Oil-Slicked Penguins Wash Ashore Dead in Argentina

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.

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