Monday, January 26, 2015

Guest Post | The day it rained sardines: Part 1

Dr. Jessica Kemper is an expert and advocate for the endangered African penguin.  Formerly the head of Section for Namibia's Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources (MFMR) and responsible for the conservation management and rescue of the country's seabirds, Jessica now heads the African Penguin Conservation Project. She continues to research Namibia's dwindling penguin population to find ways to improve their conservation status and runs the Seabird Rehabilitation Center in Lüderitz. Population numbers for African penguins have decreased to just 55,000 today from an approximate 1.5 million figure in 1910.

In this series of posts, she describes a unique resupply mission to help rescued African penguin chicks being hand-raised in Namibia. 

“Please do not hang up…this call is from a radio…do not speak until after the tone…beeeeeep.” I patiently listened to the tinny voice recording on the other end of my phone. Clearly somebody from one of the three islands that are staffed permanently by personnel from the Namibian Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources was trying to get hold of me, but which one? Mercury, Ichaboe or Possession Island? I am instantly worried, because it’s usually not a good sign when they phone me at home.

Lonely Mercury Island: One of the jewels of Namibia’s coast, tiny Mercury Island lies in picturesque Spencer Bay, about 100km north of the town of Lüderitz | Photo: Jessica Kemper

“Hi Jessica, it’s Joan from Mercury Island, can you hear me – over.” Ah, Mercury Island, undoubtedly the most beautiful island in the world. A mere 3ha in extent, a rocky cigar-shaped pyramid (or is it actually a pyramid-shaped cigar?), nestled in a stunning bay along the stark Namib Desert coastline of southern Namibia and covered in African penguins, Cape gannets and Bank cormorants. It is hollow, with seven cave entrances meeting in a large central cave below the centre of the island. When the sea is rough, the waves colliding in the belly of the island make the whole island shake.

Mercury penguins: Nearly 17000 African Penguins live on Mercury Island, making it the most important penguin breeding island in Namibias. Dolphin Head and the wreck of the Otavi provide a stunning backdrop.
Photo: Jessica Kemper

Bank Cormorant family: About three quarters of the endangered world population of Bank cormorants
breeds on tiny Mercury Island | Photo: Jessica Kemper

Gut Cut: One of the seven entrances leading into the central cave below the island, 
named so by a former islander with a vivid imagination

“Hello Joan, yes I can hear you fairly well, what’s up? – over.” I hear sobbing over the static. “Jessica, I’m so sorry to bother you, but I have no idea what to do. The supply vessel was supposed to arrive last week, but it broke down and we are now out of fish to feed the four penguin chicks and the gannet chick we are rehabilitating. They are all too young to be released. Rian and I have been catching fish around the clock, but we can’t catch enough to feed the birds with. We desperately need help… – over.”

Plan a visit to the Aquarium to learn about the resident African penguins at the Aquarium. They are part of a North American species survival plan. We had two chicks born here this summer. Stay tuned for the next post in this series: The day it rained sardines in Namibia! 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Finding the perfect gift

Each year we like to get holiday gifts for our volunteers to thank them for their hard work and dedication throughout the year. In past years we have given out cute penguin ornaments, penguin water bottles, we even helped all our volunteers live blue™ by giving them waterproof reusable bags to bring their wet bathing suits home instead of using plastic bags. This year we were having a hard time thinking of a gift that was thoughtful and useful. We finally came up with an idea that is both cute and thoughtful and helps to save an endangered species. We're sponsoring abandoned wild penguin chicks!

A hungry penguin chick | Photo: Romy Klusener via SANCCOB

Each year, due to food shortages, adult African penguins in South Africa may be forced to abandon their chicks on shore so they can go farther out to sea to find enough food to sustain themselves through their yearly molt. Without their parents to provide them with food, these abandoned chicks would die. With the endangered African penguin population declining at an alarming rate, the death of these chicks will have a big impact on the future of African penguins.

