28 June 2012

No.337 to be more than just a number

JAPAN - His daring escape and subsequent recapture made headlines around the world, and now the Humboldt penguin known only as No.337 will be given a name, reports AFP.

Tokyo Sea Life Park officials, who discovered that No.337 was male during a medical check upon his return to the aquarium (they also found out he had conjunctivitus), have launched a competition for visitors to name the intrepid bird. Entrants are also asked to provide the reason behind their suggested name and are encouraged to watch the penguin first.

"This is a special treatment to express our gratitude to the public for providing information on the bird, and also for cooperating with us by listening to our call not to try to capture him," park official Takashi Sugino said.

The "most appropriate name" for the penguin, who was at large for 82 days, will be picked by a committee comprising the aquarium director, vice director and keepers after nominations close on 1 July.

Read previous posts 

Runaway penguin 'No 337' to be named in Japan, AFP, 25 June 2012
Japan's runaway penguin suffering from pink-eye, AFP, 27 May 2012

24 June 2012

Melting sea ice threatens emperor penguins, study finds

Three emperor penguins stand on
the sea ice off the coast of Dumont
d'Urville in Terre Adélie, Antarctica.

Photo credit: Ted Scambos, National
Snow and Ice Data Center
ANTARCTICA - More dire news from the South Pole: if global temperatures continue to rise, the emperor penguins in Terre Adélie, in East Antarctica may eventually disappear, according to a new study.

The study, led by researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), was published in the journal Global Change Biology.

“Over the last century, we have already observed the disappearance of the Dion Islets penguin colony, close to the West Antarctic Peninsula,” said Stephanie Jenouvrier, WHOI biologist and lead author of the study.

“In 1948 and the 1970s, scientists recorded more than 150 breeding pairs there. By 1999, the population was down to just 20 pairs, and in 2009, it had vanished entirely.”

Like in Terre Adélie, Jenouvrier thinks the decline of those penguins might be connected to a simultaneous decline in Antarctic sea ice due to warming temperatures in the region.

Unlike other sea birds, emperor penguins breed and raise their young almost exclusively on sea ice. If that ice breaks up and disappears early in the breeding season, massive breeding failure may occur, said Jenouvrier.

“As it is, there's a huge mortality rate just at the breeding stages, because only 50 percent of chicks survive to the end of the breeding season, and then only half of those fledglings survive until the next year,” she said.

Disappearing sea ice may also affect the penguins’ food source. The birds feed primarily on fish, squid, and krill, a shrimplike animal, which in turn feeds on zooplankton and phytoplankton, tiny organisms that grow on the underside of the ice. If the ice goes, Jenouvrier says, so too will the plankton, causing a ripple effect through the food web that may starve the various species that penguins rely on as prey.

To project how penguin populations may fare in the future, Jenouvrier’s team used data from several different sources, including climate models, sea ice forecasts, and a demographic model that Jenouvrier created of the emperor penguin population at Terre Adélie, a coastal region of Antarctica where French scientists have conducted penguin observations for more than 50 years.

Combining this type of long-term population data with information on climate was key to the study, said Hal Caswell, a WHOI senior mathematical biologist and collaborator on the paper.

“If you want to study the effects of climate on a particular species, there are three pieces that you have to put together,” he said.

“The first is a description of the entire life cycle of the organism, and how individuals move through that life cycle. The second piece is how the cycle is affected by climate variables. And the crucial third piece is a prediction of what those variables may look like in the future, which involves collaboration with climate scientists.”

Marika Holland of the National Center for Atmospheric Research is one such scientist. She specialises in studying the relationship between sea ice and global climate, and helped the team identify climate models for use in the study.

Working with Julienne Stroeve, another sea ice specialist from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, Holland ultimately recommended five distinct models.

“We picked the models based on how well they calculated the sea ice cover for the 20th century,” she said. “If a model predicted an outcome that matched what was actually observed, we felt it was likely that its projections of sea ice change in the future could be trusted.”

Jenouvrier used the output from these various climate models to determine how changes in temperature and sea ice might affect the emperor penguin population at Terre Adélie. She found that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at levels similar to today - causing temperatures to rise and Antarctic sea ice to shrink - penguin population numbers will diminish slowly until about 2040, after which they would decline at a much steeper rate as sea ice coverage drops below a usable threshold.

“Our best projections show roughly 500 to 600 breeding pairs remaining by the year 2100. Today, the population size is around 3000 breeding pairs,” said Jenouvrier.

