26 June 2011

Peka Peka penguin in critical condition after too much sand

The emperor penguin's operation draws
a crowd at Wellington Zoo.
Photo credit: @WellingtonZoo on Twitpic
NEW ZEALAND - The emperor penguin who swam 4000km from Antarctica to Kapiti's Peka Peka Beach is now in Wellington Zoo's hospital recovering from operations to remove sand from its stomach and oesophagus.

The penguin, nicknamed Happy Feet, was spotted at the beach on Monday 20 June. It was taken to the zoo on Friday after the Department of Conservation (DOC) rangers monitoring it noticed its behaviour had changed and it was showing signs of ill health.

On an initial examination, Wellington Zoo veterinary staff said the penguin was dehydrated and suffering from heat exhaustion, and appeared to have a blockage in its throat, which x-rays later showed was sand.

DOC biodiversity manager Peter Simpson told the Dominion Post that the bird had probably been eating sand in an effort to cool down, as penguins normally eat snow if they become too hot.

The penguin has subsequently undergone two procedures, one on Friday and one on Saturday, to flush the sand out of its system, but there is still a lot more sand to come out. The Sunday Star Times reported that the operation on Saturday was watched by about 100 people behind a glass partition. 

The bird is currently recovering from its operations in a special cold room "complete with shaved ice and air conditioning", the zoo tweeted. "Yep he is munching on ice."

The latest tweet said the penguin had survived another night and will spend another day "chilling out" in its cold room. In a previous tweet the zoo said the bird may undergo another procedure on Monday.

Zoo veterinarian Lisa Argilla told the Sunday Star Times that the 3kg of sand threatened to harden into concrete balls that could rupture its stomach. It was still in critical condition, despite the surgery.

Meanwhile, if the penguin survives, it may have a way back home - Dr Gareth Morgan of Gareth Morgan Investments has offered the penguin a free sea passage back to Antarctica on a Russian icebreaker. The "Our Far South" expedition leaves in February 2012 and expedition leader Dr Morgan has offered a berth for the penguin and its DOC minder.

"[T]he penguin would be able to look out for its friends en route and given the option to jump ship if it spots some of its kin," said Dr Morgan.

"Of course until that time Happy Feet will have to be cared for here in Wellington, where we’re lucky enough to have a great community of wildlife experts, capable not just of pumping sand but also ensuring this wayfaring fellow is hosted appropriately until it’s time to set sail."

DOC had said on Wednesday (when the penguin still appeared healthy and happy at the beach) that they were leaving the penguin to its own devices and that returning it to Antarctica was not feasible because there is no transport there in the winter and it is currently dark 24 hours of the day.

"DOC is not planning to move the penguin," said Mr Simpson at the time. "There is no reason to shift a healthy animal to an artificial environment or return it to the sea ... when the penguin wants to swim it will take to the water itself. We are letting nature take its course."

Now that the penguin is ill and has required human intervention, I wonder if DOC's stance on transporting it back to Antarctica will change.

Fingers crossed for a safe recovery (and hopefully a return to the wild) for this adventurous bird! 

Read previous post: Emperor penguin a rare treat for New Zealanders

From Kiwisaver to penguin-saver by Susan Pepperell, 26 June 2011, Sunday Star Times
@WellingtonZoo on Twitter, last accessed 10:30am, 26 June 2011 (NZ time)
Expedition leader offers to return Happy Feet to Antarctica, 25 June 2011, Dr Gareth Morgan
Penguin strong but given 50/50 chance by Kay Blundell, 24 June 2011, Michelle Duff, The Dominion Post and Stuff
Emperor penguin's health being monitored, 24 June 2011, Department of Conservation
Emperor penguin faring well, 22 June 2011, Department of Conservation 

22 June 2011

Emperor penguin visit a rare treat for New Zealanders

NEW ZEALAND - Kapiti Coast residents have been treated to a rare visitor from Antarctica: an emperor penguin.

It is only the second time that an emperor penguin has been recorded in New Zealand. The first was back in 1967 at Southland's Oreti Beach.

It is not known why this Antarctic dweller is visiting New Zealand shores.

"It's amazing to see one of these penguins on the Kapiti Coast," said Department of Conservation (DOC) biodiversity spokesperson Peter Simpson.

"Unusual animals from the Antarctic sometimes visit our shores, but we really don't know why."

DOC was alerted to the penguin's presence after being contacted by Kapiti resident Christine Wilton, who was walking her dog on Monday afternoon at Peka Peka Beach.

"I saw this glistening white thing standing up and I thought I was seeing things," Ms Wilton said.

