Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Making a More Perfect Penguin

As a population, Magellanic penguins show resilience to changing environmental conditions. Photo by Roussel Bernard/Alamy Stock Photo
A long-term study shows the subtle hand of natural selection on Argentina’s Magellanic penguins.

Published November 29, 2016
If you ask the internet, penguins are pretty much perfect as they are: cute, curious, and clumsy. But the truth is, the “perfect” penguin might not always take the same form.

Since 1983, biologist P. Dee Boersma has been studying the world’s largest colony of Magellanic penguins at Punta Tombo, Argentina, and has found that as environmental conditions shift, the penguins show a resilience to those changes. Boersma and her colleagues have measured a lot of penguins. And they’ve been tracking whether and how everything—from their bills to their flippers to their feet—has been changing over time.

“It’s kind of like a big general census,” says Laura Koehn, a doctoral candidate in fisheries science who worked with Boersma’s team as an undergraduate.

By marking penguins with ID bands, the researchers tracked how successful each was at raising its young, which traits were passed down through the generations, and whether certain parental traits, such as a longer bill or shorter feet, led to a boost in survival for a penguin’s offspring.

In general, Koehn says, they weren’t able to detect any evidence of modern penguin evolution—yet. The penguins aren’t all getting bigger, for instance. But the team did find that, sometimes, being a certain shape or size has perks, and that these traits are passed down, which paves the way for evolution. Since different body shapes provide different benefits, what could be considered the “ideal” penguin for the conditions in any given year is fickle and variable, and often reverses itself over time. But overall, the takeaway is clear: even when conditions in their highly dynamic habitat aren’t the best, at least some Magellanic penguins will have what it takes to succeed.

Boersma’s team found evidence of natural selection—that is, when penguins of a particular size or shape raised chicks more successfully than their peers—in seven of the 28 years examined. In those years, they found that the trends for males and females seemed to be headed in different directions. Furthermore, the timing didn’t always overlap.

In years when food seemed scarce and more than half the chicks died of starvation, successful male dads tended to have larger bodies and bills, perhaps because they could catch larger prey. In years when food appeared abundant, males of all sizes raised chicks equally well.

In some years, female penguins with more petite bodies, or just with shorter feet or smaller bills, had chicks which survived better. In other years, the opposite was true.

Detecting even this small signal of ongoing natural selection is impressive, says biologist Mary Bomberger Brown, especially in a bird that splits its time between land and sea. It requires precisely tracking and measuring large numbers of individuals over long periods of time. Even then, she says, “the differences aren’t going to be gigantic. A penguin flipper isn’t going to be four inches [10 centimeters] longer one year than it was the previous year.”

“Overall, nobody’s shrinking or getting bigger,” emphasizes Koehn. Instead, these year-to-year fluctuations tend to wash out over time. That suggests, says Koehn, that whatever factors are driving these changes—whether climate, food, or even behavior—are relatively stable over time.

But if that stability is upset, the penguins have shown they have the capacity within their population to survive. “When they are pushed, they do respond,” says Brown.

Just how far and how fast that flexibility can be pushed, however, is uncertain.


Saturday, November 5, 2016

Range of penguin personalities could help species success

Bird researcher Professor John Cockrem with a blue penguin in Oamaru.
Bird researcher Professor John Cockrem with a blue penguin in Oamaru.

Scientists are spending one-on-one time with penguins to learn about the deeper sides of their personalities.

Learning more about how daring or shy penguins succeed could help guide penguin conservation, Massey professor John Cockrem says.

He is part of a research team made up of masters students from Massey University and Dr Philippa Agnew, from the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony, that is two weeks into an eight-week study of the Oamaru penguins.

The group will take blood tests to find the amount of corticosterone hormone each penguin secretes when handled. The amount indicates where the penguins fall on a "personality spectrum" of timid and cautious, to daring and dominating.

"There's a huge range," Cockrem said. "The ones that are less sensitive to their environment tend to be the dominant more aggressive ones. They are also not so fast to change.

"The ones that are more sensitive to what's happening around them, they are more shy and are slow to explore, but they are more flexible to change."

Once the scientists have determined where each penguin falls on this personality scale they will compare this with their success in breeding, recorded in the Colony's ongoing population monitoring.
They will also use GPS to look at individuals' foraging patterns.

"The environment in which the birds live in is gradually changing. There are human influences and influences coming from climate change, so as these environmental changes occur, it may be that some animals are better able to change than other animals," Cockrem said.

However, that doesn't mean there is one perfect penguin personality.

"You might think it's good to have a high stress response, but then why aren't all animals like that?" he said.

"The hypothesis that I've put forward and that we're testing here is that in some years the dominant bolder ones might do better, but in other years the more sensitive animals, the reactive ones, will do better. There's no perfect response."

Further studies Cockrem is involved in are looking at where penguin populations in the North Island feed.

The information will be combined with the current study and past blue penguin data to help give a bigger picture of how penguin populations adapt and which feeding areas are most important for penguin conservation.

 - Stuff


This Week's Pencognito!

Thursday, November 3, 2016

1st Penguin Chicks of the Season at Maryland Zoo


The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore is excited to announce the hatching of three African Penguin chicks. They are the first to hatch during the 2016-2017 breeding season at the Zoo’s Penguin Coast exhibit. The first chick hatched on October 20 to parents Portia and Beckham while the next two chicks, offspring of Ascot and Dennis, hatched on October 22 and October 25.

