Amy Whitehead's Research

the ecological musings of a conservation biologist

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New paper – Inside or outside: quantifying extrapolation across river networks

It’s been pretty quiet over here for a long time. But I have been busy beavering away at many interesting projects at NIWA, including a project where we developed a new method for identifying when your regression model is starting to make things up (or more technically, extrapolating beyond the bounds of the dataset).

Regression models are used across the environmental sciences to find patterns between a response and its potential predictors. These patterns can be used to predict a response across broad areas or under new environmental conditions. Our paper compares performance of two flexible regression techniques when predicting across a deliberately induced spectrum of interpolation to extrapolation. Various data sets were divided into two geographical, environmental and random groups. Models were trained on one half of the data and tested on the other. The two methods incorporate nonlinear and interacting relationships but suffer from unquantified uncertainty when extrapolating. Random forests always performed better than multivariate adaptive regression splines when interpolating within environmental space, and when extrapolating in geographical space. Random forests models were transferable in geographic space but not to environmental conditions outside the training data. Neither technique was successful when extrapolating across environmental gradients. The paper also describes and tests a new method to calculate degree of extrapolation: a value quantifying interpolation versus extrapolation for each prediction from either regression technique. The method can be used to indicate risk of spurious predictions when predicting at new locations (e.g., nationally) or under new environmental conditions (e.g., climatic change).

Booker, D.J. & A.L. Whitehead. (2018). Inside or outside: quantifying extrapolation across river networks. Water Resources Research. doi:10.1029/2018WR023378 [online]

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Three new papers: urban development, agriculture & skua

What do urban development, agriculture and skua have in common? Superficially very little, except that they feature in three papers that I published in the past few weeks. These papers are the culmination of  research projects I worked on at Landcare Research and the Quantitative & Applied Ecology group at The University of Melbourne and it’s super exciting to see them finally out in print. Many thanks to the teams of co-authors who made these possible.

Protecting biodiversity while planning for development


Clever strategic planning can identify land for urban development that minimises habitat clearing and benefits native plants and animals. Picture: WWF-Australia.

As our cities expand due to population growth, development encroaches on the natural habitat of native plants and animals. While developers often have to assess how their new subdivision or industrial park will impact on these populations, this is usually done at the scale of individual developments and often only considers a few species. The consequence of such ad-hoc assessment is that biodiversity can undergo “death by a thousand cuts” where the cumulative impacts of many development projects can be more severe than those predicted by the individual assessments. However, a lack of good tools and guidance has limited  how impact assessments are carried out. We looked at how existing conservation planning tools can use information on the distribution of many species over large areas to identify the potential impacts of a large-scale development plan in Western Australia. We worked closely with government agencies to identify important areas for biodiversity conservation and make minor changes to the development plans that significantly reduced the potential impacts to biodiversity. See our paper for more details on our framework for undertaking strategic environmental assessments.

Whitehead, A., Kujala, H., & Wintle, B. (2016). Dealing with cumulative biodiversity impacts in strategic environmental assessment: A new frontier for conservation planning Conservation Letters DOI: 10.1111/conl.12260

Can biodiversity, carbon and agricultural development coexist in Australia’s northern savannas?

Irrigated agriculture in the Ord River Development. Developing northern Australia will involve trade-offs with biodiversity. (Image credit: Garry D. Cook)

Irrigated agriculture in the Ord River Development. Developing northern Australia will involve trade-offs with biodiversity. (Image credit: Garry D. Cook)

There’s a lot of talk about developing Australia’s north, of doubling the agricultural output of this region and pouring billions of dollars into new infrastructure such as irrigation. But what about the natural values of this region and its potential for carbon storage today and into the future? Can we develop the north and still retain these other values?  We undertook a spatial analysis which found agricultural development could have profound impacts on biodiversity OR a relatively light impact, it all depends on how and where it’s done. If managers and decision makers want northern Australia’s sweeping northern savannas to serve multiple purposes then they need to plan strategically for them. For more information about how such strategic planning could be done, check out our paper and the associated press release.

