Tag Archives: penguin

Wildlife photographer takes ‘once in a lifetime’ shot of a yellow penguin

Credit: Yves Adams/Kenney News.

Belgian wildlife photographer Yves Adams was on a two-month expedition in the South Atlantic towards Antarctica at the end of 2019 when he came upon a dazzling sight that made him rub his eyes. There he was, as a lone dandelion, a “never before seen” yellow penguin among a colony of 120,000 king penguins. These breathtaking photos speak for themselves.

Credit: Credit: Yves Adams/Kenney News.

The unusual bird was caught on camera during the expedition’s stop on an isle in South Georgia. It wasn’t hard for Adams to notice something was off when he noticed a yellow stripe in a sea of black-and-white tuxedos.

“I’d never seen or heard of a yellow penguin before,” Adams told Kennedy News. “There were 120,000 birds on that beach and this was the only yellow one there.”

Credit: Credit: Yves Adams/Kenney News.

Like albino penguins, this yellow penguin suffers from a certain pigmentation condition known as leucism. In leucistic penguins, their cells don’t produce enough melanin to turn feathers black, which instead results in this yellow/creamy color.

About 1 in 140,000 penguins are leucistic, and this colony of 120,000 strong fits the bill perfectly.

Credit: Credit: Yves Adams/Kenney News.

Previously, scientists found that the yellow pigment found in penguin feathers is distinct from the five other known classes of avian plumage pigmentations. Penguins use the yellow pigment to attract mates, but it’s not clear whether the distinctive plumage of a leucistic penguin makes the bird more attractive or more repulsive to potential mates.

“Penguins use the yellow pigment to attract mates and we strongly suspect that the yellow molecule is synthesized internally,” explains Daniel Thomas, a fellow at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, who led the study that uncovered the yellow pigment in penguin feathers.

This isn’t the first leucistic penguin humans have ever encountered, but to the best of our knowledge, these seem to be the first photos documenting the condition in a penguin.

Suffice it to say, when Adams realized what was in front of him, at a distance of about 50 meters (150 feet), he immediately went bonkers.

“We all went crazy when we realised. We dropped all the safety equipment and grabbed our cameras. We were so lucky the bird landed right where we were. Our view wasn’t blocked by a sea of massive animals. Normally it’s almost impossible to move on this beach because of them all. It was heaven that he landed by us. If it had been 50 metres away we wouldn’t have been able to get this show of a lifetime,” he said.

For more amazing photos by Adams, be sure to check out his website, and follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

Stop climate change or the Emperor penguins die, a new paper warns

Unless we get a grip on climate heating, the emperor penguin is going the way of the dodo — extinct.

Image credits Christopher Michel / Flickr.

An international study led by researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) reports that warming climate conditions might cause emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) to become extinct by the end of the century.

The Emperor’s new environment

“If global climate keeps warming at the current rate, we expect emperor penguins in Antarctica to experience an 86% decline by the year 2100,” says Stephanie Jenouvrier, a seabird ecologist at WHOI and lead author on the paper.

“At that point, it is very unlikely for them to bounce back.”

Emperor penguins live and die by sea ice, which is where they breed and molt. The animals build their colonies on spans of ice that satisfy very specific conditions: it must be locked to the Antarctic shoreline but close to open seawater (giving the birds access to food). Climate heating is melting sea ice, however, which effectively destroys the birds’ habitat, food access, and ability to reproduce.

For their study, the team combined a global climate model (created by the National Center for Atmospheric Research, NCAR) and a model of the penguin populations themselves. The first gave the team a rough idea of how sea ice will evolve in the future, especially in terms of where and when it will form or melt in the future. The second one worked to predict how colonies might react to the changes in their environment.

“We’ve been developing that penguin model for 10 years,” says Jenouvrier. “It can give a very detailed account of how sea ice affects the life cycle of emperor penguins, their reproduction, and their mortality. When we feed the results of the NCAR climate model into it, we can start to see how different global temperature targets may affect the emperor penguin population as a whole.”