When rangers from DOC's Waikanae office investigated, they saw what looked like a big white ball in the sand. The penguin, later confirmed as a juvenile, stood up, looking quite relaxed and in good condition. It stands at about 1 metre tall.

DOC has advised that people should not disturb the penguin and ensure that dogs are kept on leads in the area. Penguins can give vicious bites if they feel threatened. DOC have asked members of the public to contact them if they see the emperor penguin on another beach.

If left alone it is expected that the bird will eventually swim back out to sea. I hope New Zealand's imperial visitor decides to stick around for a while though! 

Watch video of Kapiti's emperor penguin at Stuff.co.nz

Emperor penguin visits the Kapiti Coast, 21 June 2011, Department of Conservation

20 June 2011

Uruguayan penguin deaths attributed to natural causes

URUGUAY - Autopsies performed on some of the 600-plus Magellanic penguins washed up on Uruguayan beaches have pointed to death by natural causes rather than "chemical intoxication", MercoPress reported.

Intoxication from the agricultural chemicals used the area had been considered as one of the possible causes of the penguins' deaths.

Daniel Gilardoni, head of Uruguay's Natural Aquatic Resources Administration, told MercoPress that Argentine scientists who performed the autopsies have for now discarded chemical intoxication as a cause of death, the reason being that most of the dead penguins are juveniles.

“If it had been intoxication, the dead penguins should have been of all ages and sex, but that is not the case,” he said.

He added that at this time of the year almost a million penguins migrate along the Uruguayan Atlantic coast, and this number includes anywhere between 500,000 and 700,000 juveniles.

“This fact makes us believe that natural causes have been the reason for penguins’ deaths."

Read related post: Mysterious deaths of hundreds of penguins in Uruguay 

Dead penguins discovered in Uruguayan coast: perished of "natural causes", 18 June 2011, MercoPress

Climate change may increase fire-related risks for little penguins

Little penguins on Phillip Island.
Photo credit: Marcus Frieze.
Some rights reserved.
AUSTRALIA - Climate change may lead to an increased risk of death and injury by fire for Phillip Island's little penguins, says the Australian Federal Government.

The Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency has released a series of fact sheets about the impacts of climate change in Australia - and unfortunately little penguins get a special mention.

The factsheet for Victoria says that little penguins on Phillip Island have been shown to be particularly vulnerable to fire over the past few years, and it is predicted that weather-related fires will become more frequent.

In coastal regions, misty rain or fog following long spells of hot, dry and dusty weather can result in the ignition of power pole cross arms. This is due to a build up of salt and dust on the insulators; the red-hot salt crust can fall from the pole and ignite vegetation at its base. In recent years, a number of such fires have occurred on Phillip Island, resulting in death or injury of a large number of penguins.

As it is projected that climate change will mean an increase in the occurrence of hot, dry and dusty weather, the Government says Phillip Island's little penguins may therefore face an increased risk of fire-related death and injury.

Climate change impacts in Australia - Victoria, 14 June 2011, Australian Government Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency

17 June 2011

Sad news as penguin with "puppet parent" dies

UK - Sadly, the macaroni penguin chick at Living Coasts in Torquay, Devon, whose keepers were using a glove puppet to feed it has died.

The chick's unusual meal time routine made headlines worldwide earlier this month. Keepers had decorated the glove so that it resembled an adult macaroni penguin, with the idea that the chick wouldn't get too used to humans.

Exhibit manager Clare Rugg told the Press Association, "Keepers reported that the youngster ate less than usual on Sunday and had lost a bit of weight.

"On Monday morning, it was off its food, the vet was called, it was given rehydration fluid and critical care. But it sadly died later in the day."

Living Coasts' director, Elaine Hayes, said, "Working with animals has its ups and downs, and this is definitely a down."

Read related post: Puppet parent for abandoned chick

Penguin chick fed by keepers' puppet at Devon Zoo dies, 15 June 2011, BBC News

14 June 2011

Starving little penguins dot Warrnambool beaches

AUSTRALIA - Dozens of starving little penguins have washed up on beaches in Warrnambool, Victoria, in the past few weeks reports The Standard.

Many of the penguins have been rescued, but die soon after.

"They are very thin when we get them," Wildlife Victoria's regional co-ordinator, Trecey Wilson, who has rescued 20 penguins in the past four weeks and knows of other carers who have also rescued birds, told The Standard.

"All have died within 12 hours of being found by beachgoers and brought in. I think it's definitely malnutrition."