Morán-Ordóñez, A., Whitehead, A., Luck, G., Cook, G., Maggini, R., Fitzsimons, J., & Wintle, B. (2016). Analysis of trade-offs between biodiversity, carbon farming and agricultural development in Northern Australia reveals the benefits of strategic planning. Conservation Letters DOI: 10.1111/conl.12255

Counting skua by counting penguins


A skua surveying potential lunch options at the Cape Bird Adélie penguin colony.

South polar skua (Stercorarius maccormicki) like to chow down on penguins. So it makes sense that they often nest close to penguin colonies. Over the years, we’ve developed a pretty good understanding of the size of Adélie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) colonies around the Ross Sea, Antarctica, so we set out to see if we could estimate the number of skua associated with those colonies.  Detailed surveys of skua at three Adélie penguin colonies on Ross Island confirmed that more penguins (i.e. more lunch) means more skua.  Using this relationship, we predicted how many skua live in the Ross Sea. To find out how many skua live in the Ross Sea and for a more detailed description of the methods, check out our paper online.

Wilson, D., Lyver, P., Greene, T., Whitehead, A., Dugger, K., Karl, B., Barringer, J., McGarry, R., Pollard, A., & Ainley, D. (2016). South Polar Skua breeding populations in the Ross Sea assessed from demonstrated relationship with Adélie Penguin numbers. Polar Biology. DOI: 10.1007/s00300-016-1980-4


A day in the life of a penguin wrangler

By now you’ve probably figured out that I have something to do with penguins and occasionally disappear for months on end into the wilds of Antarctica. I often get asked what we actually do all day when we’re out in the field but my usual response – “oh, you know, count penguins and stuff” – isn’t really that satisfactory. So I’ve tried to document a typical day in the field at Cape Bird…

08:001 Bleep bleep bleep. The alarm goes off and I yank on the piece of string to remove the tightly wedged piece of cardboard in the window and let the daylight stream in. One of the problems of 24 hours of daylight is that it’s hard to block the light out. However, we’ve managed it to overcome that problem so well that we now struggle to wake up because there are no daylight cues to indicate that it’s morning. Hence the string. Eventually dragging myself out of bed, I stumble blindly out to the kitchen and get the coffee pot going. The boys are busy burning the toast while trying to identify a seal drifting past on the sea ice. At first glance, it looked like it might be a leopard seal but, on closer inspection through the binoculars, it turns out to be a weddell seal. They’re pretty common in this neck of the woods, so attention quickly turns back to rescuing breakfast. Then there’s a quick discussion about the plan for the day, which quickly digresses into some random conversation totally off topic!

10:00 We start to layer on the gear in preparation for going outside. It’s not a particularly cold day outside (maybe hovering just below 0°C), so no need to go overboard with the layers. Just a pair of polar fleece trousers, insulated overalls, merino t-shirt, merino longsleeved top, fleece sweater, primaloft jacket and windstopper jacket, topped off with a fleece-lined woollen hat, a neck buff, sunglasses and a pair of possum-merino gloves. Oh, plus a pair of thick woollen socks and insulated boots. It takes a while to get ready! Then it’s outside to start the day’s work.

Peter heads off to start bandsearching – walking the edge of the subcolonies and looking for birds with flipper bands. Once located, he’ll record the band number and the bird is up to. This is usually a straightforward process but there is always someone who flaps their flippers or turns so that you can’t read the band. This usually turns into a frustrating game where you and the penguin dance around each other for five minutes (or more!) until eventually you manage to outwit the bird. Once is tolerable but when you’re doing this for 8 hours or more a day, it can get pretty tedious.  On the other hand, spending this much time walking around the colony means you get to see a lot of interesting things and take a lot of pictures.

