28 February 2012

Prehistoric penguin provides a more complete picture

NEW ZEALAND - After 35 years, a giant fossil penguin has finally been completely reconstructed, giving researchers new insights into prehistoric penguin diversity.

The bones were collected in 1977 by Dr Ewan Fordyce, a paleontologist from the University of Otago, New Zealand. In 2009 and 2011, Dr Dan Ksepka, North Carolina State University research assistant professor of marine, earth and atmospheric sciences and North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences colleague Dr Paul Brinkman travelled to New Zealand to aid in the reconstruction of the giant penguin fossil.

Researchers dubbed the penguin Kairuku, a Maori word that loosely translates to “diver who returns with food”. Ksepka was interested in the fossil because its body shape is different from any previously known penguin, living or extinct. He was also interested in the diversity of penguin species that lived in what is now New Zealand during the Oligocene period, approximately 25 million years ago.

According to Ksepka, “The location was great for penguins in terms of both food and safety. Most of New Zealand was underwater at that time, leaving isolated, rocky land masses that kept the penguins safe from potential predators and provided them with a plentiful food supply.”

Kairuku was one of at least five different species of penguin that lived in New Zealand during the same period. The diversity of species is part of what made the reconstruction difficult, and the penguin’s unique physique added to the difficulty.

Kairuku was an elegant bird by penguin standards, with a slender body and long flippers, but short, thick legs and feet,” says Ksepka. “If we had done a reconstruction by extrapolating from the length of its flippers, it would have stood over 6 feet [1.8 metres] tall. In reality, Kairuku was around 4-feet-2 inches [1.3 metres] tall or so.”

The researchers reconstructed Kairuku from two separate fossils, using the skeleton of an existing king penguin as a model. The result is a tall bird with an elongated beak and long flippers – easily the largest of the five species that were common to the area in that time period.

Their results appear in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

New Zealand has a history of producing exceptional fossils that give important insights into the history of penguins and other marine creatures. Ksepka hopes that the reconstruction of Kairuku will give other paleontologists more information about some the other fossils found in that area as well as add to the knowledge about giant penguin species.

“This species gives us a more complete picture of these giant penguins generally, and may help us to determine how great their range was during the Oligocene period.” 

First full look at prehistoric New Zealand penguin by Tracey Peake, 27 February 2012, North Carolina State University

Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology citation 
Ksepka, D.T., R.E. Fordyce, T. Ando, & C.M. Jones. 2012. New fossil penguins (Aves, Sphenisciformes) from the Oligocene of New Zealand reveal the skeletal plan of stem penguins. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 32(2): 235-254.

Read more at Dr Ksepka's blog: March of the Fossil Penguins

08 February 2012

Tristan's penguins one year on

The first treated penguins are released
in April 2011. Photo by Katrine Herian/
TRISTAN DA CUNHA - Almost a year since thousands of endangered penguins' lives were threatened by an oil spill on Nightingale Island (part of Tristan da Cunha, a UK Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic) a survey to assess the birds' population has taken place.

When the bulk carrier MS Oliva ran aground on 16 March last year, a huge effort to rescue the penguins was launched. The ship was travelling from Brazil to Singapore with a cargo of 65,000 tonnes of soya beans and 1,500 tonnes of bunker fuel when it ran aground.

As the ship broke up in the rough seas, the soya and oil were discharged into the waters around Nightingale. In the days that followed, the oil reached Inaccessible Island, a World Heritage Site, and Tristan more than 30 km away.

With the group of islands being home to over 65 per cent of the global population of endangered northern rockhopper penguins, Tristanians (residents of Tristan da Cunha) and the Tristan Conservation Department, followed by staff from the RSPB and Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), came together and moved quickly to collect and clean up the oiled birds and prevent many more from coming into contact with the oil.

Although efforts to rescue and rehabilitate the penguins were huge, it has been unknown until now just how much the rockhopper population has been affected by the spill. While results from the latest counts suggest the breeding population hasn't suffered as much as anticipated, scientists are warning that the news should be met with caution.

Dr Juliet Vickery, the RSPB's head of international research, said, "It's a big relief that the initial results of the counts are better than we had anticipated. We should not, however, relax our watch. There is much we don't know about this species and the extent to which breeding colony counts reveal the true picture of population trends is hard to ascertain.

"Though immediate impact is not as bad as we feared, there may be longer term sub-lethal effects reducing breeding success, so it is vital that we continue to monitor the birds closely for several more years to establish the true impact of the oil spill."