The compound model was then used to examine three different scenarios. The first assumes an increase in global average temperatures of only 1.5 degrees Celsius (the goal set out by the Paris climate accord). The second involves a temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius. The final scenario assumes no action was taken against climate change, leading to temperature increases of 5 to 6 degrees Celsius.

The first one led to a loss of around 5% of sea ice by 2100, causing a roughly 20% drop in the penguin population. The 2-degree warming scenario led to around 15% ice loss and a 30% drop in penguin numbers. The business as usual scenario was by far the most damaging, leading to almost complete loss of the penguin colonies.

“Under that scenario, the penguins will effectively be marching towards extinction over the next century,” she says.

The paper “The Paris Agreement objectives will likely halt future declines of emperor penguins” has been published in the journal Global Change Biology.

3D model.

Fossil Friday: leg bones lead to extinct giant penguin in New Zealand

Science confirms: giant penguins exist(ed).

An amateur fossil find last year — large bird leg bones — confirm that giant penguins lived on New Zealand’s South Island millions of years ago.

Leg Bones.

Overview of the fossilized leg bones. Black scale bar is 50mm (~2in).
Image credits Gerald Mayr et al., (2019), AAJP.

Big Bird

The fossil “provides further evidence that penguins attained a very large size early in their evolutionary history,” according to the authors.

The bones belonged to a 80-kilogram bird that could grow to nearly 1.6 meters (63 inches) high, according to a new paper describing the fossils. Christened Crossvallia waiparensis, it hunted off New Zealand‘s coast in the Paleocene era, 66-56 million years ago.

It would make it roughly four times heavier and 40cm taller than the modern Emperor penguin, the researchers add.

3D model.

A life size 3D model of Crossvallia waiparensis.
Image credits Canterbury Museum.

New Zealand isn’t a stranger to extinct big birds. Between Haast’s eagle, with its three-meter wingspan and the flightless moa, which grew up to 3.6-meters tall, these beasts roamed both the land and the sky.

So there has been speculation that a species of large penguins also evolved here to take advantage of marine ecosystems — which the present findings prove correct.

“It further reinforces our theory that penguins attained great size early in their evolution,” says Canterbury Museum researcher Vanesa De Pietri, adding that this is the second giant penguin from the Paleocene era found in the area.

These ‘mega-penguins’ were likely driven extinct by the emergence of other large marine predators such as seals and toothed whales.

The paper “Leg bones of a new penguin species from the Waipara Greensand add to the diversity of very large-sized Sphenisciformes in the Paleocene of New Zealand” has been published in the journal Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Palaeontology.

Penguin and seal poop create biodiversity hotspots in Antarctica

The desolate landscapes of the Antarctic receive an unexpected boom from penguins and seals, whose feces fertilize large areas, providing nutrients that help an entire ecosystem.

Image via Max Pixel.

The cold lands of Antarctica are inhospitable, but not completely barren. A small group of plants and animals brave the cold and the ice and manage to form sustainable ecosystems. As in all ecosystems, plants are the ones that bring new energy into the mix — they absorb solar energy through photosynthesis and transform it into nutrients. But plants also need to draw some nutrients from the soil.

This is where poop comes in to save the day.

“What we see is that the poo produced by seals and penguins partly evaporates as ammonia,” says Stef Bokhorst, a researcher in the Department of Ecological Sciences at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. “Then, the ammonia gets picked up by the wind and is blown inland, and this makes its way into the soil and provides the nitrogen that primary producers need in order to survive in this landscape.”

The process isn’t limited to the area of the colony. In fact, Bokhorst and colleagues found that the benefits of this poop spread to an area up to 240 times the size of the colony, enabling the development of thriving communities of moss and lichens, which in turn support impressive biodiversity consisting of invertebrates. The numbers of springtails and mites, for instance, far exceeds what is typically found in more temperate areas.

“You can find millions of them per square meter here, but in grasslands in the US or Europe, there are only about 50,000 to 100,000 per square meter,” says Bokhorst, adding that identifying these small species was so painstakingly laborious that he’d much rather prefer trekking through the cold temperatures of the Arctic. “It took months and months of sitting in the lab counting and IDing them under a microscope,” he says, adding that the system is still too unproductive to support mammals such as mice or rats.

