have declined by 90% (4). The reasons for these declines range from increasing disturbance and pollution, to declining fish stocks as a result of over fishing, failure to provide no-fishing zones around penguin colonies (6) and global warming (4).


Many islands that house breeding colonies have been designated as reserves and the populations in the Falklands, Marion, Campbell Islands are regularly monitored and studied (4). Greater investigation of population demographics and of potential threats is required. Following the starvation of over 100,000 rockhopper penguins in the Falkland Islands, the Spheniscus Penguin Conservation Work Group published a report recommending that commercial fishing be excluded within 30 miles of penguin breeding sites (2). These measures have been adopted around southern Chile and Argentina, and these sites are healthy and increasing as a result. The adjacent Falklands have refused to introduce such protection, and populations continue to decline (6).

Further Information

To learn more about penguin conservation visit:

* International Penguin Conservation:
* Falklands Conservation:
* Organisation for the Conservation of Penguins: English: Spanish:


1. IUCN Red List (January, 2009)
2. International Penguin Conservation (January, 2009)
3. Jouventin, P., Cuthbert, R.J. and Ottvall, R. (2006) Genetic isolation and divergence in sexual traits: evidence for the northern rockhopper penguin Eudyptes moseleyi being a sibling species. Molecular Ecology, 15: 3413 - 3423.
4. BirdLife International (January, 2009)
5. Poisbleau, M., Demongin, L., Strange, I.J., Otley, H. and Quillfeldt, P. (2008) Aspects of the breeding biology of the southern rockhopper penguin Eudyptes c. chrysocome and new consideration on the intrinsic capacity of the A-egg. Polar Biology, 31: 925 - 932.
6. Bingham, M. (2002) The decline of Falkland Islands penguins in the presence of a commercial fishing industry. Revista Chilena de Historia Natural, 75: 805 - 818. Available at:

Information and images courtesy of ARKive @

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Feathers fly over new dinosaur find

A computer-generated image of the Tianyulong confuciusi, a feathered heterodontosaurid ornithischian dinosaur. The discovery of a petite, plant-eating dinosaur with primitive plumage could mean that the dinosaur from which all others evolved had feather-like protrusions.
Li-Da Xing

Feathers fly over new dinosaur find
Marlowe Hood, AFP
Published: Thursday, March 19, 2009
PARIS (AFP) – The discovery of a petite, plant-eating dinosaur with primitive plumage could mean that the dinosaur from which all others evolved had feather-like protrusions, according to the latest study.
The find in northeastern China is a scientific bombshell, further shattering the once axiomatic view that feathered birds and scaly reptiles developed along different evolutionary paths.
Fossils uncovered in China earlier this decade revealed for the first time feathered dinosaurs older than the winged Archaeopteryx predators -- long assumed to be the first with plumage -- that roamed the Late Jurassic skies some 150 million years ago.

But the new feather-packing dinosaur, dubbed Tianyulong confuciusi, represents an even more radical departure from old paradigms, according to the study, published in the scientific journal Nature.

All dinosaurs fall into one of two large groups that split apart more than 200 million years ago.

The Saurischia group includes the lumbering, long-necked sauropods seen munching tree-tops in the film "Jurassic Park," along with the fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex and all primitive birds, including Archaeopteryx.

The second group, Ornithischia, included armoured dinosaurs such as Tricerotps and Stegosaurus, and was not -- despite the misleading name -- thought to include anything even remotely birdlike.

But Tianyulong, discovered at the Yixian Formation by a team led by Xiao-ting Zhao of the Tianyu Museum of Nature in Shandong Province, falls squarely in this second branch of dinosaur evolution.

This forces paleontologists to ask a fundamental question: Does the presence of proto-feathers on both main branches of dinosaur evolution mean they originated in a common ancestor?

Or did unrelated feather-like appendages -- including those giving rise to modern birds -- appear independently, and at a much later dates, in different groups of dinosaurs over the course of evolution?

The answer depends in part on whether Tianyulong's filament-like proto-feathers grew from inside its skin or on top of it -- whether, in other words, they are dermal or epidermal, notes Lawrence Witmer of Ohio University.

"If they are dermal, then they become interesting but not of monumental importance," he wrote in a commentary, also published in Nature. "If they are epidermal, then they take on great significance."