Estimations show approximately 154,000 penguins bred on the island in 2011 but estimates in the 1950s suggest there were "millions" of birds, with two million pairs on Gough alone. The species remains globally threatened and the causes of the historic decline remain unknown.

After the disaster, the RSPB launched an emergency appeal to raise funds to help with the clean up. The appeal has raised almost £70,000 and will be used to support penguin monitoring, strengthen the island's biosecurity, and facilitate rodent control on Tristan to reduce risk of rats being introduced to Nightingale.

Katrine Herian works for the RSPB on the island, was involved in the clean-up mission last year, and helped carry out the counts. She said, "Something really needs to be said about the huge Tristanian efforts in response to this disaster - without them, this could have been a very different story.

"While the true impact of the spill won't be known for some time yet, we can at least know that everything that could be done was done."

Read related posts

First assessment of endangered UK penguins since oil spill, 6 February 2012, RSPB press release

07 February 2012

Little penguin saved by belly fat

NEW ZEALAND - Many of us try to avoid carrying too much fat on our bellies, but a little penguin who survived a savage dog attack on New Plymouth's Back Beach should be grateful for his.

The bird, who suffered injuries to his abdomen, is recovering at Massey University's Wildlife Health Centre after two rounds of surgery.

Dr Brett Gartrell told the Taranaki Daily News the penguin was lucky that the dog grabbed mostly skin and fat rather than the abdomen.

''He was in good condition coming up to his moult with quite a bit of weight on. If he didn't have that fat on there would have been damage to his internal organs."

Dr Gartrell said the bird's wounds are deep and infected, but they will know in a few weeks whether he is ready to be released into the wild or will need to be placed in temporary care until he is fully recovered.

Department of Conservation marine ranger Callum Lilley told the Taranaki Daily News that the attack served as a reminder for people to control their dogs when they are at the beach. 

"People don't like to think that their dog would attack wildlife, but to a dog, its just natural behaviour.'' 

Penguin attacked a Back Beach by Natalie Finnigan, 13 January 2012, Taranaki Daily News

06 February 2012

Rare visit from rockhoppers not as rare as it should be

AUSTRALIA - The arrival of two northern rockhopper penguins in Denmark on Western Australia's south coast could be a sign of diminishing food supply brought on by changes in ocean temperature.

Northern rockhoppers are normally found on Amsterdam Island in the Indian Ocean, which is 4000 km from Western Australia. These two birds, believed to be one-year-olds, came ashore to moult.

Denmark vet David Edmond has taken in the visitors so they will be safe from dogs and foxes.

Dr Edmond told ABC News he's seen five rockhoppers in the last 12 months - an alarming increase when compared with one or two in the previous 15 years.

"Hopefully it is just a coincidence and it's not that we're having an epidemic of it," he said.

Nick Dunlop from the Conservation Council of Western Australia told ABC News that the most likely explanation for the penguins being so far from home is that they are having trouble finding food, so they had to travel further than usual. When they got up to moulting weight, they were too far away from their breeding colony and had to come ashore on mainland Australia to moult.

Dr Dunlop said the penguins' diminishing food supply is a concern.

"We do know it's got to do with changes in ocean climate at the time which normally affects food supply, their fish move away or their fish abundance declines.

"There's a consequence in change in sea temperature or change in current flows. Normally the climate-induced effects are much greater than the fishery ones but they may actually work in concert in some situations."

As for the two rockhoppers, Dr Edmond is organising to release these likely victims of climate change on a nearby island once they have finished moulting.

Rare penguins washing up on South Coast by Roxanne Taylor, 11 January 2012, ABC News

"Washed-out" penguin spotted in Antarctica

ANTARCTICA - Question: What's grey and white and has its photo all over the internet? Answer: A leucistic chinstrap penguin on the Aitcho Islands. The pigment-challenged bird was spotted by naturalist David Stephens and others aboard the National Geographic Explorer.

Mr Stephens posted a photo of the penguin and wrote on the daily expedition report: "This bird was whitish, but not quite an albino. Instead, it had pigmented eyes and a washed-out version of a Chinstrap’s normal pattern. Many wondered about this unusual bird’s chances of success. While odd coloration may make fishing a bit more difficult, leucistic birds are regularly found breeding normally."

Daily Expedition Report from the National Geographic Explorer in Antarctica, 9 January 2012