Thursday, September 30, 2010

Penguin Expert Grant Ballard Relates the Current State of Penguins

September 28, 2010

Long Nights and Thin Ice: A Penguin’s Tale

A conversation with penguin expert Grant Ballard on the short-term wins and long-term losses facing one of the world’s most charismatic animals.

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times — for penguins.

By Michael Todd

But like the French populace careening to apocalypse in Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities,” the final outcome for the Adèlie penguins that ecologist Grant Ballard studies will be dire.

Ballard, the director of the Informatics Program at PRBO Conservation Science in Point Reyes, Calif., has been studying the Adélies on Antarctica’s Ross Island since 1996. (A nonprofit, PRBO started in 1965 as Point Reyes Bird Observatory and now studies biodiversity conservation on land and sea.)

His research has determined that some colonies of Adèlies, those living near Ross Island, are going to be near-term winners of how climate change affects the world’s seventh continent. This will occur even as their peers on the Antarctic Peninsula 2,000 miles away face a punishing slog toward probable localized extinction.
“The colonies I study are doing very well right now,” Ballard explains, “and that’s nice, because they’re not doing so well in other parts of Antarctica, so it’s good that they’re doing well somewhere. We expect them to do so for a little time to come, but again, that depends on what climate model you choose. It could be as short as 20 years before they start facing some real challenges.”

Those challenges affect how they feed and breed, and in a land that really has no constituency among policymakers despite the charisma of its (few) denizens. But Adèlies are tough old birds, and they’ve survived past advances and retreats of the Antarctic ice sheet in the last 40 millennia or so.

“They’ve been able to adapt to large scale change previously,” Ballard notes. “If we could just give them a break, they may be able to do it again.” But the accelerated pace of anthropogenic climate change, and a newfound interest in Antarctic fisheries by humankind, may be a double whammy the Adèlies can’t avoid.
Grant Ballard’s mentor, the renowned penguin expert David G. Ainley, has dubbed Adèlies the “bellwether of climate change,” in part because they are completely dependent on the continued existence of sea ice and in part because they have been well studied and so provide a good baseline for observing change. (Ainley even used the “Tale of Two Cities” analogy in discussing differing fates of colonies just on Ross Island.)

Penguins Antarctica
Click to enlarge

And while they too troop across ice fields, Adélies are not the marquee bird in the popular documentary The March of the Penguins; that role went to their tuxedoed cousin, the Emperor penguin. “Well studied” isn’t an easy proposition in the Antarctic, Ballard says, and no one had ever looked the Adelies’ entire migratory cycle before. “The fact that they’re out at sea, in the middle of pack ice, and it’s really dark, dangerous and expensive to study them at that time means that it hasn’t been done.”

The research he was part of — conducted between 2003 and 2005 by PRBO along with H.T. Harvey and Associates, Stanford University, NASA and the British Antarctic Survey, and funded by the National Science Foundation, Antarctic Organisms and Ecosystems Program in the Antarctic Sciences Division— involved fitting the birds with geolocator tags on their legs so the researchers could determine what the birds were up to, based on light levels and time, year-round, and not just in seasons congenial to human scientists. The results appear in the journal Ecology.

Modern technology helps, but is no panacea. You can rig the birds with satellite transmitters, as the researchers also did, but they’re big, bothersome to the bird, difficult to attach, often don’t work after a while and often pecked off or molted away. The much smaller geolocator tags are easier on the birds, and as long as they’re black and white they don’t automatically get pecked off, but they also require finding the same birds a year or two down the line to retrieve the tag and download its data. (The researchers are heading back this year for a closer look at individual bird behavior based on age and experience.)