“This breeding season is off to a wonderful start,” said Jen Kottyan, Avian Collection and Conservation Manager. “As soon as the nest boxes were made available to the Penguins again for the start of breeding season, the birds began exhibiting breeding behaviors and claiming their nests. We are really excited about the prospects for this season, and these three are just the beginning.”

4_DSC_3632(Parentsofchick2+3)Photo Credits: Maryland Zoo

Breeding season for the African Penguins at Penguin Coast begins in mid-September and lasts until the end of February, mimicking the spring/summer breeding season for these endangered birds in their native South Africa.

Penguin chicks will hatch 38-42 days after the eggs are laid. Zookeepers monitor development of the eggs by candling them about a week after they are laid to see if they are fertile and developing. The eggs are then placed back with the parents. “With African Penguins, both the male and the female take turns sitting on the eggs,” said Kottyan. “Once the eggs hatch, parents take turns caring for their offspring; they each protect, feed, and keep the chick warm for 2-3 days and then switch off.”

At Penguin Coast, chicks stay with their parents for about three weeks after they hatch and are fed regurgitated fish from their parents. During this time, zookeepers and vets keep a close eye on the development of the chicks, weighing and measuring them daily for the first week to make sure that the parents are properly caring for each chick.

When a chick is three-weeks-old, the keepers remove it from the nest, and start to teach the chick that they are the source of food. This step is critical, as it will allow staff to provide long term care for the birds including daily feeding, regular health exams and both routine and emergency medical care.
The Maryland Zoo has been a leader in breeding African Penguins for close to 50 years, winning the prestigious Edward H. Bean Award for the “African Penguin Long-term Propagation Program” from the AZA in 1996. The Zoo has the largest colony of African Penguins in North America, with now over 75 birds.

“Our Penguins are bred according to recommendations from the AZA African Penguin SSP, which helps maintain their genetic diversity,” said Kottyan. “Many of the African Penguins previously bred at the Zoo now inhabit zoo and aquarium exhibits around the world.”

In September, Penguin Coast was awarded Top Honors in the Exhibit Award category from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) during the AZA Annual Conference. “This has been an exciting year for us already,” stated Kottyan. “We hosted the African Penguin Species Survival Plan (SSP) meeting in July, sent two staff to South Africa to participate in Penguin conservation programs in August and September, won the AZA Exhibit Award in September and now the breeding season is well underway with these successful hatchings.”

For updates on the chicks in the coming weeks, please visit or the Zoo’s Facebook page: .



Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Deakin University penguin research seeks $10k in crowd funding

More research is needed into penguin health, nutrition and physiology.
More research is needed into penguin health, nutrition and physiology.

DEAKIN University researchers will investigate why more than half of the world’s penguin population is facing the threat of extinction.
The researchers say the sentinel of the marine environment can provide insight into the health and productivity of oceans.
Deakin University’s Centre for Integrative Ecology researcher Meagan Dewar will be gathering detailed data about microbes and their role in penguins’ digestion, metabolism, immune system and health.
“Over 55 per cent of penguin species are facing extinction with climate change, fisheries, pollution and disease the major threats,” Dr Dewar said.
“We don’t know enough about the crucial role that microbes play in penguin health, nutrition and physiology and this lack of information about what’s considered to be normal and what is pathogenic hampers our ability to diagnose disease in penguins in the wild.”
Researchers from Deakin’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences are on a crowd-funding campaign to raise $10,000 to start the research.
Dr Dewar said the money would help to sequence the microbes­ of 42 penguins from the King, Gentoo, Macaroni and Little penguin species.
“This research will provide vital baseline information on the functional role of microbes in penguins and give us a better understanding of the impact of environmental change and disease,” she said.
Dr Dewar said the research would build knowledge about the basic biology of penguins.
“Funding for this type of time-consuming and meticulous work can be difficult to find, which is why we’ve turned to crowd-funding. We really need the help of any members of the public who are concerned about the ocean environment and love penguins to come together and support the campaign.”


Melbourne Aquarium penguin couple celebrate arrival of Banjo

Baby penguin gets a check up
A PENGUIN couple at Melbourne Aquarium has been celebrating the newest addition to their family as they farewell their eldest offspring.
Mother KT and father Mawson welcomed Banjo, their first chick for 2016 while saying goodbye to three of their older children who left home for Sydney.

Banjo was welcomed into the world two weeks ago. Picture: Sarah Matray
Banjo was born weighing about 86 grams. Picture: Sarah Matray

Banjo has developed a healthy appetite. Picture: Sarah Matray
Banjo was born two weeks ago, weighing just 86 grams. Now he has tipped the scales at 915 grams thanks to his protective mum.
While the proud parents were nurturing their new arrival Banjo, his older siblings Budda, Parky and Monty joined the first colony of Melbourne penguins to move for Sydney Aquarium’s Penguin Expedition.
Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium lead bird keeper Amanda Hamilton was watching over Banjo’s growth as the parents continue to raise the chick.
“Both mum and dad are doing a great job of the multiple daily feeds and sharing the hard work,” she said.
“It’s a big time for [the] family as the eldest siblings make the exciting move to Sydney. But mum and dad will be kept nice and busy as Banjo will rely on the parents for some time before becoming fully fledged in approximately three months.”

Banjo with his very protective mum. Picture: Sarah Matray