The effect of rising temperature in the Antarctic isn’t just a penguin problem, according to Caswell. As sea ice coverage continues to shrink, the resulting changes in the Antarctic marine environment will affect other species, and may affect humans as well.

“We rely on the functioning of those ecosystems. We eat fish that come from the Antarctic. We rely on nutrient cycles that involve species in the oceans all over the world,” he said.

“Understanding the effects of climate change on predators at the top of marine food chains - like Emperor penguins - is in our best interest, because it helps us understand ecosystems that provide important services to us."

Also collaborating on the study were Christophe Barbraud and Henri Weimerskirch of the Centre d'Etudes Biologiques de Chizé, in France, and Mark Serreze of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in the United States.

Global Change Biology citation
Effects of climate change on an emperor penguin population: analysis of coupled demographic and climate models, Stephanie Jenouvrier, Marika Holland, Julienne Stroeve, Christophe Barbraud, Henri Weimerskirch, Mark Serreze, Hal Caswell,  Global Change Biology, 20 June 2012.

Melting sea ice threatens emperor penguins, study finds, 20 June 2012, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute
Study: Global climate trend threaten Antarctic penguins, 20 June 2012, National Snow and Ice Data Center

Chinstraps disappear from Deception Island

ANTARCTICA – It appears that global warming has struck again, with new research finding that a colony of chinstrap penguins on Deception Island has declined more than one-third in the past 20 years.

The study by Andres Barbosa of the National Museum ofNatural Sciences in Madrid and his colleagues was published online in the journal Polar Biology.

The researchers carried out censuses of chinstrap penguin in the Vapour Col colony of Deception Island, one of the South Shetlands Islands, from 1991-92 and 2008-09. Nest counts were taken from photographs that were recorded from a standard location, mainly in December around the time of peak hatching. They found that the population had declined by 36% between 1991 and 2008. The strongest decline occurred since 2000.

After considering and ruling out research activity and tourism as the reason behind the chinstrap’s decline, the researchers point to global warming as the likely culprit because of its effect on the extent of Antarctic sea ice.

The chinstrap’s main prey is krill, which depend on the algae that grow under the sea ice. As rising temperatures cause the ice to melt, the krill population is declining, having a knock-on effect on the chinstrap population.

This idea is supported by the fact that the region’s krill-eating Adélie penguin population is also declining, but the population of gentoo penguins, which have a more variable diet, is not.

Barbosa told LiveScience that in the 1990s it was thought that climate change would favour the chinstrap penguin, which prefers ice-free waters, over the Adélie penguin, which prefer an icy environment.  At the time, chinstrap numbers seemed to be increasing. However, the decline in sea ice is now at the point it is impacting the abundance of krill, and consequently chinstrap penguin population.

"This is an example of how the human activity far from the poles can affect the life at thousands of kilometres far from our homes," Barbosa said.

He pointed out ways can help Antarctica's penguins. People need to use energy and fossil fuels responsibly to preserve the planet and, by extension, Antarctica, and also need to reduce overfishing, tourism and research activity in Antarctica to protect the organisms that live there.

Polar Biology citation
Population decline of chinstrap penguins (Pygoscelis antarctica) on Deception Island, South Shetlands, Antarctica. Barbosa, A., Benzal, J., De León, A. and Moreno, J. Polar Biology, 22 May 2012, DOI: 10.1007/s00300-012-1196-1

36% of chinstrap penguins missing from Antarctic Island by Jeanna Bryner, 19 June 2012, LiveScience

13 June 2012

Scientists set to spy on rockhopper penguins

Rockhopper penguins at Campbell Island.
Credit: Paul Sagar, NIWA.
NEW ZEALAND - Scientists are poised to solve a mystery: where do rockhopper penguins breeding in New Zealand's sub-Antarctic go during the winter?

NIWA scientists have successfully secured a grant from National Geographic in the United States which will enable a research team to embark on a dedicated trip to Campbell Island, where the penguins breed and moult. There the scientists will deploy 88 miniaturised tracking tags on the penguins' legs before the birds depart in April for the winter.

The tracking tags will be retrieved at the start of the following breeding season in October 2013.

The data obtained from the tags will, for the first time, shed light on the winter movements, distribution and habitat use of rockhopper penguins in New Zealand's sub-Antarctic.

"We don't know where the penguins go during winter," said NIWA scientist Dr David Thompson.

"It could be a crucial stage in the breeding cycle for them. To successfully raise chicks, they need to come back to Campbell Island at the start of the breeding season in good condition. If they have a bad winter, they will come back to Campbell Island in poor condition.