Beyond the existential concerns, the research has uncovered some interesting information about the birds. Using ocean currents, Adèlies may make annual roundtrips of more than 8,000 miles, behavior the scientists think evolved as recently as the last ice age. And like many travelers, the birds hustle home on the return leg of the trip, moving about twice as fast as they go from their wintering location to their breeding spots.
“There’s a real urgency in what they did — they never waste any time,” says Ballard. “They’re at limits of what they can do — really in a hurry to get started, “to look for last year’s mate, to seek premium nest site. “Yeah,” he concludes, “I think they’re in a hurry to get home.”

That migration is the focus of concerns about the penguins’ long-term prospects in a warmer world.
The birds’ entire ecosystem revolves around ice, where it is and where it ain’t. When they’re foraging at sea, they need the ice as a place to rest and as a jumping-off and -in point for the buffet. These areas of open sea water surrounded by ice might, in summertime, see 15 to 20 percent ice cover; in the wintertime, as much as 80 percent.

But Adèlies raise their families on land, building nests of small stones on rocky outcrops and plains.
“It’s kind of a paradox for them,” Ballard acknowledges. “They reside in Antarctica, where there’s hardly any ice-free terrain, and yet they require that to nest.”

While that all suggests a rather fiddly species, Adèlies have shown themselves pretty robust.
Some boom-and-bust in their colonies has always occurred, and the birds’ natural curiosity, their tendency to explore, has served them well. “There’s a certain percentage of the population that’s always out there looking for a new opportunity, and they will settle in a place that looks like a good idea even if there are no penguins there,” Ballard says, adding, “and there’s usually a reason there’s no penguins there.”

However, those “test” colonies may be well placed for changing times.

While such flexibility may sound sensible to people, it surprised scientists. In another recent paper looking at Adèlies at Ross, researchers — including Ballard  from PRBO, Ainley with H.T. Harvey, Oregon State University and Landacre Research New Zealand — documented penguins abandoning their traditional nesting sites when times there grew too hard.

“Witnessing large numbers of adult birds who have already successfully nested in one location switching to a new site in the face of environmental change has rarely been documented and is indeed surprising,” Oregon State’s Kate Dugger is quoted in a release.

While that sounds reassuring for penguins and their partisans, there’s a caveat. “Like animals living near the tops of mountains,” Dugger cautions, “polar animals have limited options if the planet warms beyond a certain point.”

In that vein, researchers are watching these adventuresome penguins wend their way south, toward the South Pole.

With warming, he said, those that are moving farther south will be the ones that find a new place that’s got the newest open water and the least competition for food and they’ll probably thrive. … “At some point — and it might be very close to where they are now, but we don’t know — they won’t be able to overcome that difference that they have to cover to get back to the wintering ground.”

Ballard says he thinks the birds could waddle the distance, but the associated risks and effort of jumping in and out of sea ice will create a limit. “They won’t adapt endlessly — I believe they’ve never ever been more than 20 or 30 kilometers south of where they are now,” he says, using mummified remains dating back 35,000 to 40,000 years as his boundary line.

The distance south also creates another problem for the birds — wintertime darkness in a place where the night is half a year long. The penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula are moving south to find sea ice in the winter, which puts them in longer and longer periods of darkness.

“But they also require light,” Ballard says. “They require light for navigating, and we think they require it for some aspects of foraging, although we don’t know for sure exactly why they need light because they forage very deep where it’s very dark. It seems they need to initiate dives when there’s at least some light.
“We know from other studies that they don’t move around at all when it’s dark or seriously overcast, so it seems they require some amount of sun or some concept of where the sun is to make long-distance migrations.”
“Ultimately penguins around Antarctica will face darkness or lack of ice — they’ll just reach that boundary from different directions,” he has said.

But in the Ross Sea, these are actually pretty good times for Adèlies since the hole in the ozone layer — remember that? — creates upper atmosphere cooling, which increases winds, which increases sea ice. Ballard calls it a “giant ice generator,” and as long as temperatures remain above freezing, it will likely remain one.