"The presence of epidermal, feather-like structures could mean that the ancestral dinosaur was a fuzzy (though maybe not a cuddly) animal," he wrote.

Unfortunately, fossil remains probably cannot give a definitive answer, Witmer said.

But they do yield clues. The filaments protruding from Tianyulong were probably hollow rather than solid, which would be consistent with an epidermal structure.

The spines of the feathers were also extremely long at the base of the tail, suggesting they were attached on the surface of the skin.

But "the ultimate question is whether they are part of the evolutionary lineage of true feathers or an independent evolution of projecting epidermal appendages," said Witmer.

For the moment, he concluded, the new addition to the dinosaur family -- while adding important new elements -- "has made an already confusing picture of feather origins even fuzzier."

Tianyulong -- literally, "dragon of the open sky" -- was about 70 centimetres (28 inches) long, more than half of its length taken up by its tail.

Story courtesy of @

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Emperor penguin Aptenodytes forsteri

The Emperor penguin Aptenodytes forsteri is one of only two species of penguin that inhabit the Antarctic continent: Adelie penguins breed there in summer, while Emperors breed in winter.

Emperors are the largest of all penguins, easily recognised by their black cap, blue-grey neck, orange ear-patches and bills and yellow breasts. There is a thick layer of blubber under the Emperor's skin. In their chicks, it is covered by a dense layer of woolly down. An overlapping coat of feathers grows over this layer. The outer feathers are covered in a greasy waterproof coating. It's mainly the layers of feathers that keep the water off the penguins' skin and help retain heat. The feathers are highly specialised and modified compared to the feathers of flying birds. For example, they are smaller, stiff, and lanceolate. There are far more feathers on a penguin than on a flying bird of comparative size. The feathers of an adult have tufts of downy underfeathers attached to the bottom of the rachis (feather shaft). So down and main feather are all part of the same structure. Feathers are very complex structures made of keratin (same as our hair and finger nails) that is naturally water-repellent. What birds - and particularly penguins - need to do is keep their feathers in good condition so they remain supple and properly aligned . Only when feathers are aligned properly will they keep out the water. Birds have a gland, the preen gland, at the base of their tails that produces a very complex and chemically complicated preen oil. It is more like a conditioner for feathers than grease.

The Emperor penguin grows to around 115 cm. It weighs 25-40 kilograms, but male weight can vary by up to half that amount depending on the stage of the breeding cycle and how much body reserves he has laid down before the breeding season started.

Males and females are indistinguishable during most of the year. However, when it becomes time for the male to switch responsibilities with the female, the male can have slimmed down to half his weight. Over forty colonies are known, ranging in size from less than 200 pairs in the Dion Islands to over 50,000 pairs on Coulman Island. Perhaps 200,000 stable breeding pairs can be found on the Antarctic ice shelves. Some like Dion Island are doing extremely badly. Others like Coulman Island are probably doing alright but we don't really know. The problem is that the only way to find out how many breeding pairs there are, it's necessary to count the incubating males in winter (one male = one breeding pair). The trouble is that most colonies are so remote that nobody can get there to do the job.

The Emperor penguin feeds primarily on shoaling fish, small crustaceans and squid. They can dive more than 300 metres deep, and remain under water for as long as 22 minutes; but these are extremes. Most of the time, emperors are feeding down to around, say, 150-200 metres, particularly in winter. The majority of their dives last only 3-6 minutes.

Most Emperor penguin colonies are located on the fast ice, i.e. frozen sea-ice. That is not the same as an ice-shelf. Ice-shelves occur at the end of glacier as they are flowing into the ocean. Ice-shelves are freshwater ice. Only two colonies are known on land.

The female lays only one egg; it is too energetically expensive to rear more than one chick; and they can only fit one egg (and later one chick) onto their feet. Also, if an egg is lost, it cannot be relaid because by the time the female returns it is far too late to try again. The egg an Emperor penguin female lays is actually rather small. If a 28-kg female lays, say, a 465 g egg, that is less than 2% of her body mass. Compare this to two 125 g eggs laid by an Adelie penguin. That's around 6.5% of a 3.8-kg female's body mass (still small compared to the eggs Brown Kiwis produce!).