Hamish & I head down the hill to the weighbridge colony. This small subcolony of approximately 200 nests is surrounded by a mesh fence, with the only access point into the colony across a bridge. This bridge hides a set of scales that weigh birds as they cross, as well as recording whether they coming or going. Every couple of days we download the data from the weighbridge and record the status of the marked nests – which adults are present and how many eggs or chicks they have – as well as the total number of adults and chicks in the subcolony. This information is used to work out some pretty interesting information about how long adults are out at sea and how much food they bring back for their chicks.  It also lets us compare how the colony is doing from year to year.

11:00 Next we head off to count adults and chicks at two more reference colonies. Unlike the weighbridge colony, these subcolonies are not surrounded by a fence. We monitor 30 marked nests in these colonies from early November when the eggs are laid until the chicks creche in mid January. While we’re walking between colonies, we find a freshly dead chick that has just been killed by a skua. Penguin colonies are filled with death and destruction and it can take a bit of getting used to. But it can also offer some unique opportunities. All dead chicks in reasonable condition (i.e. they are still whole and not super stinky) are weighed, measured and then dissected. Looking at the stomach contents gives us some idea about what’s happening out at sea. This chick has been fed mostly krill but the grey mush suggests that adults are also starting to bring in silverfish. This tends to happen later in the season when the chicks are about three weeks old.


12:00 Chick counting done for the moment, it’s off to do some actual penguin wrangling. Since we arrived in mid December we’ve been catching banded adults with chicks and attaching small devices called accelerometers. These collect information about a bird’s foraging behaviour: how long they spend out at sea on one foraging trip, how often and how deep they dive, and the types of movements they are making while under the water. This morning’s task is to look for birds with accelerometers that that have returned from sea. Foraging trips typically last anywhere from 2 – 8 days, depending on the conditions out to sea. This year they seem to be at the longer end of the scale, suggesting that it’s taking longer for birds to find enough food to feed themselves and their chicks.

We aim to recatch birds when they have returned to their nests and are happily brooding their chicks. This is for three reasons:
1) it hopefully gives the adult time to feed their chick(s) before we turn up to disturb them; 2) it’s by far the easiest way to find them (imagine looking for a penguin with a small black device attached to its black back amongst ~40,000 other black-backed penguins!); and 3) adults are much easier to catch if they are sitting on a nest. Grabbing a penguin off a nest is much easier than you might expect – you simply weave your way through the surrounding nests (getting thoroughly pecked and beaten by the neighbours in the process) and pick them up. A second person collects the chick(s) and leaves a cover over the nest to stop the neighbours stealing all the rocks while you’re away. Then it’s onto the business of taking a blood sample, removing the accelerometer and taking a range of measurements such as weight and flipper length. Once the adult has been processed, we weigh and measure the chicks before marking them with a temporary plastic tag. These individually-numbered tags mean that we can follow the growth and survival of these chicks throughout the season. Once we’re done, we release the adult and the chicks back on the nest. The whole process takes less than 20 minutes for each bird and is relatively stress-free for both penguin and wrangler. This morning we manage to retrieve three of the ten accelerometers we have out, which is a pretty good haul.


14:00 Blood samples and accelerometers in hand, it’s time to head back to the hut and process the samples. Vials of blood are loaded into the centrifuge and sent spinning merrily on their way, slides are fixed in alcohol, feather samples are stored away under the bench and the first accelerometer is plugged into the computer to download. It must be time for lunch! This year we’ve become masters of the scone and today’s lunch includes a healthy dose of the chocolate and date variety, with a side of toasted cheese sandwich and some dried apple slices.

It can take up to 40 mins to download the data from each accelerometer. Given that we have three to do today, we have plenty of time to do our daily mammal survey. This involves staring out the window for an hour every day, scanning the beach and water for mammals. We often see Weddell seals on the beach and some days will be treated to a Antarctic minke whale or a pod of orca swimming past. Alas, today is not one of those days and it’s a very long hour staring out the window with binoculars without seeing a single mammal. At least the view isn’t too shabby.