She said there could be many issues involved in why they would be starving. There were suggestions that recent migrations of blue whales close to the shore and an influx of southern blue fin tuna and shearwaters, all of which prey on some of the same food as little penguins, could have caused a decrease in prey availability in the south-west.

Warrnambool Coastcare Landcare Group co-ordinator Kristie King told The Standard, "I tend to think it's something to do with ocean conditions and food availability."

Sadly, it sounds to me like La Nina strikes again.

Questions and concern over starving penguins by Peter Collins, The Standard, 13 June 2011

13 June 2011

Mysterious deaths of hundreds of penguins in Uruguay

URUGUAY - The Associated Press has reported that about 600 dead Magellanic penguins have washed up on Uruguay's Atlantic coast. Experts are now trying to find out the cause of death.

A statement released by the Uruguay navy on Tuesday 7 June said that 200 dead penguins had been discovered on the shore at La Paloma. The officers had come across the dead penguins during a routine ocean patrol and alerted environmental authorities.

Marine animal rescue group SOS Rescate Fauna Marina said that 400 dead penguins had washed up around the resort town of Piriapolis along with dead turtles, dolphins and albatrosses over the weekend of 4 June. La Republica reported that the group had raised the possibility that Fertox, a highly toxic insecticide, was connected to their deaths. Nearly a thousand bags of Fertox had been found on the coast near Piriapolis. The group's co-ordinator, Richard Treasury, said that while it was not 100 per cent sure the animals died because of the chemicals, 12 of the animals rescued exhibited symptoms of poisoning such as dilated pupils and the inability to stand or walk.

While government authorities are investigating the possibility that Ferox is responsible, they say it is unlikely that the chemical is connected with the deaths. Director of the National Environmental Management, Jorge Rusks, told La Republica that the department could not say for certain at this point that the poison had no effect on the animals, but that is is very unlikely their deaths were due to its presence. He said it was more likely the deaths were because of natural causes.

According to the Associated Press, experts say it is common for dead penguins to appear in the area at this time of year, but this year the number is unusually high.

Misterio en la muerte de ping├╝inos y tortugas, 8 June 2011, La Republica
Uruguay: Cause sought for 600 dead penguins, 7 June 2011, Associated Press
Hundreds of dead penguins wash up on Uruguay shore by Alex Johnston, 7 June 2011, Epoch Times

08 June 2011

Not all penguin parents are created equal

AUSTRALIA - It's a common complaint among human parents that one of them isn't pulling their weight when it comes to raising the kids. Well, it appears that little penguins have the same issue.

A new paper published in the International Society for Behavioural Ecology's journal shows some individual penguins work harder than their partners to feed their chicks.

The study is part of joint research between Australian and French scientists. According to one of the paper’s authors, Phillip Island Nature Parks penguin biologist Dr Andre Chiaradia, the findings come as something of a surprise - it was previously thought both parents contributed equally to raising chicks.

“In fact, over-achieving individuals pairing with under-achievers appears to be the norm (75% of the cases) rather than the previously expected cool new-age ‘let’s do it equally’ thinking.”

Dr Chiaradia said the inequality in parenting effort is most likely because one parent is actually better at foraging for food, largely because they are fitter and so put more effort into it.

“Penguins are a bit like elite athletes. They put huge effort into being the best. But only the very few overachievers will get the medals. Basically they optimize their decisions in order to maximise their fitness.

"Interestingly with little penguins, gender and age seems to make no difference. The penguin can be older or younger, male or female. If it is an over-achiever, it will do more work,” Dr Chiaradia said.

On the face of it, the research findings might appear to be of little more than novelty value, but Dr Chiaradia said that, in fact, finding such individual qualities in animals is crucial, as it contributes to understanding the reproduction and survival resilience of animals to changes in their environment.

“What the research found was that if the penguin pair included one over-achiever, then the pairs’ reproduction and their offspring survival rate is improved, compared to if the pair were equal in their parenting effort.

“A penguin’s parenting effort really becomes important during the period when the chicks cannot feed themselves, and when the parents must deliver the meals.

“The importance of ‘effort’ is particularly evident in non-favourable years - in years where food is hard to find, or other unusual elements occur in the penguin’s habitat and environment,” Dr Chiaradia said.

He said humans have many ‘comfort’ factors to help manage parenting and their offspring’s survival.

“We humans have ‘security nets’ in life, such as extended families, child care, schools, welfare and easy access to food. However penguins have only each other to rely on. So if one is able to do more in raising the offspring, then all have more of a chance of survival.”