A penguin chick in the chick rearing program at SANCCOB | Photo: SANCCOB

Workers from SANCCOB, a seabird rescue and rehabilitation center in Cape Town, South Africa, comb the beaches collecting these abandoned chicks to bring to their facility. Once at SANCCOB these chicks are nursed back to health and fattened up until they grow up and fledge into their waterproof juvenile feathers. They are even given “swimming lessons” before release to make sure they are comfortable in the water much like what we do with our chicks before they join the adults in our exhibit.

A penguin chick at the Aquarium during a swim session

Once the chicks are at a healthy weight and have waterproof feathers, they are released back into the wild. This year SANCCOB has taken in a record number of chicks, and with over 500 hungry mouths to feed, SANCCOB set up a donation program to raise money to help pay for all the food and supplies needed to rehabilitate these chicks. They set up the Adopt a “Christmas Chick” program.  If you want to learn more about SANCCOB and all the things they are doing to help the endangered African penguin along with other local sea birds check out their website.

Penguin chicks released have temporary pink marks on their chest for tracking purposes | Photo: SANCCOB

SANCCOB is not the only rescue operation that is dealing with record numbers of patients. Our very own Marine Animal Rescue Team has treated over 700 stranded sea turtles. Learn more about this amazing effort follow our Marine Animal Rescue Team blog.

One of the 700+ rescued sea turtles cared for at the Aquarium's Animal Care Center via the Rescue Blog

So instead of individual volunteer gifts, we decided to pool the money and adopt two chicks on behalf of our volunteers. Through the program we were able to name each adopted chick. We named one “Lewende Blou” which is Afrikaans, one of the official languages spoken in South Africa, for “live blue” and the second one was named “Vrywilliger” which is Afrikaans for volunteer. While we will never meet the two chicks we adopted, we feel good knowing that the money we donated will help provide food and medication to these chicks ultimately helping them return to the wild.

Lewende blou means live blue in Afrikaans

Vrywilliger means volunteer in Afrikaans

So the next time you are stuck trying to find that perfect gift for someone, a donation to your favorite charity or organization like the New England Aquarium in someone’s name is a great way to give a thoughtful gift and a way to give back to the community. Learn more about how you can make a contribution to the Aquarium. Your donation supports the Aquarium's education, conservation and research efforts around the world. In addition, your donation goes to care for the animals at the Aquarium—like top-notch medical care and food for penguins!

Happy Holidays from the Aquarium's penguins and penguin staff!

Little blue penguin with a Photoshopped hat | Photo: Aquarium volunteer Ray H.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Guest Post | Fossil Evidence for the Rise of Penguins: Australia and Africa

Daniel Ksepka, PhD, is the Curator of Science at the Bruce Museum. Ksepka earned his PhD in Earth and Environmental Sciences from Columbia University in 2007 and spent five years in residence at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where he performed his dissertation research on the fossil record of penguins and gained broad experience in the curation and study of natural history objects including fossils, skeletal materials, skins and geological specimens.

In this last post of the series, Daniel will share information about prehistoric penguins. 

Like South America, Australia was just a short distance from Antarctica during the Eocene Epoch but would later drift northwards. Despite being much larger than New Zealand, Australia has far fewer penguins. Today, the only penguin that breeds on the Australian mainland is the little blue penguin, a tiny bird that stands, or perhaps one should say hunches, about one foot tall. This delightful species can be seen at the New England Aquarium, and in fact many of the individuals in the enclosure are birds who were hatched in Australian zoos from rehabbed parents but could not be released in the wild and needed a safe new home.

Little blue penguin

Our knowledge of Australia's ancient penguins is very fuzzy, coming from just a handful of fossil specimens that have been collected over the years. Palaeontologists have discovered evidence that penguins made it to the southern coast of Australia by the Eocene Epoch, and some reached sizes that would have made a little blue penguin look like a bug. However, with only bits of flipper bones and similar scraps left behind, these ancient penguins have revealed little about their overall appearance.