Emperors assemble at the breeding colonies early in winter, shortly after the sea ice has formed. They breed during the perpetual darkness of the Antarctic winter, gathering at rookeries up to 90 kilometers inland during the months of April and May.

Each Emperor, on returning from the north, first looks faithfully for his mate of the previous year. Unless that male or female has died, each penguin returns to the same partner. The Emperors go through a stage of courting before mating. A male may try to befriend a female who has not yet found her partner. If and when his true mate does arrive, the intruder leaves to find a different mate. Emperor pairs gather together near a solid iceberg to each lay a single egg. There are no special preparations or nest. Laying typically occurs in May or June at the start of the bitter Antarctic winter. The Emperors are believed to have developed this winter breeding pattern to allow the chick to grow to independence at a time when food is most plentiful.

After the female lays her egg, she passes it over to the male - though not quite immediately. Sometimes females sit on a newly-laid egg for hours before their mates finally get them: eggs are very precious commodities, and the changeover is a very hazardous transition. If the male does not manage to scoop up the egg very quickly, it freezes and the breeding season is over for a pair before it has really begun. So the females are not very keen to risk loosing their valuable egg. The female travels across the ice to feed in the fish-filled waters far away in the north. She spends the winter at sea.

The male Emperor fasts through the winter during incubation of the egg. Incubation is solely his responsibility. He positions the egg on top of his feet and covers it with a warm fold of feathered abdominal skin. The incubation lasts nearly two months. During the Antarctic winter, the period of darkness can last more than 20 hours. Huddling emperor penguins may spend most of a 24-hour period sleeping while they incubate eggs. Sleeping conserves energy while they fast.

Between mid-July and the beginning of August, the young are hatched. A freshly hatched emperor penguin chick weighs somewhere between 120 and 160 g and they are approximately 15 cm (6 inches) long. When the chicks finally emerge, they are very hungry. The females return to the colonies seven to eight weeks after laying to relieve their mates and tend the newly-hatched chicks. If the female hasn't yet arrived, the father regurgitates a white secretion and feeds it to his chick. The chicks huddle together: the climate is extremely harsh. Winter temperatures may fall below -60C. Wind velocities can reach 180km per hour. But inside the huddles, the temperature can be as high as 20°C above ambient conditions. Adults recognize and feed only their own chicks. Parents are able to identify their young by their chick's distinctive call. The contact call of emperor penguins can be heard up to a kilometer away.

Chicks grow slowly at first, more rapidly in late spring. Once the young are about seven weeks old, they join other chicks in a crèche, which is protected by a few adults. By midsummer, the fledglings are independent. They will be ready to breed in 4-8 years. Giant petrels prey upon chicks, whereas at sea their predators are orcas and leopard seals. Emperor penguins can live up to twenty years or more; exceptional cases have been recorded of over forty years, though such extremes of longevity are rare. Mortality among the chicks and fledglings is high, especially after after fledging in their first year of life when the young Emperors must figure out how to live at sea. The learning curve is steep, and inevitably many youngsters perish; but the survivors typically enjoy a long life.

Information via the Emperor Penguin @

Images by Flickr

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Celebrating 25 years of penguin research with new Center for Penguins as Ocean Sentinels

April 9, 2009
Celebrating 25 years of penguin research with new Center for Penguins as Ocean Sentinels
By Vince Stricherz
News and Information

Vince Stricherz

Pablo "Popi" Garcia Borboroglu, an Argentine researcher and conservationist, and Biology Professor Dee Boersma show the travels of a Magellanic penguin equipped with a satellite tracking tag during a previous research season. Borboroglu has taken a visiting scientist position in the UW biology department to work with Boersma in the new UW Center for Penguins as Ocean Sentinels.

Vince Stricherz
Maks Groom, 7, watches as his twin brother, Sam, examines Magellanic penguin eggs during a celebration of 25 years of data from the Penguin Project in Kincaid Hall on Saturday.

Vince Stricherz

The Penguin Project open house included a display of different generations of satellite tags, which are fixed to the backs of selected penguins and track their movements in the ocean. The newest, and smallest, version of the tags is at right.