Ultimately, this bio-cycle of nutrient enrichment is not surprising, but what was surprising was how far it spread, and the fact that it had nothing to do with how cold an area was. The good news is that since penguin and seal colonies can be monitored with relative ease, this information can then be used to infer the enrichment area, offering a secondary monitorization. The bad news, however, is that climate change and human activity are already taking a toll on this existing biodiversity.

The vibrant communities that researchers discovered flourish, in part, because they have no natural predators. But the introduction of invasive species might affect the delicate balance of the ecosystem. Limiting our impact on Antarctica is crucial for the conservation of these communities.

The study “Nitrogen inputs by marine vertebrates drive abundance and richness in Antarctic terrestrial ecosystems”  has been published in Current BiologyDOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2019.04.038.

Penguin selfie.

Penguins find unattended camera, snap a fabulous selfie

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but just recently, it also selfied the penguin.

Penguin selfie.

“Does my chin look weird in this?”
Image credits Australian Antarctic Program / Eddie Gault.

Eddie Gault was born and raised in Australia, but his passion took him far away from the heat of the Land Down Under, and into the frigid winds of the poles. And lucky us, because his latest expedition to the Antarctic made this gem of photography possible. The image was captured at the Auster Rookery near Australia’s Mawson Antarctic research station — Australia’s first continental station and the longest continuously operating station south of the Antarctic Circle.

By all accounts, this selfie was the product of a happy accident — Gault left the camera on the ice when visiting the rookery, and it soon attracted the birds, curious to see what’s what.

“It didn’t take long for the naturally curious birds to seize the opportunity for a selfie,” explained the Australian Antarctic Division.

One penguin waddled up to the camera, knocked it over, and then looked down at the objective; likely, as it was checking out its own reflection on the objective. Soon, one of his companions joined him, setting the stage for this amazing image. And I think we can all be glad that they did. You can see the whole encounter here:

The selfied penguins are Emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri). They’re the largest penguins of the bunch and are native to Antarctica. They’re also the only beings known to breed during the Antarctic winter, when temperatures can drop down to a frigid -50° Celsius (-58° Fahrenheit).

Thousands of penguins call Auster Rookery their home, and come here to find a mate and rear their chicks. It’s one of around 40 such colonies on the continent of Antarctica. One of the Australian Antarctic program’s central objectives is to study the lives of these penguins, and understand how human activities affect them. Emperor penguins are looking at rough times ahead due to the effects of climate change.

Artist impression of Kumimanu biceae. Credit: G. Mayr/Senckenberg Research Institute.

Ancient man-sized penguin found in New Zealand beach

An ancient penguin which lived 60 million years ago was far more intimidating than today’s charismatic tuxedoed birds. It was as big as a grown man, making it one of the largest semi-aquatic birds ever live on Earth.

Kumimanu biceae's size relative to a human being. Credit: Gerald Mayr/Senckenberg Research Institute.Kumimanu biceae‘s size relative to a human being. Credit: Gerald Mayr/Senckenberg Research Institute.

The partially-fossilized skeleton was unearthed from a beach, in the Otago region of New Zealand’s South Island. Researchers from Germany and New Zealand estimate it probably lived between 60 to 55 million years ago, based on the rock layers it was found in.

Scientists named the formidable giant penguin Kumimanu biceae — where “kumi” is a terrifying monster in Maori mythology and “manu” is the Maori word for “bird.”

By measuring Kumimanu’s bones and comparing them to the other ancient penguin remains, the researchers were able to estimate the bird could grow nearly 6 feet (1.8 meters) in length and 223 pounds (101 kilograms) in weight.

Giant penguins aren’t exactly new to science. Icadyptes and Inkayacu, which could grow 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall, roamed the coast of Peru 30 million years ago. Pachydyptes, another man-sized penguin found around New Zealand, was bigger still. Kumimanu tops all other giant penguins by at least 7 inches (18 centimeters). But what makes Kumimanu particularly exciting is its age — it’s the earliest giant penguin scientists have found so far.

Penguins evolved from flying birds tens of millions of years ago, but lost the ability to get airborne and became accomplished swimmers instead. Once grounded, some penguin species became much larger, growing from about 80cm tall to twice the size.