16:30 Blood processed, accelerometers downloaded, lunch eaten and the lack of mammals surveyed, it’s time to head back outside to finish the rest of the day’s fieldwork. We hope to put the three accelerometers that we retrieved this morning back out on some new birds. We have a list of target nests with banded birds of known ages, so it’s simply a matter of walking around and checking those nests until we find somebody at home. Once we’ve located a victim customer, it’s a matter of grabbing the bird and its chicks off the nest and attaching the accelerometer. We do this using thin strips of tape that are layered under the feathers, a technique that is robust enough to stay on for up to three foraging trips. A nice, non-wriggly bird will take about 5-6 minutes to process and return to the nest. A wriggly bird may take a bit longer and will likely result in some strong words from the handler and the tape sticker! Oh how we hate the wriggly birds!

18:00 Three accelerometers deployed, it’s time to go and count some more penguins. As the season progresses, the number of adults at a subcolony decreases as the chicks are left to creche. This leaves the chicks particularly vulnerable to skua predation. We have some small subcolonies of penguins just below the hut that are quite isolated and surrounded by skua nests. These colonies drop in size quite dramatically as chicks start to disappear into the mouths of skuas. [skua swallowing chick photo] The skua effect can be so severe that the smallest of these colonies rarely manages to fledge any chicks. Every couple of days we count the number of adults and chicks to document the skua-induced declines. Today everyone seems to be well and accounted for but there are six hungry skua stalking the edge of the colony, so I suspect that the next counts will be somewhat lower.

18:30 Heading back up to the hut, we dump our packs and pick up some shovels and a wheelbarrow, and head over to the snowbank. Our hut has no plumbing system, so we have to collect snow to melt for water. A couple of times a week, we shovel snow into the wheelbarrow and dump it in a large container in the hut where it slowly melts. We also have to carry all our waste water (including pee) in buckets down to the sea. As such, washing is an event that is much less regular than would be socially acceptable in the real world! Luckily, we all smell equally of penguin.


20:00 “Scott Base, Scott Base, this is Cape Bird”. Every night we check in with Antarctica NZ at Scott Base on the VHF radio to let them know we’re okay and haven’t been eaten by skua or drifted away in a boat2. It’s our only opportunity to talk to someone outside of our group of three, hear some news from the outside world and get a weather report. Then it’s time for dinner – usually some sort of stirfry/pasta/curry dish. Today it’s a variation on lamb stirfry, followed by a special treat – passionfruit cheesecake! As far as field food goes, we have it pretty good out at Cape Bird. We have a freezer, so we can have frozen meat and vegetables, and there is a large well-stocked pantry with most of the things you need. Like most field huts though, Cape Bird is the place the food goes to die and expiry dates are treated more as a game (“Guess how many years since tonight’s dinner ingredients expired!”3) than a guideline for edibility. And you definitely start to crave fresh food – what we wouldn’t give for a simple salad.

21:00 Fed, watered and dishes washed, we all sit down at our computers and enter the day’s data, download photos, and work out a plan for tomorrow. This year Peter is trialling a new approach to data entry by entering it directly into a tablet in the field. It seems to be working well and saves having to enter up to 14 pages of data at the end of the day but there is still room for improvement. I spend some time in the lab sorting out the bleeding kit; finding more needles, pre-labelling sample bags.

00:00 How did it get to be this late already?! It’s hard to keep track of time when it never gets dark outside and we often find ourselves working much later than we intended. The light at this time of day is often stunning and it’s tempting to head back outside to take pictures. Tonight we set up the timelapse camera to try and capture the moving sea. Then it’s time to wedge the cardboard back in the window and drift off to sleep, counting penguins…


1 This hour of rising may be somewhat optimistic and is purely here for the benefit of my boss (who I’m hoping doesn’t read footnotes!). Even this is much later than the season when he was there but that’s what happens when you leave me in charge!

2 This happened to a group of researchers at Cape Bird in the 1970s. It took five days before they were rescued. Needless to say, we are no longer allowed boats!

