Tag Archives: penguins

Little Blue neighbours

little-penguin.jpg(Shaun Hurrell, 6 July 2017; Photo Richard Robinson)

They can be found nesting on people’s doorsteps, or quite literally underneath them. Meet the world’s smallest penguins, unwillingly urban birds who are being given new homes by local volunteers

Wellington city, a few metres from the water. On the edge of a hot, flat tarmac car park, Kimberley Collins is removing stones from the top of a wooden box, tucked away under a bush. Hinging back the lid, inside is a slate-blue backed penguin about 35 cm long, lying on its belly looking up at her with endearing eyes and a sleek white chin.

The Little Penguin Eudyptula minor, known as kororā in Maori, is the world’s smallest penguin, and when they are not crossing dangerous roads, these unwillingly urban birds are struggling to find shady crevices to nest. Kimberley is a local volunteer who is checking the box, installed by Forest & Bird, whose head office is in the nearby city. Their “Places for Penguins” project, which started in 2007, has so far installed hundreds of nest boxes around Wellington, its harbour, nearby bays and islands, as well as producing signage, awareness work, planting thousands of native plants, and invasive predator control. Wellington’s Mayor has even lent her hand with penguin monitoring.

“Little blues”, although declining in numbers, are a Least Concern species globally (however recent evidence suggests that Australia’s could be a separate species, in which case the threat category could increase). They can often be found nesting all over New Zealand’s coastlines, on people’s doorsteps… or quite literally directly underneath them. This close relationship with humans was not always welcomed, but now most embrace their flippered neighbours – including people like Fraser Ross, who is a long time Forest & Bird member and part of local group Timaru Penguins, on the east coast of South Island. One of many volunteers, he can often be found counting nests or in friendly, explanatory conversation with scores of tourists that line the rocks as penguins arrive at dusk, preventing flash photography, and, when the need arises, checking under cars before people drive away.

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Penguins of the remote rainforest

tawaki.jpg

(Shaun Hurrell 4 July 2017; Photo Richard Robinson)

Grab a kayak, hiking boots and become an expert at crawling through rocks if you want to discover New Zealand’s hidden Fiordland Penguins, or “tawaki”. But why are they going hungry?

There’s a saying that says biting insects exist to protect beautiful places from humans. In Fiordland, which forms the remote and rugged southwest of the South Island, this almost rings true, wherein hides mainland New Zealand’s hidden rainforest penguins. “Most New Zealanders wouldn’t recognise a tawaki as a native species”, says Thomas Mattern, researcher at Otago University, and penguin specialist part of The Tawaki Project.

Despite striking yellow feathers above their eyes, Fiordland Penguins Eudyptes pachyrhynchus are hard to see. Named after a Maori god that walked the earth, Tawaki, they are actually quite a timid species and live in small scattered colonies in the steep and water-weathered forests of New Zealand’s fiords, a place only accessible by water or multi-day treks through clouds of irritating biting sandflies. Whilst thousands of tourists brave bad weather for boat trips into these stunning landscapes, the plight of the tawaki is not well known. On Stewart Island too, they do not want to be found, shrouding themselves in very dense vegetation, rock crevices and even sea caves only accessible underwater. With a range that has retreated since the arrival of humans, you can see why they might be so timid.

“We are only beginning to understand the threats tawaki face”

“To date, little is known about their ecology”, says Thomas. He, together with Robin Long – who works as a ranger for the West Coast Penguin Trust and grew up in this remote environment – are now experts at crawling between jagged rocks and kayaking through rain-splattered fiords to find these 55 cm tall penguins, as part of the Tawaki Project, to learn more of their breeding and foraging success by using camera traps on nests and fitting waterproof GPS tags. Last summer, El Niño hit the penguins hard: data loggers revealed some tawaki heading 100 km out to sea to search for food. “A lot of chicks died of starvation”, says Thomas. “We found some with just sticks and mud in their stomachs.”

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Finding new homes won’t help emperor penguins cope with climate change

(ScienceDaily, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution 7 June 2017; Photo: Stephanie Jenouvrier)

Unlike other species that migrate successfully to escape the wrath of climate change, a new study shows that dispersal may help sustain global Emperor penguin populations for a limited time, but, as sea ice conditions continue to deteriorate, the 54 colonies that exist today will face devastating declines by the end of this century.

