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Penguin surprises in Antarctica – “These guys just keep amazing us”


For the last 3 years, WWF’s Polar Programme has been supporting critical science undertaken by the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Antarctica.

Dr Yan Ropert-Coudert leads a team of keen scientists who spend a year or more at Dumont D’Urville station in Antarctica studying Adélie penguins. The scientists attach miniature GPS devices to the penguins to determine their foraging behaviour at each step of their reproductive cycle. The GPS tracking devices are very light, harmless and are removed by the scientists once the penguins return to the colony.

Adelie penguin chick with parents. © Natalie Bowes / WWF-Canada

According to Yan, ‘these little guys just keep on amazing us’. His team are tracking them to identify biological ‘hot-spots’ – areas that are important to the penguins, and important to WWF.

Why? Because this science is helping to inform policy recommendations to CCAMLR (Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources), specifically around the design of a network of Marine Protected Areas for East Antarctica. What’s more, this is building up a long term picture of how penguins will adapt to changes in sea ice cover in the Southern Ocean as a result of climate change.

Yan’s story starts at the beginning of December, just after the female Adélies have laid their eggs. They’ve burnt up a lot of calories, and – because they have been on land – they haven’t fed for 3 weeks! So it’s no wonder they leave their male partner to look after the egg (keeping it warm and safe from predators) whilst they head out to sea to feed.

The routes the penguins took – click for a bigger version. ©

At this time of year, they have open water in front of the colony. As you can see from the map, they start by heading north. Penguins can travel far during the incubation period. They embark on a journey that will last anywhere between 10 and 22 days, during which they may travel up to 300 km from the colony.

But it’s not all open water – after two to three days and 100 kilomtres, the birds reach the pack ice. Up to now, they were all following a similar bearing and a linear path. But here the females start to disperse, seeking out rich feeding grounds. Moving from stretches of open water to leads in the ice, they progress northward, some remaining in the pack ice near the fast ice edge (ice which is connected to the land), whilst others move further away from the continent and through the pack ice to reach the open sea again.

On the return, the birds all follow a similar route home. What was really unexpected was that most of the females stopped at the same spot during their way back. Just before they enter the open water in front of their colony, they all made a brief pause on the fast ice edge before returning to the colony.

Adelie penguins diving off an iceberg. © naturepl.com / Tim Laman / WWF-Canon

This rendezvous point is exciting: are females meeting there to digest a portion of their food? Or is it to gather strength before the last leg of the trip? Was it weather conditions that prevented them from returning immediately to the colony? Are they just hanging out?

These are some of the questions that Yan’s team are trying to address in building up a comprehensive picture of where and how Adélie penguins feed, and the implications of changes in sea ice cover. As for the females, they will soon relieve their male partners, who have also not fed for a time now… but that’s another story!

Adelie penguin © Akiko Kato

As well as tracking the penguins, WWF is also tracking the progress of CCAMLR in its journey to protect Antarctica’s critical habitats for wildlife, including seals, penguins, whales and seabirds. CCAMLR’s position as one of the world’s leading bodies for marine management and conservation was called into question last year, when it failed to reach agreement on a network of protected areas for the Southern Ocean, to which it had previously committed – including the very area where our Adélies are feeding in East Antarctica.

However, we remain optimistic. CCAMLR has called a special meeting for July 2013 to examine two large scale MPA proposals, for East Antarctica and the Ross Sea – and it is critical that they reach agreement to ensure real protection for these regions, as part of a wider network of MPAs for the Southern Ocean.

WWF is also supporting British scientists tracking Adélie penguins as part of a monitoring programme for the existing South Orkney Islands MPA that CCAMLR designated in 2009 – more on this next week.

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