Patagonia Penguins Make a Comeback

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
December 26, 2001
It looks like good times for the penguins of Patagonia. Magellanic
penguins living along the coast of Argentina have suffered two
disastrous breeding seasons, but this year the beaches are filled with
fat adults and numerous chicks.

Dee Boersma, a conservation biologist at the University of Washington, is spending the holiday season on the beaches of Argentina. But unlike the sunbathing multitudes, she is looking forward to a few weeks in Punta Tombo, knee-deep in waddling penguins, and another couple of weeks with the penguins of Antarctica.

She has been tracking penguins as part of the Wildlife Conservation Society's (WCS) Magellanic Penguin Project since 1983. The Exxon/Mobil Foundation provides a great deal of the funding.

Between 1987 and 2000, the Magellanic penguin population in Patagonia suffered a 30 percent decline, primarily due to overfishing, pollution, and climate change. This steady decline became even more alarming in the face of two disastrous breeding seasons.

In 1999, 85 percent of the chicks in the Punta Tombo colony died in a severe December storm; the majority of the chicks born in the 2000 breeding season died of starvation. Adult penguins didn't fare a lot better. Several thousand were found dead along the beaches in two die-offs.

"In October [2000] they probably died of starvation," said Boersma. "The cause of the second die-off in December is less clear. It could have been a virus, but what we had were healthy penguins leaving on foraging trips. I think it's much more likely they were victims of a toxic algal bloom."

The extreme reduction in the penguin's favorite foods—squid, hake and anchovy—is likely the result of an increase in commercial fisheries in the South Atlantic and the change in ocean fish populations caused by climate change.

But this year the birds are fat, the eggs goose- rather than chicken-size, and pairs that haven't bothered to breed in several years are laying eggs. The October nest survey showed a 28 percent increase from 2000, the highest number of active nests since 1987 when the surveys first began.

Boersma is on her way to Argentina to see how the chicks are faring and to attach 14 new satellite tags.

The Problem with Bachelors

Magellanic penguins spend six months at sea in the waters of the South Atlantic Ocean. They return to the rookery where they were born each spring—September in the Southern Hemisphere—to meet up with their mates and breed.

Following an elaborate courtship ritual, eggs are laid—two in a good season—and the parents take turns sitting on the nest over the 42-day incubation period. The male goes foraging for two weeks, returns, and then the female goes foraging for about the same amount of time. Once the chicks hatch, parents alternate, one day foraging, one day guarding the nest. They are fierce defenders of their young, protecting them from numerous predators that feed on eggs and chicks, including birds—skuas, southern giant petrels, and gulls—and land critters like armadillos, skunks, and foxes.

Mate fidelity is the norm among Magellanic penguins; "we have one pair of birds that have been faithful for 17 years," says Boersma. But for the male Magellanic, unattached bachelors can pose an additional problem. Because of the large number of females that died last year, there are more than ever this year, and according to Boersma, they are up to their old tricks.

Bachelors wait until a female is alone on her nest, and then try to move in with her. If her mate doesn't return quickly enough, and she begins to get hungry, she'll trust the bachelor to guard the nest while she goes off in search of food. But penguin bachelors are notoriously poor babysitters, and frequently leave the nest, making it extremely vulnerable to predators.

"Her eggs are lost, and what the female remembers [the following year] is that she was not successful with her mate; he wasn't around when she needed him," says Boersma. "But the bachelor, he seemed to be around a lot, so the female divorces her former mate and pairs up with the bachelor. Female choice becomes important when the sex ratio is so skewed."

The egg-to-fledgling survival rate is low; typically one chick for every two breeding pairs survives. Despite the hazards of predators and bachelors, the two biggest threats to chick mortality are flooding and starvation.

Implications for Conservation

Since 1983, more than 50,000 birds have been banded under the Magellanic Penguin Project. One male, named Grease, has been followed since 1982 when he was raising chicks. Until Boersma began her research, scientists assumed that Magellanic penguins stayed fairly close to home on their foraging trips, within 20 miles (30 kilometers) or so. Boersma's data shows the foraging range is much more extensive; some penguins have been tracked more than 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) away.

Boersma's research enables WCS and other organizations to identify potential threats and target conservation efforts.

Oil pollution from tankers discharging ballast water, for instance, has become an increasing threat. Oil pollution kills more than 40,000 Magellanic penguins along the coast of Argentina each year, estimates the International Penguin Conservation Work Group. WCS, teaming with other environmental groups, successfully campaigned to have oil tanker routes moved farther off the coast. WCS and Fundacin Patagonia Natural were instrumental in getting Patagonia's Coastal Zone Management Plan adopted by the Argentina government.

A lot of research questions remain unanswered: Do couples stay together during their six months at sea; do birds that consistently raise chicks know better places to forage, or are they just better at catching fish; how does climate variation change foraging patterns—the questions are endless and Boersma wants to know it all.

"Penguins tell us a lot about environmental change and the quality of change," says Boersma. "Some of the earliest signs of climate change or environmental degradation to the marine environment will be reflected in penguin populations.

"To really learn about these animals takes a lot of financial support, and it has to come from the public," she says. "The government doesn't pay for this kind of research, and universities don't pay for it. If people are interested in supporting research like this, they should find an organization and contribute."

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