Oil-Slicked Penguins Wash Ashore Dead in Argentina

John Roach
for National Geographic News
May 12, 2006
Hundreds of dead Magellanic penguins covered in oil have washed ashore
in recent days on the coast of Argentina, according to news reports.

Most have been found in the Cabo Virgenes nature reserve, about 1,350 miles (2,200 kilometers) southwest of Buenos Aires near the southernmost tip of Patagonia (see a map of Argentina).

Several hundred more of the polluted birds have shown up alive, and rescue workers are scrambling to remove oil from the penguins' feathers.

Though several Argentine oil platforms operate in the area, no leak has been identified as the cause of the event, according to Dee Boersma.

Boersma, a conservation biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, studies Magellanic penguins (photo) in Argentina.

"Where the oil is coming from, we're not entirely sure," she said. "But, of course, oil and penguins don't mix."

Freezing, Starving

Oiled penguins are unable to stay warm in the frigid waters of the southern Atlantic and end up seeking refuge on shore. But penguins are unable to feed on land, "so they slowly starve to death," Boersma said.

The penguins ingest the oil as they preen their feathers, which changes the birds' immune systems, making them more vulnerable to disease.

Oil also causes lesions in the penguins' stomachs, making them less effective at digesting food.

"So all of it is just bad news for a penguin," Boersma said.

Jay Holcomb is the executive director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center in Fairfield, California.

He said the impact of the mystery oil spill "could be huge" depending on how hard it affects the breeding population.

"If it impacts the adults and kills them, then it's a stronger impact than if it [just] kills the younger ones," he said.

Holcomb says his colleagues in Santa Cruz province, where the reserve sits on the Straits of Magellan, report 130 live birds in care and more than 300 on the shore, which still need to be captured and cleaned.

The good news, according to Holcomb, is that oiled-penguin rehabilitation has proven to be 95 percent effective.

"Penguins have that advantage to them, if you get them in time," he said.

Rescue workers first clean oil off the birds with warm water and mild soap. They then begin to feed them and get them ready for release back into the wild.

But Boersma says that mitigation is expensive and not as effective as prevention.

"The public, government, and [nonprofits] need to do all we can to prevent illegal discharge of oil," she said.

Further north, chronically oiled waters send large numbers of slick penguins to the shores of South America's eastern coast every year.

In recent weeks hundreds of these birds have shown up on beaches in Uruguay and Brazil, Holcomb said.

"This is a problem in itself," he added.

The more northerly penguins are migrants that head north as winter takes hold in the Southern Hemisphere. Boersma says the migrants come into contact with oil that has presumably been illegally discharged from ships.

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