The large species vanished before modern little blue penguins started arriving from New Zealand, but we do not know why. Bones of penguins have been found in pre-colonial middens, indicating humans hunted some species during the pre-colonial era. However, most of the large extinct penguin species such as Anthropodyptes gilli were long gone by the time humans appeared on the scene, so overhunting cannot completely explain why Australia is so depleted of penguin diversity today.

Fossil humerus (flipper bone) of the mysterious Australian penguin Pseudaptenodytes macraei,
compared to the same bone from a modern emperor penguin.
Image courtesy of Travis Park

Finally, we reach Africa. Africa appears to be the last major landmass that penguins reached in their sweeping journey across the southern ocean. The oldest penguin fossils discovered in African sediments come from the Saldanha Steel site and are between 10 and 12 million years in age. These bones were fortuitously exposed while an industrial steel plant was being constructed, which is an isolated incident. Indeed, one extinct species of African penguin is named Nucleornis insolitus because it was discovered during construction at a reactor site. There seem to have been at least four different species of penguins living side by side in Africa in the past, swimming along the coast of an area inhabited by such oddities as the extinct African Bear (Agriotherium africanum) and the short-necked giraffe (Sivatherium hendeyi).

This reproduction of a painting shows a Sivatherium of an undetermined species | Via

The New England Aquarium's own African penguins (also known as black-footed penguins or jackass penguins) are members of the sole species that breeds in Africa today. These fine fellows appear to be newcomers to Africa. They only start showing up about half a million years ago, at a point when all the ancient species seem to have already vanished.

Skeletal reconstruction of the extinct African penguin Inguza predemersus with a modern
black-footed penguin for scale. Fossil art by Kristin Lamm, living penguin art by Barbara Harmon.

So the march of penguins was completed. Beyond the three continents we covered, penguins also live on many small islands today, though we have little knowledge of their ancient history in these locales because fossils tend not to be available. Far from being restricted to icy Antarctica, penguins have truly conquered the myriad environments of the southern hemisphere.

By request of my image providers, the standard conditions are: one time single use, with no transfer of copyright. 


Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Guest Post | Fossil Evidence for the Rise of Penguins: South America

Daniel Ksepka, PhD, is the Curator of Science at the Bruce Museum. Ksepka earned his PhD in Earth and Environmental Sciences from Columbia University in 2007 and spent five years in residence at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where he performed his dissertation research on the fossil record of penguins and gained broad experience in the curation and study of natural history objects including fossils, skeletal materials, skins and geological specimens.

Over the next couple posts, Daniel will share information about prehistoric penguins. Learn more about penguins, their ancestors, their physiology and their biology. Visit the Aquarium! Keep reading for more about the first penguins in South America's fossil record.

South America welcomed its first penguin visitors about 40 million years ago, roughly 15 million years after as our flippered friends established themselves in Antarctica. The oldest fossils from this continent were discovered in Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of the landmass. Looking back at the geological record, this is not surprising. During the Eocene Epoch, South America was much further South then it is today. The swim from the Antarctic Peninsula to Tierra del Fuego would have been an easy journey for penguins.

Penguins quickly progressed north on both coasts, and fossils have been discovered in Peru, Chile, and Argentina recording their past diversity. In fact, they soon reached latitudes of 14°S in Peru, well within the tropics. Early subequatorial penguins soaked up rays on the beaches of a “Greenhouse Earth” during the Eocene, at a time when global sea surface temperatures averaged more than 5°C (~10° F) higher than today. Several unusual types of penguins thrived in this region. Roughly 34 million years ago, a spear-billed penguin called Icadyptes salasi prowled the coast.  This species was able to impale its prey with a long, straight, reinforced beak unlike any modern penguin.