Penguins share a common ancestor with flying birds from which they diverged millions of years ago, losing the ability to get airborne but becoming accomplished swimmers instead. The penguins grew larger and larger and they did so rapidly, judging from the discovery of Kumimanu. After dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago by a giant asteroid impact, so did many predatory marine reptiles, and the penguins were quick to seize the opportunity.

Concerning its appearance, Kumimanu was likely brownish and had a longer beak than its modern day black and white cousins.

“It would most likely have been slimmer too and not so cute looking,” said Gerald Mayr at the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt. “It’s one of the tallest penguins that has ever been found.”

The humerus (top) and a bone from the shoulder girdle (coracoid, bottom) of the Paleocene giant penguin Kumimanu biceae, compared to the corresponding bones of one of the largest fossil penguins known to date (Pachydyptes ponderosus from the Eocene in New Zealand) and those of an Emperor Penguin (Aptendodytes forsteri). Credit: G. Mayr/Senckenberg Research Institute.

The humerus (top) and a bone from the shoulder girdle (coracoid, bottom) of the Paleocene giant penguin Kumimanu biceae, compared to the corresponding bones of one of the largest fossil penguins known to date (Pachydyptes ponderosus from the Eocene in New Zealand) and those of an Emperor Penguin (Aptendodytes forsteri). Credit: G. Mayr/Senckenberg Research Institute.

Today, the biggest penguin alive today is the Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri), reaching 122 cm (48 in) in height and weighing from 22 to 45 kg (49 to 99 lb). ‘

Scientific reference: Gerald Mayr et al. A Paleocene penguin from New Zealand substantiates multiple origins of gigantism in fossil Sphenisciformes, Nature Communications (2017). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-017-01959-6.

Complete wipeout: Just two penguin chicks survive from a colony of 40,000

Unusual conditions forcing penguins to swim more out to sea led to mass starvation for a penguin colony, with only two chick surviving.

Mass starvation has wiped out thousands of Adelie penguin chicks in Antarctica. Image credits: Yan Ropert-Coudert / WWF.

Since 2010, Yan Ropert-Coudert has been monitoring a colony of now 18,000 pairs of Adelie penguins in East Antarctica. Working with colleagues from France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, he studies how the penguins try to adapt and resist to climate change. This year, they haven’t. Mass starvation completely wiped out a generation.

These penguins mostly survive on a diet of krill — creatures which are highly vulnerable to climate change. As water temperatures rise, krill is heavily affected, and so too are penguins. This leaves them vulnerable to any additional stress; it doesn’t take much to push them over the edge.

This time, it was, ironically, extra ice. Overall, Antarctica has had a record low amount of summer sea ice, but the area around the penguins was an exception. Due to all the extra ice, penguins had a much harder time reaching water and finding food, leaving the chicks vulnerable to starvation and the freezing temperatures. Melting happening elsewhere affected the configuration of the ice. Particularly, the break-up of the Mertz glacier tongue in 2010 has made the ice evolution unpredictable. To complete the gruesome picture, warmer temperatures caused a lot of rain, leaving the chicks wet and more vulnerable to cold.

“The conditions are set for this to happen more frequently due to the breaking of the Mertz glacier in 2010 that changed the configuration of the stretch of sea in front of the colony,” he told AFP. “But there are other factors needed to have a zero year: a mix of temperature, wind direction and strength, no opening of polynya in front of the colony.

It’s not the first thing something like this happened. Four years ago, the same colony, which had even more members then, failed to produce a single chick.

The future of the penguins also doesn’t look that good. Krill fisheries are planned in the area, which will compete with the penguins for food. This is why researchers hope to convince policymakers to protect the area. The head of polar programs at WWF, Rod Downie, said:

“Adélie penguins are one of the hardiest and most amazing animals on our planet. This devastating event contrasts with the image that many people might have of penguins. It’s more like ‘Tarantino does Happy Feet’, with dead penguin chicks strewn across a beach in Adélie Land.”

“The risk of opening up this area to exploratory krill fisheries, which would compete with the Adélie penguins for food as they recover from two catastrophic breeding failures in four years, is unthinkable. So CCAMLR needs to act now by adopting a new Marine Protected Area for the waters off East Antarctica, to protect the home of the penguins.”