If projections for melting Antarctic sea ice through 2100 are correct, the vanishing landscape will strip Emperor penguins of their breeding and feeding grounds and put populations at risk. But like other species that migrate to escape the wrath of climate change, can these iconic animals be spared simply by moving to new locations?

According to new research led by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), they cannot. Scientists report that dispersal may help sustain global Emperor penguin populations for a limited time, but, as sea ice conditions continue to deteriorate, the 54 colonies that exist today will face devastating declines by the end of this century. They say the Emperor penguin should be listed as an endangered species. The study was published in the June 6, 2017 edition of the journal Biological Conservation.

“We know from previous studies that sea ice is a key environmental driver of the life history of Emperor penguins, and that the fifty-percent declines we’ve seen in Pointe Géologie populations along the Antarctic coast since the 1950s coincide with warmer climate and sea ice decline,” said Stephanie Jenouvrier, WHOI biologist and lead author of the study. “But what we haven’t known is whether or not dispersal could prevent or even reverse future global populations. Based on this study, we conclude that the prospects look grim at the end of 2100, with a projected global population decline as low as 40 percent and up to 99 percent over three generations. Given this outlook, we argue that the Emperor penguin is deserving of protection under the Endangered Species Act.”

The relationship between Emperor penguins and sea ice is a fragile one: Too little sea ice reduces the availability of breeding sites and prey; too much sea ice means longer hunting trips for adults, which in turn means lower feeding rates for chicks. Only in the past few years have scientists become aware of the penguins’ ability to migrate to locations with potentially more optimal sea ice conditions.

“Before 2014, our studies of the impacts of climate change on these animals hadn’t factored in movement among populations,” said Jenouvrier. “But between then and now, a number of satellite imagery studies and genetic studies have confirmed their ability to disperse, so this was an important new variable to work into the equation.”

To determine whether migration will ultimately help Emperor penguins defend against population decline, Jenouvrier worked with mathematicians to develop a sophisticated demographic model of penguin colonies based on data collected at Pointe Géologie, one of the few places where long-term Emperor penguin studies have been conducted.

The model tracks the population connectivity between penguins as they take their chances moving to new habitats offering better sea ice conditions. “It’s like we’ve added roads between the cities the penguins live in and now get to see what happens when they travel between them,” she said.

A range of model inputs were used, including penguin dispersal distance, behavior and rate of migration. The model also factors in end-of-century sea ice forecasts from climate projection models to predict the fate of each colony.

According to Shaye Wolf, climate science director for the Center for Biological Diversity, the new modeling technique is key to informing policy around “much-needed protections” for the Emperor penguin.

“Dr. Jenouvrier’s research has been at the forefront of advancing our understanding of how climate change is impacting these animals now and into the future,” she said.

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Every penguin, ranked: which species are we most at risk of losing?

penguin.jpg

(Author: Alex Dale; Photo: Christopher Michel; 24 April 2017)

10 of the world’s 18 species of penguin are threatened with extinction. Discover where they live, and the threats they face, in this illustrated list of the world’s species

Beautiful. Inspiring. Under threat.

The first third of our Protect A Penguin campaign tagline is self-explanatory. Beautiful. Even if you’ve got a heart as hard as a cement mixer, the sight of an Emperor Penguin chick huddling against the cold, or a flash of the Little Penguin’s vibrant blue feathers, is guaranteed to make you melt into a pile of goo.

And as for Inspiring? Well, is there a creature on this planet that better represents survival against all odds than the penguin? Over the course of their existence, these remarkable birds have evolved numerous incredible adaptions that allow them to thrive in some of the world’s most challenging marine environments. They can drink seawater, survive in temperatures as low -60°C (-76°F), and they are amazingly agile swimmers. Many can swim faster than we can run.

But they are also Under threat. While the penguins are heavily adapted for their environments, it has taken them millions of years to evolve these features, and human impact is hitting the penguins’ environments too hard and too fast for them to cope. This is why over half of the world’s penguins are now in real danger of going extinct.

But which ones are we most in danger of losing?

That’s where BirdLife comes in. As the official assessors of the status of the world’s birds for the IUCN Red List, our science team is tasked with regularly reviewing all available data for every species, and allocating it a threat level accordingly, depending on criteria such as range, numbers and rate of decline. The seven threat levels are (in increasing order of seriousness): LEAST CONCERN, NEAR THREATENED, VULNERABLE, ENDANGERED, CRITICALLY ENDANGERED, EXTINCT IN THE WILD AND EXTINCT.