In 1982 Dee Boersma began making friends with the Magellanic penguins who hang out at Punta Tombo on Argentina's southern Atlantic Coast, and data from that first research season was compiled in her UW lab the following spring.

The biology professor celebrated 25 years of data from the colony on Saturday with an open house in her Kincaid Hall laboratory followed by special presentations at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.

The numbers from the Penguin Project include:

* 56,289 penguins banded.
* 25,472 eggs measured.
* 174,019 measurements taken on 56,568 individual chicks.
* 443 satellite tags deployed.
* 1,838 books of data compiled.
* Nearly 2.34 million individual records.

Boersma has found the research gratifying, as she learned about the intricacies of Magellanic penguin behavior. But it also has been heartbreaking, as she identified threats to penguin survival and watched the Punta Tombo population decline by 20 percent. She recently found that, just in the last decade, the penguins have had to swim an average of 25 miles farther from the nesting grounds to find food during the crucial time of egg incubation.

In the last year her work has drawn substantial publicity as she examined mounting perils the flightless birds confront, including changing climate that has moved schools of the fish they feed on farther away from their nesting grounds, and an increasing number of oil slicks that makes it more likely that foraging birds will be fouled and perhaps die.

Now the Penguin Project is set to expand its reach as part of a new UW Center for Ocean Sentinels. The center's four components include the Penguin Project, Conservation Magazine, a volunteer and student research program and the start of the International Penguin Society.

The International Penguin Society will be largely funded by a Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation awarded to Pablo "Popi" Garc�a Borboroglu, an Argentine scientist who has accepted a UW visiting faculty position.

The $150,000 Pew award will be used for a three-year conservation project designed to address critical challenges to healthy oceans. Borboroglu will use his fellowship to form a coalition aimed at protecting all penguins, assessing penguin populations' status, promote integrating the new research into science-based conservation, advise governments on better management policies and develop media campaigns to educate communities about how to improve the quality of life for both penguins and people.

Borboroglu has conducted research and conservation work in Argentina for a number of years but one of the drawbacks, he said, is that his research has been published almost exclusively in English-language journals. That makes it harder for the Spanish-speaking people who live closest to the Punta Tombo penguins and those in the Argentine government to understand the scope of the problems the penguins face.

Story and images courtesy of the University of Washington News @

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Magellanic Penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus)

Magellanic Penguin
Spheniscus magellanicus
Breeding Range: Chile, Argentina and Falkland Islands
Length: 70cm.
World Population: 1,800,000 breeding pairs

Magellanic penguins are only found around the Falkland Islands and South America, but they are extremely numerous within these regions. The Falklands has a population well in excess of 100,000 breeding pairs, but this is small compared to populations in South America, which number around 900,000 breeding pairs in Argentina (Centro Nacional Patag�nico) and 800,000 pairs in Chile (Environmental Research Unit). Breeding colonies range from the Golfo San Mat�as in Argentina, southwards around the islands of Tierra del Fuego, and northwards up the Pacific coast of Chile as far as Puerto Montt.

The Magellanic penguin is around 70cm long, and has an average weight of about 4kg. The head and upper parts are black apart from two broad white stripes beneath the throat; one running up behind the cheeks and above the eye to join the pinkish gape, the second running adjacent to the white underparts with which they merge above the legs. Females are slightly smaller than the males, but have similar plumage.

Penguins of the Genus Spheniscus, to which Magellanic, Humboldt and Galapagos penguins all belong, are much more loosely colonial than other penguins. They generally nest in burrows when soil conditions permit, and are consequently spaced much further apart than surface-nesting penguins. Magellanic penguin colonies in particular often extend over several kilometres of coastline, at densities ranging from 0.001 to 0.1 nests per sq.m.

Magellanic penguins are widely distributed throughout the region. They particularly like offshore islands with tussac grass or small shrubs, which are in abundance around the Falkland Islands, Tierra del Fuego and the Pacific coast of Chile. Such islands offer deep layers of soil for burrowing into, and dense vegetation offering protection from aerial predators. The Atlantic coast of mainland Argentina is much drier, and has less vegetation cover, but it is still home to around 650,000 breeding pairs, many of which nest above ground in surface scrapes or under bushes. Magellanic Penguins prefer to nest in burrows, but when soil conditions are unsuitable for burrowing, they will nest on the surface using whatever protection they can find.