 

Scientists want you to look at photos of penguins. Yes, really

 

Dearavery/Reddit

As scientists from all fields have access to more and more data, a new problem emerges: someone needs to analyze all this data. But there simply aren’t enough time resources to go around, so scientists have adopted another approach: citizen science. Citizen science, also known as crowd-source science is science conducted by amateur or non-professional scientists. In this particular case, UK researchers installed over 100 cameras near penguin territories in Antarctica and its surrounding islands to see how the little penguins are dealing with climate change. With each camera taking a photo daily, there are thousands of photos every day, and not enough people to look at them.

Lead researcher Dr Tom Hart is also encouraging school groups to adopt their own colony – following and monitoring its progress and “learning about Antarctica along the way.” They started the project a while ago, but didn’t had a lot of results with it.

“We’ve been really good at engaging people, but we’ve not been that good at feeding back,” he told BBC News.

So now, they’re launching “PenguinWatch 2.0,” where you also get to see the results of what you’re doing.

A map of the areas you could be looking at.

“We can’t do this work on our own, and every penguin that people click on and count on the website – that’s all information that tells us what’s happening at each nest, and what’s happening over time,” said Dr Hart. “The new part is that people will be able to see [the results of] what they’re doing.”

The team will integrate climate, pollution, and fisheries research from the area, to figure out how changing conditions are affection penguin populations. Penguins are particularly important due to their position in the ecosystem.

“As top predators, penguins are considered sentinels of changes within their ecosystem,” the PenguinWatch website explains. “Because penguins spend the majority of their life in water and fall at the top of the food chain, any variations in their populations may represent larger changes to the dynamic Antarctic ecosystem.”

So, all you have to do is go to the project website – PenguinWatch 2.0 – and log on. Then you can look at photos and identify adult penguins, chicks and eggs. You’ll be looking at images of Adélie, Chinstrap, Gentoo, King, and Rockhopper penguins. You can also discuss your results on the ‘Discuss’ page with other volunteers. It’s a simple task really, and it can do a world of difference.

Penguins Have Pretty Bad Taste, Genetic Study Shows

Penguins really have bad taste – they can’t detect the savory taste of the fish they eat, and they also can’t enjoy fruits or sugar. Penguins have lost their ability to taste everything else other than salty and sour.

n Adelie penguin photographed by Herbert Ponting on the Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole. Photograph: Popperfoto/Popperfoto/Getty Images

Humans (and most vertebrates) have five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. In case you’re wondering about the last one, umami is the savory meaty taste. While the loss of taste is very intriguing, the loss of the umami taste is especially perplexing because penguins are fish eaters. Study leader Jianzhi “George” Zhang, a professor in the U-M Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology said:

“Penguins eat fish, so you would guess that they need the umami receptor genes, but for some reason they don’t have them,” says Jianzhi “George” Zhang of the University of Michigan. “These findings are surprising and puzzling, and we do not have a good explanation for them. But we have a few ideas.”

Image via Science News.

This is highly unusual. While no birds can taste sweet, most are capable of perceiving umami and bitter notes – especially the carnivorous ones… but not penguins. Since the loss of taste appeared in all penguin species, it seems likely that the change was actually done by the penguins’ ancestors.

“Taken together, our results strongly suggest that the umami and bitter tastes were lost in the common ancestor of all penguins,” write Huabin Zhao and colleagues.

It’s not clear why this happens, but it likely has a lot to do with the extremely cold environments in which the penguins live. The taste receptors for sweet, umami, and bitter tastes are temperature sensitive – they don’t really work well when it’s extremely cold. So even if penguins had them, they wouldn’t perform adequately, so they likely faded away in time. Also, penguins tend to swallow their food whole, so they likely don’t care that much how it tastes like.

“Their behavior of swallowing food whole, and their tongue structure and function, suggest that penguins need no taste perception, although it is unclear whether these traits are a cause or a consequence of their major taste loss,” Zhang says.