Everybody, needs somebody ... unequal parenting in little penguins, 6 June 2011, Phillip Island Nature Parks

Puppet parent for abandoned chick

UK - A macaroni penguin chick at Living Coasts in Torquay, Devon, who was abandoned by its parents before it hatched has a new parent - a glove puppet! By using the puppet to feed the chick, staff are hoping to stop it imprinting on humans.

The puppet is made from a black rubber industrial glove decorated with red eyes and yellow plumes to look like an adult macaroni penguin.

Exhibit manager Clare Rugg told the Press Association, "This way contact is kept to a minimum - yes, the chick will hear and see keepers, but it will also see the glove which has the shape and colour of an adult penguin."

The chick's parents abandoned the egg after one of them became ill, because it usually takes two birds to incubate an egg. The adult bird has since recovered.

Living Coasts director Elaine Hayes said, "We decided to hand rear because the egg was fertile but would not have survived and there are not many macaroni penguins in the UK."

The staff feed the chick using the puppet parent every three hours between 8.30am and 8.30pm by syringe. Its meals are a warm blended mixture of filleted herring, krill, vitamins and water, which senior keeper Lois Rowell said "looks and smells like a pink fish milk shake."

She added, "We don't mind the chick becoming familiar with us so long as it knows it's a macaroni penguin and recognises what one looks like, hence the glove."

Staff are also playing the chick recordings of macaroni penguin sounds so it will get used to the sounds of the birds it will, in due course, be living with.

Abandoned penguin chick thinks glove is its mother, 3 June 2011, The Telegraph
Penguin fooled into thinking a puppet is its parent, 3 June 2011, The Guardian
Penguin impressions help rear chick in Devon, 3 June 2011, BBC News

03 June 2011

Penguins make waves to keep warm

Emperor penguins in Antarctica.
Photo credit: StormPetrel1.
Some rights reserved.
ANTARCTICA - Penguin lovers are familiar with the images of male emperor penguins huddling together to survive the Antarctic winter while incubating their eggs. Outside the huddle, the temperature can drop below -50°C and gale-force winds can reach above 180 km/h, while inside the huddle, temperatures are above 0°C and can reach 37°C. But what has been discovered only recently is that penguins actually coordinate their movements to give all members of the huddle a chance to warm up.

The surprising finding was published by physicist Daniel Zitterbart from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany, and his co-researchers biophysicist Ben Fabry from University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, physiologist James Butler Harvard University and marine biologist Barbara Wienecke from the Australian Antarctic Division on 1 June in the journal PLoS ONE.

The survival techniques of emperor penguins have long intrigued scientists. One unresolved question was how penguins move to the inside of a huddle when the birds stand packed so tightly that no movement seems possible.

"It is crucial, however, that the huddle structure is continuously reorganized to give each penguin a chance to spend sufficient time inside the huddle, compared with time spent on the periphery," the study authors wrote.

Zitterbart recently spent a winter at Dronning Maud Land in the Antarctic and made high-resolution video recordings of an emperor penguin colony that enabled the team to discover how penguins solve this problem. They found that the penguins moved together in coordinated periodic waves, movements which allow birds from the outside to enter the tightly packed huddle and warm up.

The time-lapse images were recorded every 1.3 seconds for a total of 4 hours, allowing the scientists to track the positions of hundreds of penguins in the colony. The periodic waves are invisible to the naked eye as they occur only every 30-60 seconds and travel with a speed of 12 cm/s through the huddle. Although small, over time they lead to large movements that are reminiscent of dough during kneading.

Zitterbart is currently developing a remote-controlled observatory to study penguins all year round. He hopes to witness the reversal of the dramatic decline in penguin colony sizes that is occurring in all areas of the Antarctic.

PLoS One citation

Zitterbart, D.P., Wienecke, B., Butler, J.P., Fabry, B. (2011) Coordinated movements prevent jamming in an emperor penguin huddle. PLoS ONE 6(6): e20260. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0020260

Keeping warm: Coordinated movements in a penguin huddle, PLoS ONE, 1 June 2011, EurekAlert!

Waddlers campaign for Penguin Promises

Penguin Promises poster
by AKAA.
Some rights reserved.
SOUTH AFRICA - "We don't want your money, honey, we want your love" is the attention-grabbing slogan of Penguin Promises, a new campaign organised by the Animal Keepers Association of Africa (AKAA) to raise awareness of the plight of the endangered African penguin.

The aim of Penguin Promises is to get people to commit to an action that will assist in saving the penguin - such as choosing to eat sustainable fish species, getting involved in coastal clean-ups, giving up one plastic product, buying local products - rather than donating money.