“People expect the ice to be going away, and fast, but in the Ross Sea it isn’t — yet. However, we do expect to in 20 years, or it could be 40 years, depending on which models you look at, we expect we’ll start seeing a decline in sea ice again, in the Ross Sea.”

The Antarctic, a continent, is not the Arctic, an oceanic system, despite their shared frigidity. Antarctica is holding a huge amount of landlocked ice, which is mostly reflecting sunlight back, which slows the rate of loss. The peninsula, however, is already seeing loss of sea ice.

“It’s a situation much more similar to the Arctic, and in those areas Adèlie penguins are disappearing already.” Flooding caused by warmer temperatures has been especially harmful for penguin chicks, which can’t yet “thermo-regulate” when they’re wet. In one case, a 2001 snowfall — although cold as heck, Antarctica is usually pretty dry and therefore not particularly snowy — was so big it buried thousands of adults on their nests. A similar freakish blizzard came in 2006, but it was later in the season and less devastating.

Although freakish, the historical record — based on mummified penguins — shows that weird weather like giant blizzards and giant icebergs and even localized appearances and disappearances of Adèlies has occurred before. Disappearances on the Antarctic Peninsula, at least of small colonies struggling in less optimal places, are occurring now, as ecologist Bill Fraser has documented (and The New Yorker‘s Fen Montaigne reported on in December.)

But climate change isn’t the only human-caused woe for the birds.
“They have other challenges with fisheries coming in more and more now, too,” Ballard says. “There’s sort of the double whammy of climate change and increased human extraction, especially with fisheries. The penguins [which eat krill, small fish and squid] don’t necessarily compete directly with the fishermen, but the ecosystem as a whole does. We’re concerned about what happens to the system when you start removing — as we have everywhere — the top predators, the big fish.”

Ballard and the other researchers are providing information to a member of the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, the one organization with the statutory authority to create non-fishing areas off Antarctica. The convention is planning to examine that possibility in the spring. The researchers have also provided information to the nongovernmental organization the Antarctica and South Ocean Coalition, which supports a marine protected area for the Ross Sea, as this video titled “The Ross Sea, Antarctica” suggests.*

While Ballard isn’t taking a public position on what the convention should do, because the Antarctic is pretty much the last accessible place on Earth that hasn’t been completely altered by humanity, he is concerned about a potential loss that echoes beyond Adèlie colonies.

“From a scientific perspective, it’s a tragedy to lose this place, last reference point.” Ballard laments. “From a cultural perspective, a human value perspective, I think people can understand it’s probably not a good idea to destroy every ecosystem on the planet.”

*The Antarctica and South Ocean Coalition supports marine protected area status for the Ross Sea ice shelf. An earlier version of this story incorrectly said they had not yet taken a stand.


Friday, September 10, 2010

Most Penguin Populations Continue to Decline, Biologists Warn

Adele penguins jumping off of iceberg. Antarctica. (Credit: iStockphoto/Keith Szafranski)

Most Penguin Populations Continue to Decline, Biologists Warn

ScienceDaily (Sep. 9, 2010) — Penguin biologists from around the world, who are gathered in Boston the week of September 6, warn that ten of the planet's eighteen penguin species have experienced further serious population declines. The effects of climate change, overfishing, chronic oil pollution and predation by introduced mammals are among the major factors cited repeatedly by penguin scientists as contributing to these population drops. Prior to the conference, thirteen of these penguin species were already classified as endangered or threatened. Some penguin species may face extinction in this century.

More than 180 penguin biologists, government officials, conservation advocates, and zoo and aquarium professionals from 22 nations have convened in Boston for the five day International Penguin Conference, which is being hosted this year by the New England Aquarium. The conference is held every three to four years, and this is the first time that it has been held in the Northern Hemisphere.

Penguins are found exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere with a single species on the Galapagos Islands at the Equator to four Antarctic penguin species that are most well known to the public, yet 13 other species also live in South America, southern Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and on the many sub-Antarctic islands. Throughout their ranges, nearly all of penguin species are in significant decline or under duress due to a host of common factors.