Penguin tongues are also strange from other points of view, the study observes. Some penguins lack taste buds altogether; the tongues are instead covered with stiff, sharp papillae covered by a thick, horny layer. The tongue has lost its tasting potential, but instead, it became better at catching and trapping prey.

Journal Reference:

  1. Huabin Zhao, Jianwen Li, Jianzhi Zhang. Molecular evidence for the loss of three basic tastes in penguins. Current Biology, 2015; 25 (4): R141 DOI:10.1016/j.cub.2015.01.026

 

Meet an awesome blonde penguin

Seafarers on a 2012 National Geographic-Lindblad expedition to Antarctica found this amazing and rare “blond” penguin on a colony on Aitcho Island.

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The penguin actually suffers from a condition called isabellinism or leucism – not albinism.Though technically separate conditions, isabellinism and leucism are used interchangeably

In albinism, there is a complete or partial lack of the skin pigment called melanin (responsible for the color black). In leucism however, there is a reduction in all types of skin pigment, not just melanin. A further difference between albinism and leucism is in eye colour. Due to the lack of melanin production, albino animals and humans often have red eyes – while in leucism, you get colored eyes.

Leuc- (in Latin) or Leuk- (in Greek) is a prefix used to describe the color white – like for example leukocyte, a white blood cell.

This little fellow on the left might look like he's about to take for a flight, but he knows better. (c) National Geographic

Why penguins can’t fly: you can’t be good at two things at once

This little fellow on the left might look like he's about to take for a flight, but he knows better. (c) National Geographic

This little fellow on the left might look like he’s about to take off for a flight, but he knows better. (c) National Geographic

Penguins are remarkable animals that have always garnered attention. For one they’re extremely cute (always an advantage in a world where humans are at the absolute top of the food chain), then they’re extremely fascinating to study. If you’re to closely look at the wings of a penguin, intuition would immediately tell you that these robust birds have no chance whatsoever of taking off with those puny things and you would not be mistaken.

Penguins, however, travel across massive distances over land, during their migration from feeding to breeding grounds. While some birds choose to take the easy route and just fly over, penguins go through the hurdles of crossing through sharp stones, extreme cold and over vast distances with only a pair of tiny legs, which, let’s admit, aren’t quite the fastest in the animal kingdom. Why not evolve flight then? To answer this question, a team led by biologist Kyle Elliott at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, examined two species of diving seabirds, closely related to the penguin, that still have some ability to fly. Their findings show that at some point in their evolutionary history, penguins might have actually had flight capable wings, but evolution has a way of choosing what’s best in terms of energy and simply put there’s only so much to spare. Either you’re good at diving or you’re good at flying. You can’t have both – the penguin chose to dive and it’s a fantastic swimmer to boost as well!

Professor John Speakman, from the University of Aberdeen and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said: “Like many people, I’ve always been interested in penguins, and seeing them do these phenomenal marches across the ice, I’ve often thought: ‘Why don’t they just fly?’

“And it’s really great to be involved in the group of people that have solved it.”

Murres are well adapted to diving but when it comes to flying their wings are some of the most energetically inefficient. The birds are close relatives to penguins, and with their black and white feathering, they even resemble penguins. (c) KYLE H. ELLIOTT

Murres are well adapted to diving but when it comes to flying their wings are some of the most energetically inefficient. The birds are close relatives to penguins, and with their black and white feathering, they even resemble penguins. (c) KYLE H. ELLIOTT

The researchers closely studied  the pelagic cormorant (Phalacrocorax pelagicus), a species that propels itself underwater with webbed feet, and the thick-billed murre (Uria lomvia), which flaps its wings underwater to swim. Various specimens from each species were captured and had monitoring equipment installed, from recorders that measured the time of dives as well as depth and temperature, to injected isotope-tagged water that  can tell researchers how much carbon dioxide and water vapour the birds had expelled or how much energy was expended for diving and flying.

It’s all about energy

They found that both cormorants and murres must spend exceedingly large amounts of energy to fly — the highest known among all flying birds. When it came to diving, the energy costs for the foot-propelled cormorants were much higher than expected for a similarly sized penguin. The wing-propelled murres had diving costs lower than those of cormorants, but still 30% greater than those experienced by penguins of the same size. Basically, since the birds can both dive and fly, they aren’t really very good at either.