To generate awareness of the campaign, from 23 May to 28 May, Hayley McLellan from Two Oceans Aquarium and Gabby Harris from uShaka SeaWorld, along with a support team, completed a "Waddling for a Week" coastal trek.

They started their journey in Gansbaai, which is near the Dyer Island penguin colony, walked through coastal towns, and finished in Boulders Beach in Simon's Town - home to what is probably South Africa's most famous penguin colony. During the 122km walk they were joined by people from zoological and conservation institutions such as the National Zoological Gardens and SANCCOB (and by a fair amount of rain).

Ms McLellan told Times Live, "The support we have rustled up has been overwhelming - but most South Africans have no clue about this species and how crucial it is.

"We think of the African penguin as an 'indicator' species - in other words, the moment we notice that it is in decline, this is also an indication that the environment is degrading, so we're asking that everyone makes a 'penguin promise' - eat less meat; drive less often; plant a veggie garden."

The Penguin Promises campaign will be scientifically evaluated to ensure that it meets its objectives, and the research will help to inform future projects.

Penguin Promises (accessed 2 June 2011)
Penguin promises by Tiara Walters, 27 May 2011, Times Live
Walking the walk for penguins, 30 May 2011, Cape Argus

"Sad Swimmer" Morgan trying to do a "Happy Feet"?

NEW ZEALAND - It might not be quite as captivating as Mumbles' dancing in "Happy Feet", but perhaps Morgan the penguin's refusal to swim is his way of alerting people to the impact of the La Nina weather pattern.

(For readers who haven't seen "Happy Feet", Mumbles and his fellow animated penguins dance to alert humans to the consquences of overfishing in Antarctica.)

Morgan, a 16-year-old white-flippered penguin, was found starving and malnourished at Flea Bay, Banks Peninsula, earlier in May and taken to Christchurch's International Antarctic Centre, where his abnormal dislike for water was discovered.

"This is a really unusual penguin. It is the first time we have ever seen a mature penguin that has come in from the wild and simply refuses to swim," centre director Richard Benton told The Press. When Morgan is placed in water, he quickly hauls himself out using his beak and flippers.

His refusal to swim isn't the only unusual aspect of his behaviour - he also likes to flip his water bowl upside down and stand on it. Hopefully this party trick will impress the ladies, or at least one particular lady. Penguin keeper Mallorie Hackett told The Press she hopes that when Morgan is introduced to the centre's main penguin encounter later this month he will pair up with white-flippered female penguin Parnia.

He will join other unique penguins who have made the encounter their home, such as blind Elvis, one-eyed Roxy and one-legged Bagpipes. The penguins at the centre are all birds that have been rescued. Many of them would not have survived in the wild due to physical disabilities.

Morgan made the international press in May when he featured in an AFP article about the impact of La Nina on New Zealand's penguin population. In the article, Morgan (described as "grumpy" and "a reluctant passenger") is being transported in a cat box by conservationist Shirleen Helps, on whose property he was found.

While Morgan was on his way to somewhere with plenty of food, many of the other penguins at the colony on Ms Helps' property haven't been so lucky. She told AFP that hundreds of penguins at the colony have died.

"This year's been a terrible year, we've had big starvation issues at sea," she said.

New Zealand's Department of Conservation (DOC) said the reason behind the lack of penguin prey is La Nina, a weather pattern characterised by unusually cool ocean temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific.

This is the most severe La Nina in 25 years and DOC is predicting that thousands of penguins could die this year as the weather pattern reduces the schools of baitfish upon which the birds depend.

In May, necropsies of 18 penguins found washed up on New Zealand shores found none had food in their stomachs and they died from starvation and exposure, DOC said.

He probably doesn't realise it, but Morgan is one lucky little penguin.

Read related posts

The little penguin that wouldn't by Olivia Carville, 27 May 2011, The Press 
Penguins in peril find refuge in New Zealand by Neil Sands, 20 May 2011, AFP 

New penguins homes on the right side of road

NEW ZEALAND - Why didn't the little penguin cross the road? Because she had a nesting box by the sea.

On 22 May, about 25 volunteers helped to place 50 wooden nesting boxes near the tip of the breakwater near Port Tarakohe in Golden Bay as part of a community project led by the Department of Conservation (DOC).

DOC representative Greg Napp told the Motueka Golden Bay News that it was hoped the nesting boxes would encourage the birds to nest on the seaward side of the road, rather than in the Tarakohe cliffs on the other side. Every year penguins are killed by cars as they make their way to and from their nests.