Climate Change Concerns

The effects of climate change on different penguin species has been the topic of many of the scientists's papers and presentations. Many penguin species are highly dependent on small schooling fish for food. These masses of anchovies, sardines and other small finfish are seasonally brought to many penguin habitats by cold water currents. In years with El Nino events in the Pacific, there has been a dramatic warming of sea surface temperatures which effectively blocked cold water currents coming up the western coast of South America. Consequently, Galapagos penguins and Humboldt penguins, which are found on the coasts of Peru and Chile, have suffered due to reduced food availability, which principally affects the survival of the young. Galapagos penguins stand a 30% probability of becoming extinct in this century and Humboldt penguins have been classified by the Peruvian government as endangered.

Earlier this year, African penguins, found in Namibia and South Africa, were reclassified internationally as endangered as many breeding colonies in the western part of their range have disappeared. Important food bearing cold water currents have shifted and are now routinely found much further offshore. The increased roundtrip commuting distance for African penguins to obtain food has been devastating to their population.
Scientists are closely watching the potential effects on several Antarctic penguin species that are highly dependent on the presence of sea ice for breeding, foraging and molting. Emperor penguins, which were the subject of "March of the Penguins," could see major population declines by 2100, if they do not adapt, migrate and change the timing of their growth stages.

Adelie penguin colonies in the Antarctic's Ross Sea have coped for several years with two super-sized icebergs that have grounded there and created an enormous physical barrier. It has resulted in lower breeding rates and the migration of many animals out of the area.

Sea ice also creates an important nursey cover for juvenile krill which feed on ice algae. Krill is the primary fuel at the base the Antarctic food chain. Reduced sea ice cover has led to a dramtic decline in krill and will likely lead to a decline in many wildlife populations further up the food chain that relies on krill as its foundation food source.

The effects of climate change on penguins are very real. Many environmental conditions are changing and much less predictable. For penguins living in harsh conditions, the ability to properly time when to migrate, nest, mate and seek food are critical decisions often with a very small margin for error, both for both individual animals and entire species.

 Overfishing and Bycatch 

As fishing efforts around the globe have multipled several fold over the last few decades, penguins are now competing with people for enough food. The large scale harvesting of anchovy and sardine stocks have directly reduced the prey available to many penguin species including Macaroni and Chinstrap penguins in the South Atlantic. Combined with the effects of climate change on the locations of fish stocks, reduced food availability leads to higher starvation rates, increased vulnerabilty to disease and lower breeding success.
Thousands of penguins are also killed annually when caught in fixed fishing nets.
Chronic Oiling

Large scale oil spills make worlwide headlines, but chronic petroleum pollution has killed thousands of penguins particularly off the coasts of South America and South Africa. The most common sources are illegal operational dumping from ships, long term leaks from sunken ships and some land-based discharges. Better legislation and law enforcement efforts can yield positive results. The incidence of oiling of Magellanic penguins off the coast of Argentina has decline signficantly in recent years due to increased public awareness and enforcement.

Introduced Mammalian Predators

Many penguin species evolved in extremely remote settings devoid of any mammal predators.. Prior to the arrival of humans, New Zealand's only mammals were bats. Now, introduced weasels have had a large impact on the the small populations of Yellow-Eyed and Fiordland penguins. In Australia and Argentina, the arrival of foxes have had impacts while feral cats in the Galapagos have reduced penguin populations there.
The goal of the 7th International Penguin Conference is to present ongoing research, identify current and emerging conservations issues and create action plans that will help create a strategic global effort on behalf of these threatened species.

Story Source:
The above story is reprinted (with editorial adaptations by ScienceDaily staff) from materials provided by New England Aquarium, via Newswise.

