Amy Whitehead's Research

the ecological musings of a conservation biologist

Researching Adélie penguins


Today is World Penguin Day (not to be confused with Penguin Awareness Day on January 20 – who makes up this stuff?!) and what better way to celebrate than a look at how I spend my summers, researching Adélie penguins.

One of the perks of being an ecologist is that you often get to go to some pretty amazing places and work with amazing animals.  And I’ve definitely had my share of these experiences.  But one of the coolest (quite literally) projects I have been involved with has been researching Adélie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) at Cape Bird on Ross Island, Antarctica.

Penguins on ice

It started out as one of those being in the right place at the right time sort of situations.  I had a gap in my workload as a private consultant and a colleague at Landcare Research asked me to volunteer three months of my time to chase penguins in Antarctica.  Needless to say, I immediately said yes and started on a journey that has been a fascinating experience.  I’ve just completed my third field season at Cape Bird and I’m still pinching myself – it seems unreal to be paid (sometimes good things happen if you volunteer) to spend my summers hanging out with 40,000 Adélie penguins.

The research we do is diverse and multi-faceted, with simultaneous studies occurring at three Adélie penguin colonies varying in size by two orders of magnitude.  Most of the work revolves around studying birds of a known age.  Every year we mark up to 1000 chicks with individually numbered metal flipper bands, with the first bands deployed in 1996.  This enables us to identify how old each banded bird is and to work out survival and recruitment rates.  It also means we have a pretty awesome long-term dataset.

26306 was banded as a chick in 2002.

26306 was banded as a chick in 2002.

Male Adélie penguins start to arrive at the colony in late October and establish nest sites.  Nests are built from small stones and are just far enough apart that your stones can’t be stolen by your neighbour.  The females will arrive a few weeks later and pairs will go through a process of courtship display to establish or renew pair bonds.  After mating, the females will lay 1-2 eggs and then head back out to sea, leaving the male to incubate the eggs for a few weeks.  By the time the female returns again, the males have been at the colony for 3-4 (or more) weeks and are getting fairly hungry!  But from now on in, the males and females will switch roles every 2-5 days or so, with one going out to feed while the other takes on incubation duties.  Eggs will start to hatch after ~31 days and the chicks grow pretty rapidly, gaining over 3 kg in just 6 weeks.

These two chicks are from the same nest and would have hatched within a few days of each other. Clearly somebody has been eating all the pies!

These two chicks are from the same nest and would have hatched within a few days of each other. Clearly somebody has been eating all the pies!

We typically arrive in early November and are straight into monitoring the activities of banded birds.  Each day we walk around a subsection of the colony looking for banded birds and checking out what they are up to.  All nests with banded birds are gpsed and marked with a numbered tag.  These marked nests are checked every five days or so to try and determine the fate of the eggs or chicks through until the end of January.  The primary causes of nest failure seem to be incompetent parenting, fighting neighbours knocking eggs or chicks from the nest, bad weather or skua predation.  Because we spend so much time out in the colony, we often observe some pretty interesting behaviours and it’s hard to not anthropomorphise (but they totally do run around and behave like little people!).

Little penguin "people"

One of the more hands-on projects I’ve been involved with has been conducting the field sampling for a physiology and foraging behaviour study that looks at differences between birds of different ages and breeding experience.  We’ve been catching a subset of the known-age birds and attaching a small device on their backs that records information about their diving behaviour; where they travel to, how long and deep they dive, the water temperature and sudden changes in direction that indicate they might be foraging.  This year at the Cape Crozier colony they were even following the tagged birds around with a remotely operated glider to check out what they were feeding on.  All very technologically cool!

Attaching an accelerometer

Attaching an accelerometer to the back of a penguin using strips of tape.