The nesting boxes were buried in soil, and native plants will be added to create a more natural look and make the small entrances less visible. The size of the entrances will also protect the penguins from dogs and cats.

Mr Napp told the Motueak Golden Bay News that at least three penguin pairs have moved into the nesting boxes that were placed in the area two years ago.

Although it has long been a penguin habitat, the number of penguins in the coastal area from Pohara to Ligar Bay has declined over the years. If enough little penguins decide to nest in the harbour, it could become a drawcard for tourists like Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony is for Oamaru.

A nest of protection by Hayley Gale, 26 May 2011, Motueka Golden Bay News

02 June 2011

Penguins need protection from campers, DOC says

NEW ZEALAND - The Department of Conservation (DOC) has told Waitaki District Council that penguins on the North Otago coastline should be protected from freedom campers.

Freedom camping is camping in places other than at a licensed camping ground or other approved and designated camping area. The Council prepared a draft Environmental Nuisance and Freedom Camping Control bylaw for consultation in response to growing local and national concern about the impact of freedom camping on the environment and community.

In her submission to the draft bylaw, DOC solicitor Pene Williams listed five areas where penguins, mostly yellow-eyed, had breeding colonies: Bushy Beach, Shag Point, Katiki Beach, Moeraki Peninsula and Tavora Beach. Within these areas there are public places, such as carparks, where DOC's director-general would prefer not to see freedom camping permitted.

"Research has indicated that penguin nesting success is significantly decreased if birds are disturbed by people," she said.

"There is also a concern that people will have dogs with them who could also disturb these vulnerable birds."

The Council received 19 submissions on the draft but will hold off adopting the bylaw until the Government's Freedom Camping Bill - introduced to Parliament in May - has been passed. The new law will let councils and DOC determine where camping is allowed, where it is restricted to vehicles with self-containment, and where it is prohibited.

Campers risky for penguin colonies, 25 May 2011, The Timaru Herald
Freedom camping bylaw delayed by Alex Fensome, 25 May 2011, The Oamaru Mail
New freedom camping laws announced, 15 May 2011, Office of the Acting Conservation Minister
Draft Environmental Nuisance and Freedom Camping Control Bylaw 2011, Waitaki District Council (accessed 1 June 2011)

Ancient penguin DNA sheds light on evolutionary change

Adelie penguin at Palmer Station.
Photo credit: Johnny Shaw.
Some rights reserved
AUSTRALIA - By recovering DNA sequences from ancient sub-fossil bones of Adelie penguins and comparing them to DNA from today's penguins, scientists are building a picture of evolutionary change that is much faster than previously estimated.

The research, undertaken by Griffith University scientists in Antarctica and at the university's campus in Brisbane, Queensland, featured on the 26 May episode of the ABC programme Catalyst.

In the episode, Catalyst presenter Dr Paul Willis collected specimens from recently dead Adelie penguins (their feet) in the Antarctic Peninsula and took them back to the university. There, DNA from the feet was compared to ancient DNA sequences of varying ages up to 44,000 years old.

"The ancient bones underlie existing and abandoned breeding colonies from around the Antarctic continent and are one of the richest sources of ancient DNA yet discovered," lead researcher Professor David Lambert told Griffith University News.

"In comparing these sequences we are able to build up a picture of the speed of DNA change over time."

In the program, Professor Lambert said, "Results from Adelie penguin studies haven't confirmed a number of previous studies ... those rates have been very high, much higher than previous estimates."

The Griffith team will be applying the DNA comparison technique to other animals to see if they also have higher rates of DNA change.

Professor Lambert said that these molecular rates are very important for use within a range of science disciplines ranging from forensics to evolutionary biology.

Griffith research with penguin advances understanding of DNA by Louise Durack, 24 May 2011, Griffith University News
Catalyst: Penguin DNA, 26 May 2011, ABC

High mortality rate for Tristan's rescued rockhoppers

Rockhopper penguins in the release
pool on Tristan da Cunha.
Photo by Katrine Herian/RSPB
TRISTAN DA CUNHA - Sadly, despite the valient efforts of the penguin rescuers, the overall mortality rate for the rockhopper penguins oiled by the wreck of the MS Oliva has been extremely high - the figure given by RSPB is around 88% for those birds that were moved to Tristan.

RSPB acknowledged this is a much higher mortality than in other oiling incidents, but hopes that lessons can be learned that will improve this figure should something similar occur. The extreme remoteness of the Tristan islands and the necessary delay (at least 6 days sail from Cape Town) in getting vital supplies and staff to the islands probably contributed to the low survival, as birds would have been consuming toxic oil from their feathers for more than a week before rescue was undertaken. 