“The energy costs are very very high. These birds have these very short wings and they have to beat them at an incredible speed to stay in the air. It is exhausting for them.”

The birds, according to the researchers, are veritable evolutionary tipping points between seabirds that can fly and dive, and those that are flightless.

Prof Speakman explained: “Basically the hypothesis is that as the wings became more and more efficient for them to dive, they became less and less efficient for them to fly.

“At some point it became so ‘expensive’ for them to fly, that it was better to give up flying altogether and make the wings into small flippers.”

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences..

Emperor penguins huddling.

Penguins are egotistical, mathematical simulation shows

Emperor penguins huddling.

Emperor penguins huddling.

There’s a rather common image that might pop inside someone’s head when thinking of penguins – an entire flock of such animals, standing very close together, keeping themselves warm as they confront extreme sub-zero antarctic temperatures. Don’t be fooled, though. According to the results of a mathematical simulation that modeled penguin huddling, the penguins stick together to keep themselves warm, not the group as a whole, making them egotistical in nature.

Typically, penguins gather around in group as small as tens or as huge as hundreds, rubbing their feathery bodies alongside each other to withstand the cold. While at outside the penguin huddle temperatures may reach extreme sub-zero lows, inside they’re between 20 and 37.5 degrees Celsius (68 to 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit). In extreme weather storms the penguins, though not that small as one might think, can cram as tight as 10 birds in a single square meter.

The inevitable question seems to come – what happens to the penguins that are left on the outskirts of the huddle? Well, when sticking tight together the penguins are never still, on the contrary they’re always on the move. Penguins are constantly shuffle and change positions with one another so that the birds with their backs exposed to the wind find their way inside, while the birds that formerly used to be in the warm interior find themselves on the outside. Wait, doesn’t mean that they’re actually altruistic?

Well, just because almost every penguin gets equally exposed to the same amount of cold doesn’t necessarily mean they’re acting on the benefit of the group of as a whole first thing in mind. Seeking to find whether any penguin gets left out in the cold during a huddle, three applied mathematicians  at the University of California, Merced, constructed a mathematical model of penguin huddling.

In order to pack the penguin huddle as tightly as possible, the mathematicians envisioned the penguins on a grid of hexagons, since penguins seem to arrange themselves roughly in the same manner in reality as well. Also, as far as model assumptions go, the mathematicians considered all the penguins in the huddle of uniform shape and size. Concerning the wind, they considered that it flowed around the huddle differently depending on its overall shape.

In order to make the penguins shuffle, they calculated the rate at which each computerized penguin was losing body heat and instructed the coldest penguin to shuffle around the outside of the huddle until it found the warmest spot it could stand in, then started over with the new coldest penguin.

Over time, the model huddle tended to take on the shape of a flat-sided oval and travel slowly downwind. When the flock’s heat loss was computed, the scientists found that overall each penguin lost more or less the same amount of body heat. Where’s the catch then? Well keep in mind that the penguins were programmed to maximize their own warmth, not to consider the warmth of other penguins or the group as a whole. In other words, each penguin was only looking after itself, not for the well-being of the group it’s part of. Does this mean that penguins are entirely egotistical? Not at all. The penguins might very well organize themselves to keep the group as whole warm, but t’s not necessary to explain how they behave in the wild.

As an interesting fact of note, the  elliptical shape of the typical huddle isn’t an optimal one. Penguins would lose less body heat if they’d arrange themselves in a less stretched-out formation. Findings were detailed in the journal PLoS One.

via Ink Fish

 

Chinstrap penguin

Climate change causes penguin colonies to decline by a THIRD

Researchers from the Natural History Museum in Madrid counted chinstrap penguins in Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands in 1991-1992 and again in 2008-2009. They discovered a frightening decline in penguin population in the area, with one species culled by more than a third.

Chinstrap penguinThe most affected species at hand is the chinstrap penguin, named so after the black strip of feathers that runs across their white chins. It’s estimated that the chinstrap penguin population has declined by 36% compared to 20 years ago. Researchers involved in the study believe the main cause of the species demise is the unbalancing of the local ecosystem due to the melting of ice, in term a consequence of climate change.

