Sunday, December 1, 2013

Ski Dubai penguin researcher, and data, comes in from the cold

With more than 20 hours of video and hundreds of photos and acoustic recordings from 11 penguin colonies in Antarctica, Dr Brent Stewart is confident in saying his recent expedition was a success.
He will spend the next few months analysing his data in the hope it will shed light on the birds and the health of the colonies. His findings will be published in early to mid-2014.

The research focuses on how penguins are able to locate each other in colonies numbering thousands of birds. One aspect looks at the unique vocal signature each penguin is thought to have – a particularly useful trait for parents tending to offspring. “The adults go to sea and come back, looking for their offspring in these huge, congested areas and then they find them and feed them,” Dr Stewart said. “It is pretty awesome to think about how they are actually recognising each other, picking each other out and reuniting.”

In September, Dr Stewart recorded vocalisations from Ski Dubai’s colony of Gentoo and King penguins. “We get help in exploring that from the captive colonies, particularly here at Ski Dubai, where, in a controlled setting, we can record vocalisations of the adults and try to discriminate what separates them out from each other.”

Studying the captive birds allows Dr Stewart to track changes in their vocalisations with age, or throughout the season. The scientist, who has previously worked with large marine mammals, sharks, sea turtles and marine birds, also used his visit to Dubai to study whether visual markings on the plumage of penguins could contain unique patterns. “We can look at their patterns as they moult each year and determine if the pattern remains the same,” he said. “If the research proves the birds’ plumage contains patterns unique to each individual, this could help scientists develop another means of tracking them in a non-invasive way.”

Being able to track individuals in the wild through audio or visual markers could help scientists to construct population models that evaluate how well species are doing at key locations.

While in Antarctica, Dr Stewart for the first time also used battery-operated aerial equipment to film and photograph colonies and he will use the footage to carry out population counts. The last estimates in these colonies are at least a decade old, he said.

The aerial surveys also help to document the distribution of the birds and their terrestrial habitat. In collecting the data, Dr Stewart was aided by fellow Hubbs research associate, Frank Todd, one of the world’s leading experts on waterfowl and penguins.

Besides the Ski Dubai grant, Dr Stewart also received support from G Adventures, a Canadian eco-tours company, which provided him with a space on board one of its tour ships that visits the penguin colonies. He said the assistance he received was important considering the decrease in funding for research in the Antarctic. “Right now, it is pretty important to explore these kinds of opportunities and partnerships because the funding for field studies has dwindled,” he said.

Ultimately, the information will not only increase mankind’s knowledge of penguins, it will also help authorities to conserve the birds. “The key thing is really being able to collect data that will allow us to make evaluations of population status and then feed that into the management agencies so they can decide what can be done to either help populations that are in trouble or just maintain vitality of the populations that seem to be doing OK.”


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