The penguin rehabilitation project team continue to work relentlessly in all weathers, in an effort to secure the successful release of clean, healthy, waterproof birds. Around 25 Tristanians are still working full time with the penguins, and the entire community remains dedicated to seeing the remaining birds head out to sea as soon as possible.

On 21 May, a trial release took place, with the fittest 25 penguins released from the pen. Eleven of these birds returned to the release pen (one of them straight away), but all of these were found to be in good health and showed no signs of stress or weakness. With the relative success of the trial (there were no known fatalities) the rehabilitation team are now working on a plan to release a further 110 birds that are ready to go.

As at 23 May, there were around 380 penguins remaining in the rehabilitation centre on Tristan. These birds have gained weight well, but they will not be released until their feathers are in excellent condition, as sending them into a cold south Atlantic without their waterproofing intact would be disastrous.

All remaining wild penguins have now departed from the islands, and headed off to their winter feeding grounds. The true impact of this calamity on the population won't be known until the birds return to breed on the islands in August and September.

RSPB’s Brad Robson will travel to Tristan in September to assist the Conservation Department with their annual rockhopper census. Hopefully, some of the measures taken by the Tristan team, such as corralling penguins on land to prevent their exposure to oil, will have saved the lives of numerous birds.

The wreck of the MS Oliva remains in the water near Nightingale, and some oil is still leaking from the vessel. It is likely that winter storms will break the wreck up, and will disperse this oil, but the situation will be monitored for possible impact on returning birds.

So far, the insurers of the MS Oliva have paid for all the rehabilitation and clean-up efforts, and hopefully they will continue to act responsibly in the coming months and years.

There will, however, undoubtedly be some work that cannot be funded through insurance. One area where funds raised through the RSPB Nightingale Island Emergency Appeal can contribute will be ensuring that the people of Tristan da Cunha have sufficient resources on hand locally to deal with any future oiling incident rapidly and without awaiting supplies from Cape Town. The community now has significant expertise in penguin rehabilitation, and hopefully this can be shared with other South Atlantic islands (e.g. the Falklands and the French territories) to enable them to also mount rapid responses if an incident like this one occurs in the future.

Read related posts

Gaining weight, but not yet waterproof: penguins still need care, RSPB, 12 May 2011, BirdLife International
MS Oliva Tristan-based diary, Tristan da Cunha Association: accessed 1 June 2011

01 June 2011

There was a young penguin who needed a shoe

Lucky's Teva shoe prevents sores from
developing on his feet. Photo by
Sheri Horiszny.
USA - Lucky the Humboldt penguin might have an impaired foot, but he can now walk, hop and swim like any other penguin, thanks to a customised shoe made for him by adventure-footwear company Teva.

When Lucky hatched at Santa Barbara Zoo on 15 April last year, he was examined by the zoo’s veterinarian and appeared normal and healthy. But as he grew and began to walk, the chick started to limp. Lucky was examined and x-rayed and it was found that while nothing was broken, the bones in his leg were not developing normally. The Zoo tried different treatments, including splints, but nothing corrected his leg.

The idea for the shoe came when Lucky was two months old. He had developed sores from putting pressure on the wrong parts of his foot while he hopped, so Zoo veterinarians and keepers treated the sores and began wrapping the penguin’s foot and padding the heel.

"We remembered that years ago, Teva had fashioned a special shoe for an elephant with foot issues in San Antonio," said Zoo CEO Rich Block. "Teva's headquarters is located just a few miles from our zoo and we thought, if they can make a big elephant boot, they may be able to make a little penguin one."

Teva’s design team responded immediately and volunteered hundreds of hours to design and make the shoe. Being a penguin, Lucky has several particular needs. Not only does the shoe have to cushion his foot, it has to be lightweight, provide traction, easily shed water, and above all, comfortable. There were several versions of the shoe, each one improving on the previous version with different materials, waterproof fabrics and designs.

Very generously, Teva has committed to providing shoes for Lucky for the rest of his life.  The shoes are changed daily so they can be washed.

Teva president Pete Worley said Teva were "honoured to be part of this story".

"Our product team is experienced at collaborating with athletes, and while Lucky’s challenge was certainly unique to us, his needs were not dissimilar to those of any world-class kayaker or trail runner."

"We went through a bit more trial and error due to the language barrier, but Lucky knew what he was looking for in performance footwear, and he let us know when we had it right. In Lucky, we found a new friend and the perfect Teva athlete."

