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Life in a Penguin Colony: Working in the Western Antarctic Peninsula (part 1)

by Caitlyn Bishop Blog

Antarctic Peninsula

The Copacabana research station, located on King George Island in the Western Antarctic Peninsula, has been home to seasonal research scientists monitoring Adèlie, Gentoo, and chinstrap penguin populations for over 30 years. To understand how to properly conserve and safely manage these species, it’s important for researchers to know as much about the different aspects of the penguins’ behavior and breeding habits as possible. For six months, researchers bundle up, bear the cold, and observe the wonders of the penguins’ breeding season.

Stealing Pebbles and Settling Down

Establishing a mate is the top priority for breeding penguins. Male penguins arrive to shore before females, and are thus left with the tedious duty of building a nest in order to attract a female when they arrive. But what do you build a nest with when there are no trees to hide in or plants to cushion the inside with for thousands of miles? Small rocks retrieved from the nearby beach provide the most stable and reliable materials for penguins’ nests. Over the course of many weeks, the males can be found diligently retrieving hundreds of pebbles from the Copa beach one at a time. Day by day, the pile grows, and can even be decorated with fish bones and seaweeds. 

Some penguins are lazier than others, and resort to stealing their neighbor’s pebbles to accelerate their own nest’s construction. If a penguin abandons a nest, or if its eggs are eaten by a predator, their unsympathetic neighbors will quickly get to work deconstructing the nest and making the pebbles their own. Most of the colonies are less than a kilometer away from a beach that contains an infinite amount of pebbles, which gives little reason for this rampant pebble thievery. Yet, this behavior has persisted throughout the history of penguins. No matter how many pebbles you may have, your neighbor will always have better ones.

© Pietro Paolo | Oceanwide Expeditions

Making a Move

As the males put the finishing touches on their pebble mansions, the females begin to arrive. It’s now time to find a mate. Adèlie and chinstrap penguins will appeal to each other by vigorously wagging their heads back and forth while loudly vocalizing. It’s a noisy courtship, especially since there are thousands of other penguins packed together trying to accomplish the same goal. Imagine trying to hold a conversation with that special someone in an overcrowded bar that just happens to be exposed to unrelenting wind and snow. It’s no easy task.

The Gentoos have a more gentle approach, and begin their courtship by bowing to their potential mate. The bow is followed by a little “hiss”, and the occasional beak-nuzzle. If the hiss wasn’t pulled off just right or the bow lasted a little too long, the penguins will simply walk away from one another, and find another potential mate to bow and hiss at. There are usually no hard feelings. Every season, there’s the unfortunate bachelor or bachelorette that just doesn’t find their perfect mate. These untethered individuals are free to do what they please for the rest of the breeding season, and can be found lounging amongst the rocks or carelessly strolling through the colonies until it’s time to migrate. Hopefully, it’ll work out better next year.

Counting Eggs and Getting “Flipper Flapped”

Several days after nests are constructed and mates are established, the eggs begin to show up! It’s an exciting time for the scientists, as this is when the data collection can really begin. Usually, each species of penguin lays one to two eggs per season. At first, it can be difficult to tell which penguins have eggs hiding underneath them, as they are usually huddled down tightly. It’s important for the parents to keep the eggs as sheltered from the cold as possible once they are laid. In order to properly census all of the penguins with eggs in a colony, the scientists simply lift up the tail feathers of the penguin and sneak a quick peak beneath their backsides. It usually comes as no concern to the penguins, despite the fact that strange, might-be predators are lifting up their rear ends.

One of the main research questions asked during the project concerns the Adèlie penguins’ nest attendance from the time an egg is laid to when their chicks leave the nest. How much time does each mate spend out at sea looking for food and how much time do they spend incubating their eggs and caring for chicks? Time spent away from the nest foraging can give scientists a better idea of the distance required to travel to find a suitable source of krill, the Adèlie’s primary food source.

Answering these questions requires spending a lot of time walking around the colonies and observing the same individual nesting pairs of penguins seven days a week for the entire six month season. This can be the most dangerous time for the scientists’ legs, as the penguins have grown aggressively protective of their eggs. To deter intruders, penguins will quickly slap, or “flipper flap”, anyone who comes too close. Their flippers, although thin, are extremely strong, and powered by several inches of pectoral muscle that they use primarily for maneuvering through the water. Getting beaten repeatedly by a penguin is one of the more interesting aspects of this research. Of course, it’s and is all part of a day’s work, and all in the name of science (and not much of a danger for anyone on an Antarctic vacation).

© Oceanwide Expeditions

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