Penguins research going high tech

I just came across an interesting article on how the researchers in Punta Tombo are using computers to aid in data entry and spatial tracking.

And at least one Magellanic penguin appears to approve of the new devices.

Researcher Eleanor Lee sheds light on just how much data they collect each year:

“Up until now, we have collected 6 months worth of data in field notebooks every season. Since the project’s inception, we’ve banded  55,000 penguins, measured 25,000 eggs, and measured 174,019 chicks.  We had 1,838 data books in our lab as of Spring, 2008.”

To learn more about the Penguin Project, make a donation, or even follow the penguins by satellite, visit Penguin Sentinels.

Signs of hope for the African penguins

The most-visited penguin colony in the world is in South Africa. According to this article in DiscoveryNews, more than 600,000 tourists visit each year to see the African penguins.

The African penguin population has decreased by 90 percent over the past century, earning it an “endangered” label. It stands to reason that the locals better figure out how to reverse this trend, if for no other reason than to protect the tourism industry.

And that’s just what is happening. The environmentalists got the government to agree to protecting a 12-miles area of water that is normally trawled by massive fishing nets — nets which take much of the penguin’s food, forcing penguins to go further and further away from their nets.

Sure enough, the GPS monitors attached to the penguins proved that the birds didn’t have to swim out as far, conserving precious energy.

There are only 26,000 breeding pairs of African penguins, so it’s clear to me that this test needs to be made permanent.

Here’s the home page of the South African government’s environment agency if you want to send them an email. I just did, for what it’s worth. I may be living in Seattle but I plan to travel to South Africa some day and I want those penguins to be there when I arrive.

It’s sadly ironic that protecting tourism is what drives wildlife protection these days. But it’s a strategy that works.

How to learn more about penguins

Did you know that there were 17 species of penguins?

You would if you had matriculated at Antarctica University.

There’s a university in Antarctica?

Well, not exactly. It’s a virtual university. And it’s hosted by one of the leading Antarctic research organizations: Oceanities.

Oceanities is an impressive organization — balancing public education (like Penguins 101) with hands-on research.

Ever year, the Oceanities team monitors penguin colonies up and down the Antarctic peninsula, counting penguins by hand, in an effort to understand which colonies are thriving and which are not.

And from what I can tell from their research on Petermann Island, the Adélies are having the hardest time. In just five years, the number of Adélie nests have decreased from 553 to 390. And fewer nests generally means fewer chicks. Gentoos, on the other hand, seem to be doing pretty well, actually increasing their number of nests.

To learn more, visit

Is ecotourism an oxymoron?

I came across a short piece on the Magellanic penguins of Punta Tombo in the Salem-News today.

The writer Gail Parker hits on a theme that is sure to sharpen in the year ahead, and one that I often wrestle with.


She asks if ecotourism is an oxymoron.

According to my fictional researcher based at Punta Tombo (story download), it certainly is. Tourists absolutely and inadvertently cause the deaths of penguins. Yet this must be weighed against the trauma that would be inflicted upon them if tourists did not travel thousands of miles to see them.

More than two decades ago, the Japanese wanted to harvest the penguins, using their skin for women’s gloves. Local researchers shed light on these plans and, thank goodness, they didn’t come to fruition.

Now, with a hundred thousand annual visitors, it’s safe to say that the penguin colony is protected.

But we must not love them to death. There was a time there were more penguins than people along these shores. Not anymore.

My big concern is not so much the tourists but the ships off the coast, the ones that catch these penguins in their fishing nets, the ones that steal the food, forcing penguins to venture further and further from their nests. This, I believe, is the far greater threat.