Once the device is attached, we let them go out for one foraging trip which usually last for 1-4 days and then we catch them again.  This is where my vampire-ish tendencies come in handy as we’re taking blood from the jugular vein for the physiology part of the study.  It’s a pretty quick and easy process but it does involve sticking a one inch needle in the neck of wriggling penguin to extract 5 ml of blood.

Blood sampling

Vampires at work.

Not surprisingly, they aren’t very happy about this and try and extract chunks of flesh from person holding them.  Luckily this isn’t me!  After taking blood, we weigh and measure the chicks.  Then everybody is put back on the nest to continue playing happy families.

weighing chick

Weighing an Adelie penguin chick.

There’s a whole lot of other work that goes on throughout the season, including:

  • counting a subset of the active nests and chicks at each colony to work out the annual productivity rate (the mean number of chicks raised per pair).
  • fencing a small subcolony at each site, where the adults have to cross a weighbridge to get to and from their nests.  This tells us how long they go out to sea for and how much food they are bring back to their chicks.
  • watching adults feed their chicks, and dissecting dead chicks, to work out what they are eating.
  • weighing and measuring 50 randomly selected chicks once a week to look at how chick mass and condition vary within and between seasons.
  • taking photos of all of the Adélie penguin colonies in the Ross Sea and counting the penguin dots to look at trends in population size over time.
Penguins crossing the weighbridge after feeding their chicks.

Penguins crossing the weighbridge after feeding their chicks.

It’s always a very busy season and the fact that the sun never sets means it can be hard to switch out of work mode.  But it’s such a spectacular place with some stunning scenery and wildlife that I sometimes wonder how I managed to get a job like this!

You can find out more about our Adélie penguin research at Landcare Research and, listen to some of the researchers talk about life at a penguin colony or check out some recent publications.

Related articles

Dugger, K., Ainley, D., Lyver, P., Barton, K., & Ballard, G. (2010). Survival differences and the effect of environmental instability on breeding dispersal in an Adélie penguin meta-population. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107 (27), 12375-12380 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1000623107

Lyver, P., MacLeod, C., Ballard, G., Karl, B., Barton, K., Adams, J., Ainley, D., & Wilson, P. (2010). Intra-seasonal variation in foraging behavior among Adélie penguins (Pygocelis adeliae) breeding at Cape Hallett, Ross Sea, Antarctica. Polar Biology, 34 (1), 49-67 DOI: 10.1007/s00300-010-0858-0

Lescroël, A., Ballard, G., Toniolo, V., Barton, K., Wilson, P., Lyver, P., & Ainley, D. (2010). Working less to gain more: when breeding quality relates to foraging efficiency. Ecology, 91 (7), 2044-2055 DOI: 10.1890/09-0766.1

Ballard, G., Dugger, K., Nur, N., & Ainley, D. (2010). Foraging strategies of Adélie penguins: adjusting body condition to cope with environmental variability. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 405, 287-302 DOI: 10.3354/meps08514

Dugger, K., Ballard, G., Ainley, D., & Barton, K. (2006). Effects of flipper bands on foraging behavior and survival of Adélie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae). The Auk, 123 (3) DOI: 10.1642/0004-8038(2006)123[858:EOFBOF]2.0.CO;2

Ainley, D.G. (2002) The Adélie Penguin. Columbia University Press, New York.

6 thoughts on “Researching Adélie penguins

  1. awwww I like pengrines they are adorable I enjoy the pengrines they have at the akron zoo, they are so cute. I enjoy watching them on the tv and feel bad when a killer whale or a seal gets them, yikes!

  2. The photo with the three penguins is just sublime! You certainly have interesting work though I could pass on the drawing blood.

    • Thanks! It certainly is an amazing place to work. It took me a while to be okay with the blood work but handling bitey penguins gets you over being squeamish pretty quickly!

  3. Pingback: World Penguin Day today | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  4. Pingback: Recent Qaecologist blog posts (April 2013) | Quantitative & Applied Ecology Group

  5. Pingback: Antarctica | Amy Whitehead's Research

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