Monday, January 26, 2015

Researching #Penguins: a tail of two stories

University grad student, coastal sciences professor research penguins in Antarctic Peninsula

University graduate student Rachael. All photos by Michael Polito

Posted: Sunday, January 25, 2015
While most species of penguins look similar, their abilities to adapt to change make them as different as black and white. Oceanography and coastal sciences professor Michael Polito and graduate student Rachael Herman embarked on a one-month journey to the Antarctic Peninsula in December to research how certain penguin species adapt to their environments. “The reason that we study penguins is because they are great scientific sampling devices,” Polito said.

In a study published in the Marine Ecology Progress Series on Tuesday, Polito’s team studied how certain penguin species’ eating habits — specifically Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins — expressed the effects of climate change and commercial fishing on Antarctic marine ecosystems. “The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the places that’s warming up faster than others,” Polito said. “This change in climate, combined with commercial fishing of krill — the primary source of food for penguins — affects the marine ecosystem.” The team found the number of Chinstrap penguins decreased, while the population of Gentoo penguins increased.

Polito concluded both species share similarities, such as the way they breed, but their differences in diet restrictions makes one penguin species more resilient than the other. Chinstrap penguins possess a stricter diet, eating krill, while Gentoo penguins eat fish and krill, which is why they are unaffected — if not benefitting from changes in their environment, Polito said.

With the initial conclusion reached, Polito enlisted Herman to travel to Antarctica in December 2014 and focus solely on Gentoo penguins. “Gentoo penguins eat a variety of different items, so they’re highly adaptive to change,” Herman said. “I’m trying to see if this adaptability is pertinent to all populations, or if each individual has its own diet.”

Herman will conduct her research by analyzing samples of feathers and blood to look at how their composition indicates the penguins’ eating habits. “What’s really cool about [the Antarctic] ecosystem is that there aren’t really any large predators, so all the penguins and seals, they don’t really have a fear of people,” Herman said. “You can literally sit in front of a penguin and watch them do what they do and they aren’t afraid of you or bothered by you. It’s like a National Geographic film, but right in front of you.”

Polito encourages University students who are interested in research to reach out to their professors and gain experience. Travel opportunities can come to any student who is interested and enthusiastic, Polito said.

Polito and Herman traveled to the Antarctic Peninsula aboard a tour boat with about 200 tourists, Herman said. When not collecting samples from different penguin colonies, they served as experts in residence, educating passengers on their research. “We like to think of Antarctica as this remote, pristine place, but our actions still have an effect on the environment over there,” Polito said. “There are two ways that humans have an impact on marine ecosystems. One is with our our fossil fuel and carbon dioxide emissions, the other is through commercial fishing activities, and in the Antarctic Peninsula, there’s commercial fishing for Antarctic krill.”

While people in Baton Rouge don’t see Antarctic krill on their fish platters, the animal contributes to the production of popular products.

Antarctic krill is used to make nutritional oil supplements advertised as more healthy for consumers than regular fish oils. Krill is also used to feed farm-raised salmon to give the fish the pink color consumers see in regular salmon, Polito said. “It’s hard for someone in Baton Rouge to think about how they’re impacting these marine ecosystems,” Herman said. “Everything is connected in this world, and I think it’s really important for people to know that these places are out there and these animals are out there, and however far away they are, what we do affects them.”



UD's Matthew Oliver and Megan Cimino are studying penguins.

A tale of two poles

Tracking penguins and rescuing robots all in a day's work for UD researchers

1:02 p.m., Jan. 26, 2015--Tracking penguins and rescuing underwater robots is all in a day’s work for University of Delaware marine scientists Matthew Oliver and Megan Cimino. 

Over the last few weeks, the researchers tagged Adélie penguins with satellite transmitters to help the research team understand where the penguin parents find food, primarily krill -- small shrimp-like crustaceans.

A UD research team has been studying the Atlantic brant goose and its nesting sites in the Arctic.

Adélies are one of three penguin species that nest along a strip of land called Biscoe Point, about 10 miles from the researcher’s home base at Palmer Station in the West Antarctic Peninsula. According to reports on the Project CONVERGE blog, Adélie penguin population numbers have declined over the last 20 years.

In a few weeks the penguin researchers will measure the weight of the chicks before they fledge, to gain a better idea of the hatchling’s probability of survival.

The UD team, which is housed in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment, also collaborated with a research team specifically studying krill, using an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) called a glider to measure the water temperature near Palmer Station, as well as the amount of phytoplankton beneath the water’s surface.

Connecting the dots between the phytoplankton -- microscopic plants -- and the krill that feed on them, along with the penguin feeding habits, may help scientists start to paint a picture of what’s happening with this native Antarctic species.

The UD glider is deployed in the middle of Palmer Deep, an underwater canyon, collecting data to help researchers understand how the water column’s temperature, salinity, chlorophyll levels change over time. This will allow the scientists to see if winds, tides or internal waves can affect the stability of the water column. In comparison, gliders from collaborating institutions Rutgers and University of Alaska, Fairbanks are doing transects along and across the canyon to look at spatial variability. 

The researchers unexpectedly had to rescue one of the group’s gliders after it didn’t check in for over eight hours. They suspect the glider got stuck under water in some kelp, but was able to jettison the extra weight it carries for just such emergencies in order to resurface. Once above water, the glider reported its location and Oliver was able to pull it to safety. 

During the rescue, he and a colleague noticed icebergs that had drifted into the water over Palmer Deep. They quickly triangulated the iceberg’s locations and relayed the information to the pilots of the other gliders in an effort to prevent any further mishaps with the gliders still in the water.

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