3 I think 2004 was the oldest expiry date encountered this year, although there were a couple of items that I think actually pre-dated expiry dates!

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This is just a super quick post to say bye for now & have a great (antipodean) summer. Yesterday I flew south from New Zealand to Ross Island in Antarctica to begin an eight week fieldtrip to monitor Adelie penguins.  This is the fourth year I’ve been luckly enough to be involved in this research and it’s always a hectic but exciting time of year.

We don’t have internet out at Cape Bird this year (as we shouldn’t at a remote field camp on a remote island at the bottom of the world), which means I can’t keep you posted with what we are up to.  However, it will mean that I have plenty of time to hone my blog posts for when we get back in early February, so expect a flurry of photos and posts then.  In the meantime, you can find out more about the work that we are doing and meet some of the wildlife out at Cape Bird.

Adélie penguin

Adélie penguin



Weddell seal

Weddell seal

Crabeater seal

Crabeater seal

Leopard seal

Leopard seal



I’ll be back in 2014 – have a fabulous christmas & new year!

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New paper: Removal of livestock alters native plant and invasive mammal communities in a dry grassland–shrubland ecosystem

A common mechanism for establishing new areas for conservation is to remove potential threatening processes and then let nature take over, with the assumption that the ecosystem will revert back to a desirable state. For example, we may put up a fence to exclude undesirable species from a new reserve. We assume (& hope) that removing these species will lead to an increase in native species and ultimately benefit conservation. But is that really the case? Or will our new reserve become overrun with other undesirable species, such as exotic weeds or invasive mammals, and have negative consequences for conservation? We recently published a paper in Biological Invasions that investigated this question in the high country regions of New Zealand.

In New Zealand, much of the high country pastoral land has been leased to sheep and cattle farmers on long-term leases, covering ~27% of the total land area. However, a process of tenure review began in 1998 to evaluate the leasehold tenure of some of these properties. In some cases, areas of land was set aside for conservation purposes and the livestock removed. We were interested in what happens to the vegetation and invasive mammal communities after the removal of livestock. Do we end up with a native-dominated ecosystem that enhances conservation values? Or will these formerly grazed paddocks become weedy and full of invasive mammals that will need significant management and end up being a burden on the already limited conservation dollar? Is the vegetation really “greener” on the other side of the fence?


We know that sheep and cattle affect native vegetation in the high country by browsing or trampling, which can reduce seedling recruitment and increase the abundance of exotic plants. It is often assumed that removing livestock will reverse such processes, leading to the recovery of native biodiversity. However, plant communities are complex and the removal of grazing pressures may result in unexpected changes to community diversity and structure. For instance, a dense sward of exotic grasses may form after the removal of livestock if such grasses are more competitive than native shrubs. Sites retired from grazing may also be more attractive to invasive mammals, requiring more active management to achieve positive conservation outcomes. The variable nature of community responses to livestock removal make it difficult for conservation managers and policymakers to plan for the long-term impacts of a change from pastoral to conservation land. To manage former pastoral lease land for conservation, it is important therefore that we clearly identify the potential responses of native communities to livestock removal, and the mechanisms that drive these changes.

So we set out to investigate the impacts of livestock removal on mid-altitude dry grassland-shrubland communities, by comparing the presence and abundance of plant and invasive mammal species on currently grazed sites with that on conservation sites where pastoralism ceased 10–40 years ago. Areas were chosen on four properties in the eastern South Island of New Zealand where paired pastoral and conservation sites were separated by fences.

Removal of livestock had little impact on the total number of plant species present on either side of the fence. However, the composition and structure of these plant communities differed significantly . Sites on conservation land had higher native biodiversity, with small native herbs, grasses and shrubs more abundant than on the adjacent pastoral sites. Sites on pastoral land were dominated by exotic plants, particularly herbs and grasses. Exotic grasses had a negative impact on native biodiversity on both sides of the fence but the effect was stronger on pastoral land. Exotic hawkweeds (Hieracium/Pilosella) were equally abundant on both pastoral and conservation land, while native shrubs were more abundant than exotic shrubs on conservation land. These changes indicate that the study sites are undergoing successional changes towards a native-shrub-dominated ecosystem after the removal of livestock.

