Shake Your Tail Feathers! Our Penguinologist Partners Have an Ingenious New Way to Track Penguins

August 23, 2017 Paul Schuster

A group of Adélie penguins walking along an iceberg, South Shetland Islands, Antarctic Peninsula.  Photo: J. Hinke, NOAA

A group of Adélie penguins walking along an iceberg, South Shetland Islands, Antarctic Peninsula.
Photo: J. Hinke, NOAA

It’s a wonder penguins can survive at all on the harsh, desolate 7th continent, but they thrive in conditions more other creatures find unbearable. On barren strips of frigid rock, they lovingly build nests for their young. They scoot down frozen “penguin highways” on their bellies and plunge headfirst into the ice-cold waters below, on the hunt for krill. Once clean and full, it’s time to toddle back up to the top to relieve their partner, who’s more than ready for a swim, too.

It’s a penguin’s world in Antarctica… we’re fortunate to be visitors in it!

A few visitors in particular have just released the results of fascinating research on the migratory patterns of penguins, based on their analysis of penguin tail feathers they’d gathered on recent Quark Expeditions voyages. Penguinologist  and Quark Scientist-in-Residence Dr. Michael Polito is an Assistant Professor at Louisiana State University’s Department of Oceanography & Coastal Sciences. His paper, ‘Stable isotope analyses of feather amino acids identify penguin migration strategies at ocean basin scales,’ was published last week in Biology Letters.

What Amino Acids in Feathers Tell Us About Penguin Migration

A pair of nesting adult Chinstrap penguins in the South Shetland Islands, Antarctic Peninsula. Photo: M. Polito, LSU

A pair of nesting adult Chinstrap penguins in the South Shetland Islands, Antarctic Peninsula.
Photo: M. Polito, LSU

Scientists have long used electronic tracking devices to track penguin migration patterns, but these are expensive and invasive. What if, Dr. Polito supposed, the specific compounds in penguin feather proteins could tell us the story of where a penguin had spent its last year? So began the research project to test his theory.

According to Dr. Polito, “You can say, penguins ‘are where they eat,’ because a geochemical signature of their wintering area is imprinted into their feathers.”

However, in order to determine whether tail feather analysis can provide accurate information about penguin’s winter migration, Dr. Polito and his colleagues needed to compare this method to electronic tracking. They attached tags to 52 Adélie and chinstrap penguins in breeding colonies on Livingston Island and King George Island in the South Shetland Islands, to monitor them over the 2016 Antarctic winter.

Dr. Mike Polito, Scientist-in-Residence, in Antarctica with Quark Expeditions. Photo: Dr. Tom Hart

Dr. Mike Polito, Scientist-in-Residence, in Antarctica with Quark Expeditions. Photo: Dr. Tom Hart

His team of researchers included Dr. Tom Hart, another of our Scientists-in-Residence and the leader of the Penguin Watch project at Oxford University, as well as colleagues from NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center and the Instituto Antártico Argentino. Quark Expeditions provided the researchers transit to Antarctica, while the Ocean Life Institute and the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund each provided support for the project.

Chinstrap and Adélie penguins are among the brush-tailed penguins, so named for their stiff, long tail feathers. Penguins shed their regular feathers between breeding and migrating to their oceanic wintering grounds, but those longer tail feathers grow even while they’re out to sea over the winter.

A chinstrap penguin eyes the camera from its comfortable perch atop a nest in the South Shetland Islands. Photo: Dr. Mike Polito

A chinstrap penguin eyes the camera from its comfortable perch atop a nest in the South Shetland Islands. Photo: Dr. Mike Polito

The researchers then traveled aboard Quark Expeditions voyages this past Antarctic summer to retrieve the tracking devices. They collected a tail feather from each tracked penguin, as well as 60 others from several other penguins colonies who had not been tracked.

While doing postdoctoral research at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Dr. Polito and his colleagues conducted their forensic analysis of the penguin tail feathers. What they found was exciting, primarily because the tail feather analysis results perfectly matched the tracking data.

"The great thing about this new technique is that we can work out where an animal has been based on a sample of an animal’s tissues without it ever being tagged," Dr. Hart told the BBC.

Penguinologist Dr. Tom Hart visits a gentoo penguin colony at Cuverville Island with passengers on a December 2016 Antarctic Explorer: Discovering the 7th Continent expedition. Photo: Miranda Miller

Penguinologist Dr. Tom Hart visits a gentoo penguin colony at Cuverville Island with passengers on a December 2016 Antarctic Explorer: Discovering the 7th Continent expedition. Photo: Miranda Miller

The findings were surprising in other ways, as well.

Dr. Polito told New Scientist that some of the westward-migrating chinstrap penguins travelled farther than he’d expected, up to 3900 kilometres away from their breeding colony.

“This novel approach could be applied to other marine animals that migrate over long distances including seabirds, sea turtles, seals and whales,” Dr. Polito said. “Using stable isotope forensics to increase the size and scope of animal tracking studies will help us to better understand these charismatic species and ultimately aid in their conservation.”

Traveling to Antarctica with Quark’s Penguin Experts

The penguin researchers are a popular crowd onboard, and you’ll have plenty of opportunity to interact with and learn from them. They’re often standing by to give passengers a helping hand out of the Zodiacs on shore landings, before darting off “out of bounds” to the penguin colonies they’re studying.

An adult gentoo toddles down a penguin highway on the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo: Miranda Miller

An adult gentoo toddles down a penguin highway on the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo: Miranda Miller

Those visits on expedition shore landings can be incredibly impactful, often inspiring people to get involved in Antarctic conservation efforts. Learning where and how penguins migrate over the course of the year is critical in understanding how we can protect them, say penguin researchers.

There’s much work to be done in the brief time researchers have to spend onshore, especially when they may only get there once a year. They may be checking on the camera equipment they’ve installed, applying or removing electronic tracking monitors or, as in the case of this research, collecting tail feathers. When they’re done their research, or on shore landings with colonies they aren’t monitoring, don’t be surprised to see penguin scientists hiking alongside you!

Antarctic passenger on penguinologists

Photo: Dr. Mike Polito

Once back on the ship, they give presentations and lectures on their penguin research, help the team spot wildlife on the decks and from the bridge, and even join passengers in the dining room for dinner.

Each year, scientists of various disciplines travel with us to the most remote areas of the planet to conduct their research. Dr. Hart, Dr. Polito, and the Penguin Watch team have been with us a number of years, and you can join Dr. Hart on four different Antarctic departures in the 2017.18 season. In all, the Penguin Watch team will be on seven Antarctic expeditions this coming season, with departures from November 14th to January 25th.

If you really have your heart set on a one-of-a-kind penguin adventure, you won’t want to miss our 16-day Penguin Safari in South Georgia and Antarctica. For a deep dive into the Galapagos of the Poles, check out the 18-day Falklands (Malvinas) and South Georgia: Islands of the Southern Ocean (South Georgia is the best place on earth to see King penguins).

Explore the upcoming Antarctic season and contact a Polar Travel Adviser for availability if you want to travel alongside a penguinologist or penguin researcher!

About the Author

Paul  Schuster

Paul has been helping Quark Expeditions passengers choose the polar expedition to best suit their needs since 2009. An adventure travel expert and avid traveler, he’s visited over 40 countries and explored the Antarctic Peninsula, Canadian High Arctic, Spitsbergen and the North Pole on expedition.

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