To find out more about the world’s 18 penguins, where they live and which ones are in most peril, read on. And don’t forget: you can help by donating to our global Protect A Penguin campaign

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Walk with penguins in ground-breaking virtual reality video

(Shaun Hurrell; 19 April 2017)

Walk with Southern Rockhopper, King, Magellanic, and Gentoo Penguins on a remote island, in a new short film produced with Visualise for BirdLife International’s “Protect a Penguin” global campaign, to raise awareness that over half of the world’s penguins are threatened with extinction.

Amidst the sound of trumpeting parental calls, with wind buffeting against its fluffy feathers, a King Penguin chick walks right up to you and stares you in the eye. You duck your head as an albatross soars overhead, whilst another nests on a rock ledge just above you. As penguins squabble for a shower you feel almost splashed by water, and you sense the exposure as you peer over a cliff and watch a line of Southern Rockhoppers Eudyptes chrysocome jump up the steep slope to their colony. When you take off the virtual reality headset, with a bit of a dizzy wobble, you feel like you have seen the world from the perspective of a penguin—and it’s a tough realisation.

BirdLife has worked with virtual reality producer, Visualise, to create Walk with Penguins, an engaging 3D 360 short nature film—the first of its kind—to bring the daily challenges and lives of remote penguin colonies to you, and to raise awareness about threats to penguins, the second-most threatened group of seabirds (after albatrosses).

You can watch online in high-quality 360 video on YouTube (embedded below—click to view full-screen), or for the full experience, watch via the YouTube app or Google Cardboard app, using a cheap cardboard frame that allows you to use your phone as a virtual reality headset. The only thing that is missing is the smell of a real colony…

Despite being loved the world over, over half of the world’s penguins are threatened with extinction (ten out of 18 species) due to competition with fisheries, bycatch, marine pollution, disease, habitat disturbance and climate change. Urgent action is needed to better protect them, but public awareness of their situation is low, so on 10 April, we launched our campaign Protect a Penguin.

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Penguin colony repeatedly decimated by volcanic eruptions

An aerial view of Ardley Island, SOuth Shetland Islands.(Dr Steve Roberts; 11 April, 2017)

One of the largest colonies of gentoo penguins in Antarctica was decimated by volcanic eruptions several times during the last 7,000 years according to a new study. An international team of researchers, led by British Antarctic Survey (BAS), studied ancient penguin guano and found the colony came close to extinction several times due to ash fall from the nearby Deception Island volcano. Their results are published today (Tuesday 11 April) in Nature Communications.  

Ardley Island, near the Antarctic Peninsula, is currently home to a population of around 5,000 pairs of gentoo penguins. Using new chemical analyses of penguin guano extracted in sediment cores from a lake on the island, the researchers unraveled the history of the penguin colony. Climate conditions around Ardley Island have been generally favourable for penguins over the last 7,000 years and the team had expected the local population to show minor fluctuations in response to changes in climate or sea ice. The surprising result was that the nearby Deception Island volcano had a far greater impact than originally anticipated.

Lead author Dr Steve Roberts from BAS says:

“When we first examined the sediment cores we were struck by the intense smell of the guano in some layers and we could also clearly see the volcanic ash layers from nearby Deception Island. By measuring the sediment chemistry, we were able to estimate the population numbers throughout the period and see how penguins were affected by the eruptions. On at least three occasions during the past 7,000 years, the penguin population was similar in magnitude to today, but was almost completely wiped out locally after each of three large volcanic eruptions. It took, on average, between 400 and 800 years for it to re-establish itself sustainably.”

Dr Claire Waluda, penguin ecologist from BAS says:

“This study reveals the severe impact volcanic eruptions can have on penguins, and just how difficult it can be for a colony to fully recover.  An eruption can bury penguin chicks in abrasive and toxic ash, and whilst the adults can swim away, the chicks may be too young to survive in the freezing waters. Suitable nesting sites can also be buried, and may remain uninhabitable for hundreds of years.”

Waluda continues:

“The techniques developed in this study will help scientists to reconstruct past changes in colony size and potentially predict how other penguin populations may be affected elsewhere.  For example, the chinstrap penguins on Zavodovski Island, which were disturbed by eruptions from the Mt Curry volcano in 2016.

“Changes in penguin populations on the Antarctic Peninsula have been linked to climate variability and sea-ice changes, but the potentially devastating long-term impact of volcanic activity has not previously been considered.”