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Tracking the emperors of Antarctica

 

WWF has teamed up with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) to track emperor penguins in Antarctica. And now for the first time in 60 years, these iconic birds have received a British-led fieldwork study.

For me, emperor penguins are the iconic Antarctic species. When I first encountered them, I was struck not only by their intricate beauty but also by their incredible endurance and resilience. They are perfectly adapted to survive in the most extreme and remote place on earth.

Emperor penguins diving, Ross Sea, Antarctica © National Geographic Creative / Paul Nicklen / WWFEmperor penguins diving, Ross Sea, Antarctica © National Geographic Creative / Paul Nicklen / WWF

They breed mostly on fast-ice (ice which covers the sea but is attached to the land) at 54 colonies on the coast surrounding Antarctica. We know this with some certainty because their poo (technically known as ‘guano’), leaves reddish-brown stains on the ice which are visible from space.

Recently, thanks to our amazing penguin adopters, we supported BAS penguin scientist and Head of Conservation Biology, Dr Phil Trathan, to study the Rothschild Island emperor penguin colony in Antarctica.

This was an historic event as it was the first British scientific expedition to carry out emperor penguin fieldwork for over 60 years.

Phil was flown by a small, ski-fitted airplane to Rothschild Island, about half way down the Antarctic Peninsula, where he pitched his tent and set up camp. Over the course of three weeks, his team attached small tracking devices to 33 adult emperors to determine where they were going to feed and where they were going for their annual moult.

Emperor penguins and chicks, Rothschild Island, Antarctica © Dr P Trathan, BASEmperor penguins and chicks, Rothschild Island, Antarctica © Dr P Trathan, BAS

Our penguin adopters funded 18 of these devices! Tracking penguins helps us to identify biological ‘hotspots’ in the Antarctic Ocean and it is harmless to the birds. They worked well and most transmitted position data until the batteries ran out or until they were lost when the birds moulted their feathers in January.

The results showed two important feeding areas for the emperors. One of these, the Dion Islands in Marguerite Bay, is particularly interesting. There used to be a small emperor penguin colony there, but it was reported in have ‘gone extinct’ in 2011, probably due to changes in climate and food availability – I wonder if the colony has in fact upped sticks and moved south to Rothschild Island because its better real estate in a changing climate?

Map showing some of the tracks from emperor penguins tagged at Rothschild Island © WWF-UKMap showing some of the tracks from emperor penguins tagged at Rothschild Island © WWF-UK

While he was there, Phil also collected guano samples to determine what the birds had been feeding on. We’re really looking forward to hearing more about that once he has got stuck into the analysis ! And interestingly, a large number of regurgitated squid beaks were also found at the colony, suggesting that the emperors have a more varied diet than we previously thought.

The data gathered on this expedition will contribute towards our knowledge and understanding of these amazing birds, and how they might adapt in a warming climate. The data will also contribute towards the development of a new Marine Protected Area for the Antarctic Peninsula, to conserve the home of the emperors.

Learn more about our current work on penguins

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Comments


  • Steve Wroe

    As an ex ‘fid’ how does working at Rothera station compare with earlied BAS bases