As Christmas draws close and the days are getting colder, it’s hard to imagine that the world is warming. With the rapid rate of climate change, Antarctic penguins are facing an uncertain future.
I chatted to penguin scientist Harriet Clewlow, whose PhD with British Antarctic Survey is part funded by WWF-UK, to find out about her research on the effects of climate change on interactions with three Antarctic penguin species, Adélie, Chinstrap and Gentoo, and what a typical day in the life is like for a penguin scientist out in the field in Signy Island in the South Orkney Islands of Antarctica.
RG: Can you tell us about your research?
HC: My research project is looking at how the interactions between three different species of penguins, Adélie, Chinstrap and Gentoo’s, are being affected by climate change. The Western Antarctic Peninsula is one of three rapidly warming areas of the world and globally important numbers of Adélie, Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins live in this area. The warming trends experienced in this region have led to declines in Adélie and Chinstrap penguins but increases in the number and range of Gentoo penguins. These three penguin species breed in sequence to reduce competition between them for their favourite food, Antarctic Krill. The seasonal timing of their breeding is sensitive to variations in climate and this can create mis-matches between the timing of seabird breeding and the availability of their prey.
Adélies breed about 3 weeks earlier than Chinstraps, while Gentoos are more flexible in their timings. All three species undergo a “catastrophic moult” where they lose all their old feathers and grow new ones over a 2-3 week period and look like fluffy messes. Adélies leave the breeding colonies immediately after their chicks fledge, around February, and migrate towards the pack ice where they moult; usually standing on an iceberg for 2-3 weeks. Chinstraps, however, will go on a long pre-moult trip, often travelling over 1,000 miles, but they’ll come back to the colony and moult on land. Once they’ve moulted they head out to sea for the austral winter and won’t return to the colony until the next breeding season.
Gentoos stay around their colonies for the whole year, so they can get a much better handle on the climate and the conditions that they will be breeding in. This is part of the reason why they seem to be reacting better to climate change.
I went out to the field on Signy Island in the South Orkney Islands of Antarctica for four months from December 2015 to investigate how the foraging distributions of Chinstrap and Adélies vary at different stages of the breeding season and compared areas of overlap. I attached GPS tracking tags and time-depth recorders to breeding penguins to look at where they’re foraging at different points in the breeding season. The tags can show exactly where they’re foraging and using this information we can make accurate predictions of how this group of penguins could react to future climate change scenarios.
RG: How does it feel to be able to get so close and work with penguins?
HC: It’s amazing to work with penguins. Penguin colonies are cacophonies of noise and constant activity. The area is really pink; Adélie and Chinstrap penguin poo is pink because they eat krill and there is pink poo everywhere. There’s so much penguin poo everywhere that penguin poo stains can even be seen from space! Penguin chicks seem to get themselves covered in poo, particularly Adélie chicks.
Adélies are always doing something hilarious. They don’t really stand still for very long and there’s always one chasing another one or a penguin stealing their prized nest stones from another. Adélies are the most intrigued by humans and most inquisitive ones of the three species of penguins, closely followed by the Chinstraps. There was one adult Adélie penguin that decided to follow me around for half of the day when I was walking around the colony looking for my tagged birds!
RG: What is a day in the life of a penguin scientist like in the field?
HC: Every day on base was very different and as there were only eight of us stationed on this small island everyone had to help with every job; from fixing the electricity generators to cleaning the base. For example if I was the cook for the day, I was up at 6am and would do a round of base just to check that nothing had blown away or broken in the night and check that none of the elephant seals that live around the base had broken in.
The base at Signy Island is by the water where the elephant seals haul themselves out and lie around all day long. There’s a seal fence around the base but most of the seals remember the time when these fences weren’t there and they had free access to lie on the boardwalks which are much nicer than lying on a muddy wet beach. One of the seals broke the fence just leaning on it as they weigh a few tonnes!
Once I did all the tasks in the morning, I’d trek along to the penguin colonies at Gourlay Peninsula. At Gourlay Peninsula there are two huts by the colony. One for two of us to sleep in and make food and another one for all of our penguin equipment. I’d put more layers of clothing on before leaving the hut so I don’t get cold in the -20°C wind chill and walk to the colonies to look for my birds which I fitted with a GPS tag a few days before. I’d put a brick out by their nests so I knew where they would come back to, as they all look identical I couldn’t just spot them by sight. If any of the penguins had come back overnight I’d catch them and remove their tags so I could get the location data stored on them. Penguins only had the tags on for around 10 days and they’re so small so don’t cause them any discomfort.
I’d stay out at the penguin colony until it’s time to cook or getting dark. In the evening, back at base we’d watch a film or play cards and chat about our day. As it was the summer when we first got out there in December it got light quite early around 4am and the sun didn’t set until 11pm. Days got shorter as we went through the season, you would need a torch when doing rounds in the base in the morning as you could fall over the fur seals which would be bad for everyone involved!
RG: Why do you do the work you do?
HC: I got into polar research almost by accident. I’ve always loved animals and being outdoors so biology was something I was drawn into. Antarctica and the Arctic always looked like awe-inspiring, almost unreal places and I never even dreamed I would end up working there!
There are not that many people in the world studying Antarctica and even fewer studying Antarctic penguins so I was amazingly lucky to get this opportunity. There are also much fewer women that do this type of science and so I think it’s really important to show people that scientists are not the stereotypical “crazy haired older men in white lab coats”. That’s often not the case; my uniform on Signy was a big orange jacket! There are many different types of science, and for scientists it’s not just about being in the lab all the time. It is about getting out into the real world and experiencing wildlife in its natural habitat, which is incredible to get that close to. Hopefully my work will make a difference in our understanding of these species reactions to climate change.