"This stage of the annual cycle of the birds is likely to be very significant. To know nothing about where this stage takes place is a crucial gap in our understanding of the factors affecting the penguin populations."

So where might the penguins go? Dr Thompson doesn't think it will be too far.

"I suspect they don't go too far south, nor are they likely to go too far north. They probably stay at the same latitude, but disperse away from the island, spending that time feeding and regaining condition."

Between 1942 and 1985, the rockhopper penguin population at Campbell Island declined by about 94%, from approximately 800,000 breeding pairs to just 51,000 pairs. The decline has continued since the mid-1980s.

"They are unlikely to become extinct, in the near future, but this represents a massive decline," said Dr Thompson.

One theory is that the population crash is the result of changes in the penguin's diet, but Dr Thompson doesn't think this is the case.

"We don't think that they have changed their diet. We think there is just less food ... They have quite a broad diet.

"It's thought that fluctuations in sea temperatures may have led to a reduction in the abundance or availability of their prey," he said.

Scientists set to spy on rockhopper penguins, 12 June 2012, NIWA

12 June 2012

Scoop of the (last) century - penguins' shocking sex habits revealed!

ANTARCTICA - Necrophilia, sexual coercion, chick abuse, sex for pleasure and homosexual behaviour: penguins' sex lives were too much for Dr George Levick, who wrote a four-page pamphlet 'The Sexual Habits of the Adélie Penguins' in 1915 but decided not to publish it with other research because it was too explicit.

The pamphlet was recently rediscovered by Douglas Russell, bird curator at the Natural History Museum at Tring, who said, "Levick's notes were decades ahead of their time."

Levick, a surgeon and the medical officer on Captain Scott's famous 1910-1913 British Antarctic Expedition, Terra Nova, studied the colony at Cape Adare, which has the largest Adélie penguin colony in the world.

Clearly shocked by the behaviour of the penguins hanging out on the fringes of the colony (described as "hooligans"), Levick even wrote in Greek to disguise the information. He noted, "There seems to be no crime too low for these penguins ... The crimes which they commit are such as to find no place in this book, but it is interesting indeed to note that, when nature intends them to find employment, these birds, like men, degenerate in idleness."

The Edwardian scientist's notes have been republished and reinterpreted by Russell, Prof William Sladen of John Hopkins Medical Institutions and penguin researcher David Ainley in the journal Polar Record.

Whereas Levick interpreted the penguins' behaviour in human moral terms, there is now greater understanding of animal behaviour.

"Over the course of the last 50 years there has gradually been more freedom and willingness to objectively interpret sexual behaviours in animals," said Russell.

For example, necrophilia is not seen as a penguin being sexually aroused by a dead bird, but being chemically wired to respond to a seemingly compliant female.

Levick's original unbound pamphlet is kept at the Natural History Museum at Tring in the ornithological collections. His notes and Adélie penguin specimens he collected from Cape Adare are on display in the Scott’s Last Expedition exhibition at the Museum in London. 

Polar Record citation
Dr. George Murray Levick (1876–1956): unpublished notes on the sexual habits of the Adélie penguin. Douglas G.D. Russell, William J.L. Sladen and David G. Ainley, Polar Record, January 2012.

Penguin sex habits rediscovered at Museum, 9 June 2012, Natural History Museum

11 June 2012

Penguins stolen from Granite Island rehab centre

AUSTRALIA - There seems to be a disturbing trend in penguin thievery. First poor Dirk was stolen from his Sea World enclosure in Queensland in April, and now little penguins Alice and Kennie have been taken from Penguin Centre on Granite Island, South Australia.

The penguins were stolen between 11.30pm on 30 May and 4.30pm on 1 June.

The centre's owner/operator Dorothy Longden told the Victor Harbor Times that what had happened was "absolutely terrible" and that the penguins should have been safe at the centre. She said Alice and Kennie will not survive in the wild and need to be returned or taken to a vet.

Five-year-old Alice has a condition called bumblefoot that makes her limp and requires ongoing specialist care. Two-year-old Kennie was taken to the centre at just five weeks old after being abandoned by his parents and is too humanised to be suitable for release. Both are permanent residents at the centre, which rehabilitates sick and injured penguins from the Granite Island colony.

Police have asked for assistance to locate the penguins; anyone with any information should call BankSA Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or report online at www.sa.crimestoppers.com.au.

Two penguins stolen from Granite Island, 6 June 2012, Victor Harbor Times