Adults arrive at the nest sites to breed in September, and after a period of burrow excavation and repair, begin egg laying around mid October. Two equally sized eggs are laid 4 days apart, each with a weight of around 125g. Incubation takes around 40 days, with the female incubating the eggs for the first shift, while the male feeds at sea. He forages at distances of up to 500km away from the breeding site, before returning to relieve the female some 15 or 20 days later. She then goes to sea for a similar period, and when she returns, the two birds change over at regular intervals until the eggs hatch.

Both parents continue to brood the chicks in turn on a daily basis, for a period of about 30 days. Chicks are fed daily, with adults leaving the colony in early morning, and returning with food later the same day. Magellanic penguins mostly forage within 30km of the nest site during chick-rearing, except in the Falklands where longer foraging trips are forced by conflict with commercial fishing.

By the end of 30 days the chicks have developed their mesoptile plumage, and are able to venture out of the burrows. At this stage they look very different from the adults, being a browny grey above, and creamy white below. Living in burrows, chicks have good protection from both predators and cold weather while both parents are away feeding, and consequently they do not form creches in the way that most surface-breeding species do.

Whilst burrows offer good protection from most weather conditions, heavy rain can result in flooding of the burrows in certain areas. Chicks rarely drown in such circumstances, but often become wet and cold. Mesoptile plumage provides excellent insulation when dry, but it lacks the waterproofing qualities of the adult plumage and loses much of its insulation properties when wet. Consequently many chicks can die from hypothermia in such conditions. Living in burrows also means that both chicks and adults become infested with penguin fleas.

Despite the two eggs being of roughly equal size, adults give feeding priority to the first chick to hatch, resulting in a higher rate of mortality amongst second chicks. Nevertheless Magellanic penguins often rear two chicks successfully when sufficient food can be caught. Normal productivity ranges from 1.0 to 1.6 chicks per breeding pair in South America, but averages only 0.5 chicks per pair in the Falklands due to lack of protection from commercial fishing (See Revista Chilena de Historia Natural 2002: The decline of Falkland Islands penguins in the presence of a commercial fishing industry). Magellanic penguins do not relay if they loose their clutch.

When the weather is fine larger chicks often sit outside their burrow entrances, but will rapidly return to the safety of their burrows at the first sign of danger. Fledging occurs at 9 to 17 weeks of age, depending on food. Fledglings look similar to the adults, except for being greyer and lacking the clearly defined banding of the adults. Average fledging weight is around 3.3kg in South America, but only 2.7kg in the Falklands due to the difficulty adults encounter finding sufficient food for their chicks. Generally fledglings weighing less than 3kg are unlikely to survive, and juvenile survival in the Falklands is very low, resulting in an 80% decline since the onset of commercial fishing.

Freedom from parental responsibilities allows the adults to spend a period of time at sea, feeding up in preparation for their annual moult in March. Moulting takes 3 to 4 weeks, after which the adults leave the breeding site, and remain at sea until the following breeding season. Magellanic penguins can live to about 20 years of age.

Females may begin breeding at 4 years of age, but the males do not normally breed until they are at least 5 years old. This is quite possibly a consequence of there being more males than females, making it easier for inexperienced females to find partners than for inexperienced males. Magellanic penguins generally show strong site and mate fidelity, and pair-bonds are reinforced by allopreening.

Magellanic penguins are opportunistic feeders, taking roughly equal proportions of fish (such as Micromesistius australis, Sprattus fuegensis, Engraulis anchoita, Merluccius hubbsi, Patagonotothen sp., Austroatherina sp., Myxinus sp.), squid (Loligo gahi, Gonatus antarcticus, Moroteuthis ingens, Onychoteuthis sp.) and crustaceans (Munida gregaria). During chick-rearing, foraging trips are generally conducted on a daily basis during daylight hours, except in the Falklands where food is harder to find. Birds generally forage at depths of less than 50m, but on occasions may dive up to 100m. Winter foraging for prey often takes them way beyond their normal breeding range, with birds travelling as far north as the Bahia region of Brazil.

