Celebrate World Penguin Day by Counting Penguin Chicks with Oxford Researchers

April 25, 2017 Tom Hart

World Penguin Day! Yes, it’s real and is an opportunity to celebrate some of the wackiest and most wonderful birds on the planet.

Penguin Watch Research: What Is It?

Here at the University of Oxford and with a lot of help from Quark Expeditions in Antarctica, we have been placing time-lapse cameras near penguin colonies around Antarctica to see if there are differences in the timing and success of breeding (both between colonies and across years). Our research aims to understand:

  • Why these populations are changing and what we can do about it
  • How areas with a fishery compare to those without a fishery
  • How areas with sea ice loss compare to areas with more stable sea ice

So, on World Penguin Day, why not spend a few minutes helping us to count penguins on www.penguinwatch.org? By clicking on penguins, you can explore Antarctica through the eyes of colony cameras and help make a difference to conservation.

3 Surprising Facts You Didn’t Know About Penguins

Penguins have been studied for over a hundred years, and during this time they have become iconic. The stereotypical images of penguins tend to be a bird walking upright or sat on an iceberg, but they are so much more diverse and impressive than this.

  1. Penguins are fierce predators. We don’t tend to think of penguins as predators, but they spend most of their time at sea, feeding on krill, squid and fish, depending on the species. They are very effective hunters, but this happens at depth (30-50m for Gentoo penguins, up to 500m for Emperors) and ambush their prey from underneath.
  2. Penguins are sexy.  In the public eye, they have a cute and faithful image, but many of the stereotypes are incomplete or untrue. One of the early scientists on Scott’s expedition who reported back on the sexual habits of Adélie penguins was so shocked by the promiscuity and homosexual behaviour that he ‘coded’ his notes in Greek.
  3. Penguins are not just in Antarctica. They are birds which evolved in cold waters but have radiated to also colonise hot regions like Galapagos and South Africa. They might have gone further if not for species in the north already occupying their niche. Indeed, it is likely we get the word ‘penguin’ from the Welsh for Great Auk, an extinct seabird in the northern hemisphere that looked like a penguin.

What’s the Future of Penguin Research?

In the twenty-first century and despite a hundred years of study, it might be surprising to hear that there is still a lot we want to learn about penguins. Whereas historic studies have typically focussed on isolated colonies, many of the current big questions concern global trends.

Recently, remote sensing through satellite imagery detected Emperor penguins on ice from their poo and found that there are twice as many as previously thought, and work on Adélie penguins has shown that they are increasing and there are more than we thought in East Antarctica, while declining along the northern half of the Western Antarctic Peninsula.  It’s also worth noting that 12 of 18 species of penguin are in decline (as are many seabirds around the world).

So, in order support penguin conservation, it’s important to understand the mechanisms underlying any observed changes. Penguin Watch aims to fill some of the present knowledge gaps, and that’s why we’d love it if you got involved this World Penguin Day.

And if you’re near a cinema in New York, why not go and see ‘The Penguin Counters’, and learn more about what it’s like to work in Antarctica?

Learn More About Penguins

About the Author

Tom Hart

Tom runs the Penguin Lifelines project at Oxford University and the Zoological Society of London, through which he monitors Antarctic wildlife using camera trapping, volunteer photos and population genetics. Tom’s PhD at Imperial College and the British Antarctic Survey investigated penguin foraging behavior around South Georgia. He loves the world’s cold places and is passionate about protecting them. Tom loves all penguins, but particularly macaroni penguins, as they have the most attitude.

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