Chinstrap penguin favored dish is a tiny shrimp-like creature, called krill, which attaches to chunks of ice in the Antarctic ocean. Melting ice means less krill, which in terms force penguin numbers to dwindle as a result of a thinner food supply. A similar decline was found in the Adelie penguins, which also eat krill. The findings were presented last month in the journal Polar Biology.

“A more responsible use of the energy and the fossil fuels is necessary to preserve the planet and Antarctica,” lead researcher Andres Barbosa said.

Things aren’t looking too good for Emperor Penguins either. Researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) claim that the largest sea bird in Antarctica is severely threatened by melting ice, caused by global warming. Emperor penguins breed and raise their young almost exclusively on sea ice. If that ice breaks up and disappears early in the breeding season, massive disruption to breeding may occur.

“Over the last century, we have already observed the disappearance of the Dion Islets penguin colony, close to the West Antarctic Peninsula,” says Stephanie Jenouvrier, WHOI biologist and lead author of the new study. “In 1948 and the 1970s, scientists recorded more than 150 breeding pairs there. By 1999, the population was down to just 20 pairs, and in 2009, it had vanished entirely.”

Using computer models, the scientists predicted that the going rate an 81 percent reduction in the number of breeding pairs is expected by 2100, from about 3,000 to as low as 500. Findings were presented in the journal Global Change Biology.

featherless naked penguin

Naked penguin chicks amaze scientists

featherless naked penguinIn the last couple of years researchers have been confronted with a peculiar case in the Atlantic penguin colonies as an increased number of penguin chicks have been found to be suffering from what seems to be a feather loss causing disorder. Scientists have been studying the phenomena for a few years now, but have yet to come to a final valid conclusion as to why this is happening

“Feather-loss disorders are uncommon in most bird species, and we need to conduct further study to determine the cause of the disorder and if this is in fact spreading to other penguin species,” said report author P. Dee Boersma of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

Boersma is a prominent scientific figure in the scene who has been studying the majestic Magellan penguins for three decades now, and this unknown affliction doesn’t cease to baffle him either. He says that the first featherless cases appeared around 2006 in Cape Town, South Africa among an African Penguins colony. During that year, approximately 59 percent of the penguin chicks lost their feathers, followed by 97 percent of the chicks in 2007, and 20 percent of the chicks in 2008. On the other side of the Atlantic, WCS reserachers have reported similar issues in four different sites along Argentina’s coastline.

Studies show that the featherless chicks grew more slowly than feathered chicks, and are also smaller than their feathery counterparts. Scientists believe that this is due to increased energy spent in thermoregulation in the absence of an insulating coat of feathers.

“We need to learn how to stop the spread of feather-loss disorder, as penguins already have problems with oil pollution and climate variation,” concluded Boersma. “It’s important to keep disease from being added to the list of threats they face.”

As reported in the journal Waterbirds.

The emperor: major penguin colony disappears

It’s another bad omen for life on Earth, as a colony of imperial penguins from the Antarctica peninsula has disappeared, probably due to the warming of ice caused by global warming. It was expected that penguins would greatly suffer from the warming, but this is the first documented case ever of the disappearance of a colony.

First of all, let me just say that penguins are absolutely amazing creatures. I don’t know if you had the chance to see “The March of the Penguins“, but it is hands down one of the best documentaries I have ever seen, and it’s not only very informative, but extremely entertaining too. If you haven’t seen it, let me tell you a bit about their habits.

Ice is crucial to these penguins; most of them breed on sea ice (also called fast ice) that does not move with the wind or currents. When autumn comes, they go to their colony, where they mate, lay eggs and raise their chicks, but every single year, they return to the place where they were born.

“The one site in Antarctica where we have seen really big changes is the West Antarctic Peninsula,” Trathan said. For much of the 20th century, this region has warmed at an unprecedented rate, particularly in recent decades, the researchers write in a study published Feb. 28 in the journal PLoS ONE.

This in itself isn’t a worldwide catastrophe, but it is probably just the tip of the iceberg, and penguins all over the world have a pretty dire future ahead of them; time will tell.

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