UK children's book author and illustrator Sarah Aspinall is writing a book about Lucky, due to be published later in the year. Proceeds of the book sale will be used to support Lucky.


Teva collaborates with Santa Barbara Zoo to design life-saving shoe for “Lucky” the penguin, 17 May 2011, Teva
A special shoe for a "lucky" penguin, 17 May 2011, Santa Barbara Zoo

Little penguins cover big distances

NEW ZEALAND - Recent research shows that the little penguins from Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony are quite well travelled.

Biologist Philippa Agnew started a three-year research project at the Colony last year to investigate what the world's smallest penguins get up to when they go foraging for food.

While the team are still analysing the data from this year's research, Colony manager Jason Gaskill told The Timaru Herald, "The breadth of the trips has been interesting to observe. Some of the trips have been longer than we expected, and to areas we did not expect."

Some highlights from the data include: the longest trip exceeded 100km over four to five days; the longest single-day trip was over 70km; and the average single-day trip was within a radius of 40km.

Meanwhile another set of figures, the ones for the Colony's 2010/11 breeding season, have given cause for celebration. There were 160 breeding pairs, 504 eggs, 406 chicks hatched and 365 chicks fledged.

"These indicate the highest numbers we have ever recorded at the Quarry colony," Mr Gaskill told The Timaru Herald, "and indicate a very successful breeding season."

Little blues travel widely by Rosa Studholme, 14 May 2011, The Timaru Herald

New penguin research answers deep question: how do they dive for so long?

Emperor penguins in Antarctica.
Photo by StormPetrel1.
Some rights reserved.
ANTARCTICA - Emperor penguins are well known for their diving ability; they can dive underwater for up to 20 minutes on a single breath. But how do they do it? New research, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology on 12 May, indicates that they can achieve their amazing long dives because they have control over how and when their muscles use oxygen.

But first of all, how do you measure oxygen levels in a penguin's muscles? It was no easy task - one of the study's authors, Cassondra Williams from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, had to design a special probe which could be surgically implanted in a penguin's pectoralis muscle. After two years of technical testing and development, the probes were ready for use on wild birds, so Williams and fellow researchers Paul Ponganis and Jessica Meir headed to McMurdo Sound in Antarctica.

In Antarctica, the researchers implanted probes in selected emperor penguins and attached time-depth recorders to their backs to track their dive profiles. The penguins were then released to forage for a day or two through an isolated hole that the researchers had drilled in the sea ice, which ensured the penguins (and the expensive equipment) would return.

Once the probes and time-depths recorders were retrieved, and the penguins had been returned to their colony, the scientists began to analyse the data from the 50 successfully recorded dives from three penguins. Looking at the patterns of oxygen use over the course of each dive, two distinct patterns emerged.

In the first type of dive, the muscle's oxygen levels fell continually until they approached zero - the penguin appeared to cut off blood flow to the muscle, so it had to rely on its own oxygen supplies, leaving the blood oxygen for the rest of the body, such as the brain and heart.

Williams calculated that the mean muscle oxygen consumption rate for these types of dives was only 12.4ml of oxygen per kilogram of muscle per minute - 1/10th the value calculated for penguins swimming in an artificial flume.

"I think this metabolic rate is impressive. You can see how hard they are working underwater but they are efficient swimmers and very hydrodynamic," she said.

In the second type of dive, the muscle's oxygen levels initially fell and then plateaued for several minutes before falling again to almost zero. The researchers realised that the blood must flow back into the muscles to replenish the oxygen supply during the middle phase of the dive. While this stops the muscles from getting tired, the penguins can only do this until the blood oxygen levels become too low for the rest of the body.

In both types of dive, when the oxygen levels in the muscles approach zero, the muscles start to make energy using anaerobic respiration - that is, without oxygen. Unfortunately, a byproduct of this type of respiration is the production of lactic acid. Researchers believe that if the penguins let the lactic acid accumulate in their muscles, it takes them longer to recover after a long dive. This might be why on some dives, the penguins send extra oxygen to their muscles.

Williams told LiveScience, "They don't want to hit their aerobic limit and accumulate lactic acid, but it's not clear how or why they do that."

Penguins continue diving long after muscles run out of oxygen, 12 May 2011, Journal of Experimental Biology
Penguins' oxygen trick: How they survive deep dives by Jennifer Welsh, 12 May 2011, LiveScience

Journal of Experimental Biology citation
Williams, C. L., Meir, J. U. and Ponganis, P. J. (2011). What triggers the aerobic dive limit? Patterns of muscle oxygen depletion during dives of emperor penguins. J. Exp. Biol. 214, 1802-1812.