Magellanic penguins declined severely in the Falkland Islands during the 1980's and 1990's, which coincided with the rise of commercial fishing for squid and finfish. The current Falklands population (2002/03) stands at just 20% of its 1990/91 level, and this decline is still continuing. These declines have not occurred in nearby Chile or Argentina where colonies are protected from commercial fishing.

Comparisons of colonies in the Falklands, Chile and Argentina confirm that competition with commercial fishing is the major cause of the Falklands decline (See Revista Chilena de Historia Natural 2002: The decline of Falkland Islands penguins in the presence of a commercial fishing industry). Adult penguins in Chile and Argentina are able to return with food for their chicks on a daily basis, with foraging trips averaging 16 to 18 hours. By contrast adults in the Falkland Islands take approximately 35 hours to find the same amount of food.

With only half the amount of food being fed to chicks, lower chick survival rates result. Breeding success and chick survival rates are substantially higher in Chile (average 1.4 chicks per nest) than in the Falklands (average 0.5 chicks per nest). Chicks which do survive in the Falklands are also underweight (2.7kg compared to 3.3kg in Chile), giving Falklands fledglings little chance of surviving their first few weeks at sea. This huge difference in breeding success has resulted in a gradual decline in population, with insufficient chicks and juveniles surviving in the Falklands to replace natural adult mortality.

The breeding sites themselves also show the magnitude of the Falklands decline. In the Falklands, populations have declined so much that 80 to 90% of burrows are unoccupied or derelict. A Magellanic penguin in the Falkland Islands has no difficulty finding a suitable burrow. There are plenty of ready made ones whose owners have either died or moved elsewhere. In colonies in Chile, such as Magdalena Island, every inch of the colony is used by penguins. Even areas where the ground is unsuitable for making burrows are used, with Magellanic penguins nesting on the surface.

Some colonies along the Atlantic coast of Argentina have also experienced declines. These declines are due to a combination of commercial fishing, and oil pollution from the deliberate discharge of oily ballast water by tanker traffic.

By contrast to the Falkland Islands, the Argentinean fisheries not only affect penguin populations by reducing food abundance, but also through considerable bi-catch of Magellanic penguins in trawling gear. The reasons for this are unclear, but are probably related to differences in vessel type, trawl speed, net size and catchment areas.

Fishing vessels are not the only man-made hazard faced by Magellanic penguins in this region. An active offshore oil and gas industry make pollution from oil a constant risk to penguins. Oil is discharged into the sea both through accidental spillage, and through deliberate operational discharge of oily ballast water from tankers.

An estimated 40,000 Magellanic penguins are killed by oil pollution every year along the coast of Argentina, representing the main cause of adult mortality in this area. The commencement of oil exploration around the Falkland Islands could mean similar mortality amongst Falkland penguins, unless considerably higher standards to those employed in Argentina are demanded. Unfortunately early indications are not good. During a 5 month period of oil exploration around the Falklands in 1998, no less than three oil spills occurred, killing several hundred penguins, cormorants and other seabirds.

Magellanic penguins from both the Falkland Islands and South America face natural predators at sea, such as sea lions, leopard seals and orcas (killer whales). They also face predation of chicks and eggs by avian predators, such as gulls and skuas, but where the penguins nest in burrows, such predation is greatly reduced.

Magellanic penguins are also killed by crab fishermen around the remoter parts of southern Chile, the penguin carcasses being used to bait their crab pots. This probably has little impact on the overall population, but decimates the breeding sites that are affected.

Magellanic penguins are popular for tourism, but they are the most nervous of penguins. Visitors that approach breeding sites which do not normally have many visitors, will send the penguins scurrying into their burrows for safety. Magellanic penguins do readily adapt to regular visitation however, and become much less nervous with time. Nevertheless, careful control of tourism near Magellanic penguin burrows needs to be enforced, since burrows will readily collapse if walked over.

Simple fences keeping people just 2 or 3 metres away from burrows is all that is required, and this can benefit both penguins and tourists. Not only are the penguins protected from being crushed in their burrows, but they also rapidly learn that humans will not enter beyond the fence, and will confidently remain sitting outside their burrows for all to see. By contrast, visitors to unfenced sites will generally see little more than distant penguins scurrying away, or faces looking out from within their burrows.

Info courtesy of Mike Bingham @

Images courtesy of Flickr

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