New England Aquarium. "Most Penguin Populations Continue to Decline, Biologists Warn." ScienceDaily 9 September 2010. 10 September 2010 <­ /releases/2010/09/100906145115.htm>.

Hump-backed dinosaur may yield clues to origin of birds

Hump-backed dinosaur may yield clues to origin of birds

Artist's impression (Ortega/Sanz)  
The dinosaur had a hump over its pelvis and attachment bumps for feathers on its forearms
Spanish palaeontologists have uncovered a new dinosaur with what may be the earliest evidence of feather follicles.
The researchers, whose findings are published in Nature, located the fossils near Cuenca, central Spain.
They named the reptile Concavenator corcovatus, meaning "meat eater from Cuenca with a hump". The type of dinosaur that was found is known as a theropod.
Theropods are mainly known from the ancient southern landmass, Gondwana.
Over time, Gondwana and other ancient landmasses broke up, forming the continents we see today.

Fossil and modern bones (Ortega/Sanz)  
Five bumps were found on the fossil arm bones (top) whereas modern birds such as the turkey vulture (bottom) have eight to 10.
Recently a team from Cambridge, UK, and the US showed that the theropods may have originated in the Northern landmass, Laurasia.
The most primitive forms have been found in England and now Spain. These finds date from the Lower Cretaceous, somewhere between 100 and 146 million years ago
Theropods are a very important group of dinosaurs because it is from this group that birds are known to originate. Most theropods, like the one found in Spain, are meat-eaters, though some were omnivores.
"They are a very important group of dinosaurs because within this group there are the birds. This world would not be the same without birds. Birds are really a kind of specialised winged and flying theropod dinosaur," said Professor Jose Sanz of the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid.
The dinosaur's unusual skeleton included a hump over the ilium - where the hind legs join the spine - and around five bumps on the forearm.

"This world would not be the same without birds. Birds are really a kind of specialised winged and flying theropod dinosaur” said Professor Jose Sanz Universidad Autonoma de Madrid.

These bumps closely resemble the attachment points for feathers found in modern birds, and might present evidence that feathers are much older, in evolutionary terms, than previously thought.
The fossil dates from a time period when feathers or feather-like appendages have been seen, but the dinosaur is from a branch of the evolutionary tree that is more primitive.
Although these bumps have been seen in dinosaurs before - including Velociraptor, it is interesting and new to find this characteristic in a dinosaur that is so far removed from either birds or previous known feathered dinosaurs.
The bumps are very similar to those in present-day birds, with just two differences. There are fewer bumps in the Concavenator and they are not in such a regular arrangement.
The team interpret these differences in evolutionary terms. They suggest that over evolutionary time the bumps could have evolved into the feather attachments that are found in modern birds.
The hump found on the dinosaur's spine is more of a mystery, however. Humps are common in dinosaurs, and can be used for heat regulation - when they might look like a kind of sail - for display, or for food storage.

Scientists and fossil (Ortega/Sanz)  
The scientists from Madrid uncovered the bones in Cuenca, central Spain
The team cannot work out what this hump might be for, though.
It is probably not for heat regulation, since normally a hump of this type would need an extensive blood supply, and there would be evidence within the surrounding bone - the team did not find this.
Also, most previous dinosaur humps have been found around the shoulders or the centre of the back - this hump is further towards the tail.


Saturday, September 4, 2010

Penguin Project Milestones

Hi penguin lovers-

The penguins will be returning starting about September 7th to Punta Tombo so the field crew will be taking off to meet the penguins shortly. We are starting the 28th year of following the penguins and their lives. I thought you might enjoy seeing some of the milestones that we have passed along the way. None of this would be possible without the long-term support of people that care about penguins, The Wildlife Conservation Society, and all our volunteers.


P. Dee Boersma Ph.D
Wadsworth Endowed Chair in Conservation Science
Dept of Biology
University of Washington
24 Kincaid Hall
Box 351800
Seattle WA 98195-1800  USA

penguin project milestones