Fossil skull of the spear-billed penguin Icadyptes salasi with a modern Humboldt penguin for scale

Later, around 10 million years ago, “bobble-headed” penguins like Spheniscus megaramphus and Spheniscus urbinai appeared.  These species are extinct relatives of the modern banded penguin group that includes Humboldt and Magellanic penguins. Each had a powerfully hooked beak with a sharp, downturned tip. This beak shape likely helped these menacing birds get a grip on prey like fish. These intimidating penguins were likely ensconced at the upper levels of the food chain for a long time. 

Today, mainland South America hosts more unimposing penguins, included the banded Humboldt penguin and Magellanic penguin, and the crested macaroni penguin and Southern rockhopper penguin. (The last of these can be seen at the New England Aquarium today!) These species are important predators of small fish and other marine life, but penguins as a whole seem to have relinquished part of their former role in the ecosystem to marine mammals like seals and sea lions in the modern day.

Silhouettes of a modern Humboldt Penguin and the extinct
"bobble-headed" 
Spheniscus urbinai to the same scale.

By request of my image providers, the standard conditions are: one time single use, with no transfer of copyright. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Guest Post | Fossil Evidence for the Rise of Penguins: Antarctica

Daniel Ksepka, PhD, is the Curator of Science at the Bruce Museum. Ksepka earned his PhD in Earth and Environmental Sciences from Columbia University in 2007 and spent five years in residence at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where he performed his dissertation research on the fossil record of penguins and gained broad experience in the curation and study of natural history objects including fossils, skeletal materials, skins and geological specimens.

Over the next couple posts, Daniel will share information about prehistoric penguins. Learn more about penguins, their ancestors, their physiology and their biology. Visit the Aquarium! Keep reading for more about the first penguins in the fossil record in Antarctica.

Antarctica was the first point of expansion for penguins. However, this was not the Antarctica we know today. There were no permanent ice sheets covering the continent, and forests spread over the land. Mountains rose over lakes and rivers, and vast plains spread over areas that today lie silently under tremendously thick layers of ice. Sometime around 55 million years ago, shortly after penguins appeared in New Zealand, they expanded their range and reached this forested Antarctica. Soon, an incredible diversity of penguins was gathering along the coast at Seymour Island on the Antarctic Peninsula, which was once the site of an estuary.

A gathering of penguins along the shoreline in Eocene Antarctica, with contemporary plants and animals.
Artwork © Martin Chavez.

It is sometimes difficult to tell whether two different sized bones belong to separate species or represent the male and female of the same species. In the case of Antarctica, even the most conservative counts would indicate 8 species lived side by side, and the true total may have reached 12 or more at the height of their diversity during the Late Eocene (roughly 35 million years ago). These ranged from “normal” penguins close in size to the modern Antarctic Adélie Penguin all the way up to giant species like Anthropornis nordenskjoeldi (a name meaning Nordenskjöld's man-bird, referring to both an Antarctic explorer and the enormous size of the bird).

A fossil beak fragment from a giant Antarctic penguin compared to the skull of a 
King Penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus). Photo © Dr. Piotr Jadwiszczak.

Over time, Antarctica began to cool as it was placed in a freezer by changing ocean circulation patterns.
Australia and South America, once connected to Antarctica, drifted further north opening a deep seaway. Surrounded on all sides by a powerful clockwise circulating current, Antarctica was cut off from warmer ocean waters and entered an icebound phase. Penguins today call the ice shelves of Antarctica home, and even lay their eggs and raise their chicks on frozen sea ice. Yet, today's polar penguins are not direct descendants of the many penguin species that lived in Antarctica during the Eocene. Those species are all extinct now, yet we know precious little about what happened between the Eocene today. All we have to fill in the more than thirty million year gap are two bones deposited 10 million years ago on the east side of the continent and found during field work in the region.

Gentoo penguins | Photo © Brian Skerry

We know that penguins like the adorable Adélie and the regal Emperor eventually mastered the ice, but it will take further discoveries before we know when they arrived and whether any survivors of the warmer era where still hanging on to survival at that point.


By request of my image providers, the standard conditions are: one time single use, with no transfer of copyright.