13 September 2011

The case of the missing penguin

SOUTHERN OCEAN - Transmission over. We may never know what happened to  emperor penguin Happy Feet as his satellite transmitter has stopped transmitting.

Sirtrack, who provided the transmitter, have confirmed that a signal has not been received since 9 September, NZ time. This lack of signal means that the transmitter has not broken the surface of the water since that time.

The transmitter had been working as expected up until its last transmission, so there are two possibilities: either the transmitter has fallen off (my preference!) or something (or someone) has prevented Happy Feet from surfacing.

Although Sirtrack said that Happy Feet's transmitter was fitted according to proven methods - so it was expected to stay attached to him until he moults in the New Year - in any wildlife research project it is accepted that a satellite transmitter may detach from the animal prematurely.

Our Far South, the company helping to use the tracking data to come up with Happy Feet's location, see this as the most likely scenario: "After all it was only glued on and would have had to survive extreme conditions."

Kevin Lay, a wildlife telemetry consultant at Sirtrack, told The Dominion Post, "The other possibility that no one wants to think about is that something in the food chain bigger than Happy Feet had him for a meal. That's what makes the world go round."

However, a penguin expert from Massey University told Stuff that is was highly likely Happy Feet was still alive.

Associate Professor John Cockrem from the Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences said, "Of the natural predators, leopard seals would be far further south, around the Antarctic continent, at this time. I also think the chances of meeting an orca are pretty small."

And Happy Feet's defenders are saying that, even if he did end up in the belly of that something bigger, it was worth the money spent on him.

Wellington Zoo spokesperson said the extra cost of caring for the penguin at The Nest - Te Kohanga was just under NZ$30,000. This had been covered entirely by donations from the public and generous support from Bluebird Foods and Gareth Morgan.

Department of Conservation Kapiti biodiversity programme manager Peter Simpson, who was on the penguin advisory committee, told The Dominion Post that the emperor penguin had helped raise public awareness about wildlife. He stood by the decision that had been made to remove Happy Feet from Peka Peka beach and said that releasing him had been the right thing to do.

I hope Happy Feet is alive and well, gradually making his way south to his Antarctic home, but it is unlikely we will ever know.

As Te Papa’s curator of terrestrial vertebrates Dr Colin Miskelly, who was also a member of the advisory committee, wrote on Te Papa's Blog, "... it is time to harden up to the reality that the penguin has returned to the anonymity from which he emerged on 20 June."

He does, however, offer a small ray of hope that "maybe, just maybe, he will surprise us all by turning up at a monitored emperor penguin colony, where the transponder inserted under the skin on his thigh will remind us all that once upon a time, a long time ago, he was more than just another penguin." 

Hope yet for Happy Feet fans by Kirsty Johnston, 13 September 2011, Stuff
$30k spent on Happy Feet 'worthwhile' by Kiran Chug, 13 September 2011, The Dominion Post
The global penguin - part 10. It's only a game by Colin Miskelly, 12 September 2011, Te Papa's Blog
Track Happy Feet Update, 12 September 2011, Our Far South
Happy Feet transmissions cease, 12 September 2011, Sirtrack
Wellington Zoo farewells Happy Feet, 30 August 2011, Wellington Zoo

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