Dry grassland-shrubland ecosystems in New Zealand showed a significant response to the removal of livestock. Land grazed by sheep or cattle was dominated by exotic grasses, and carried many rabbits and hedgehogs. In comparison, land retired from grazing for conservation purposes was dominated by native herbs and shrubs, and had higher numbers of possums, hares and mice.

The change in tenure from pastoral to conservation land also had an impact on the invasive mammal communities present. Rabbits and hedgehogs were more abundant on pastoral sites, while possums, hares and mice were more abundant on conservation sites. Rabbits prefer shortgrass habitats, while hedgehogs may be attracted to areas with animal dung containing abundant invertebrates such as fly larvae and earthworms. By comparison, invasive mammals found on conservation land were generalist species, attracted to structurally complex and diverse habitats. It is not clear whether these patterns are driven ‘bottomup’ (i.e. by invasive mammals responding to available resources) or ‘top-down’ (i.e. by invasive mammals effectively engineering suitable habitat for themselves), or a combination of both.

Overall, removal of livestock led to the development of native-dominated plant communities, with a high abundance of shrubs. This has positive implications for conservation, as the low abundance of exotic weeds means there may be little need for active weed management. However, this benefit may be compromised by increases in the relative abundance of some invasive mammal species, potentially leading to negative implications for some species of conservation interest.

For more information about this research, check out our recently published paper in Biological Invasions:

Whitehead, Amy L., Byrom, Andrea E., Clayton, Richard I. & Pech, Roger P. (2013). Removal of livestock alters native plant and invasive mammal communities in a dry grassland–shrubland ecosystem. Biological Invasions DOI: 10.1007/s10530-013-0565-1

An earlier version of this post featured in an issue of Landcare Research‘s Vertebrate Pest Newsletter:
Whitehead, Amy L., Byrom, Andrea E., Clayton, Richard I. & Pech, Roger P (2011). Community responses to livestock removal from drylands. Kararehe Kino, 18, 9-10. [pdf]


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.

Wildlife Wednesday: Whio ducklings



These whio (pronounced “fee-0”) ducklings were just a few days old when I took this photo.  They were some of the lucky ones, hatching in a river valley where introduced predators were kept at low numbers due to the hard work of Department of Conservation staff (who seem to be as threatened as the species they protect).  All of eggs and ducklings just over the hill where there was no predator control got munched by hungry stoats!

I know I’ve featured whio before on Wildlife Wednesday (the inaugural post in fact) but I have a special place in my heart for these bluest of blue ducks (and a lot of photos), having spent 5 years of my life working with them.  March is Whio Awareness Month and I had great intentions of writing an enthralling post about the plight of the whio and the work that’s bring done to protect them. But it’s the end of March already and I have a week full of meetings and deadlines, so it will have to wait for another day. But luckily the good folk at the Department of Conservation and Whio Forever have been busy telling their stories.  Head over to the Whio Forever website to learn more about project – a partnership between the Department of Conservation and Genesis Energy.

Related articles

WHITEHEAD, A., EDGE, K-A., SMART, A., HILL, G., & WILLANS, M. (2008). Large scale predator control improves the productivity of a rare New Zealand riverine duck. Biological Conservation, 141 (11), 2784-2794 DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2008.08.013

WHITEHEAD, A., ELLIOTT, G., & MCINTOSH, A. (2010). Large-scale predator control increases population viability of a rare New Zealand riverine duck. Austral Ecology, 35 (7), 722-730 DOI: 10.1111/j.1442-9993.2009.02079.x

I should also note that this is my first post to be posted to the Research Blogging blogroll.  I wonder if this will help to make whio more popular than my most popular post so far about kakapo?