Monday, March 28, 2011

Penguin News: Tristan Oil Spill

Last summer there wasn’t a day that went by when you didn’t hear a report about the devastating Deepwater Horizon oil rig spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the impact on its human and animal residents. Right now the penguin staff at the New England Aquarium are watching the news and learning more about another devastating oil spill.

On March 16 the Greek cargo vessel MS Olivia carrying soya beans ran aground off Nightingale Island, part of the Tristan da Cunha island group in the South Atlantic Ocean. By March 18 the ship had broken in two and sank, spilling its fuel oil into the ocean.

(Photo credit: Andy Repetto)

Any oil spill is a horrible situation but what makes this one particularly devastating is that the Tristan de Cunha island group is home to large concentrations of several populations of sea birds, including Great Shearwaters, broad-billed prions, Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross, white-bellied storm petrels and sooty albatross. These islands are also home to several population of endangered sea birds that are endemic (found no where else) to the area. These birds include the speckled petrel and the Tristan bunting. Nightingale Island is home to half the world population of endangered northern rockhopper penguins.

 A yellow nosed albatross, one of the many sea birds that are affected by the oil spill. 
(Photo credit: Tristan da Cunha Conservation Department)

Another potentially devastating result of the ship wreck is the possibility of rats from the cargo vessel gaining access to the formerly rodent free islands and potentially wiping out bird populations far into the future once all the oil has been cleaned up and merely a memory.

Researches watch the shoreline anxiously as the northern rockhoppers are finishing up their molting season and thousands of birds are ready to return to the sea with new feathers but empty stomachs after fasting on land for 2-3 weeks. By March 22 it was estimated that 20,000 oiled penguins had returned to Nightingale Island.
 (Photo credit: Tristan da Cunha Conservation Department)

This rescue attempt will be very difficult compared to past penguin rescue events, like the Treasure Oil Spill in 2000, due to the remoteness of the islands. Tristan da Cunha is the most remote, inhabited island in the world! The closest continent is Africa more than 1,500 kilometers (2,400 miles) away. There are no airports on the islands so it will take rescuers 4-6 days to sail from Cape Town, South Africa.

 (Photo credit: South African Journal of Science)

But help is on the way!
A salvage tug Smit Amandla arrived at Nightingale Island on March 22, on board was Estelle van der Merwe who was instrumental in the successful Treasure Oil Spill clean up. She is working with Tristan Conservation officials to try to start cleaning oiled penguins. Other rescue organizations like SANCCOB (South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) left from Cape Town this week and will be arriving soon ready to help.

Photo credit: Tristan da Cunha Conservation Department

We are monitoring the situation closely and if you would like to learn more check out the Tristan da Cunha website and the agreement on the conservation of albatross and petrels.
If you are wondering what you can do to help; you can make a donation to the Tristan Education Trust Fund or to SANCCOB the South African marine bird rescue foundation sending staff to Tristan this week; SANCCOB

Remember to try to live blue to keep are oceans clean and healthy.


Spot that Penguin

As we are feeding the penguins and recording their food totals we are often asked how we can tell each penguin apart, they all look a like. The easy way is by their wing ID bracelets. Each penguin is given a name which corresponds to a specific color pattern. If the penguin is a male the bracelet will be on the left wing, if it is a female the bracelet will be on the right wing (an easy way to remember this is "girls are always right").

Feeding time with the African penguins

No two penguins of the same species will have the same color bracelet on the same wing. It does take a little bit of time to memorize each penguin's name based on their bracelet, but in a short period you can name all 80+ penguins off the top of your head. Soon we also notice slight differences in each bird's appearance and before you know it you can recognize each bird without looking at their bracelets.

There is another way you can tell African penguins apart. Each penguin has a unique spot pattern on its chest. The spot pattern is like a fingerprint, no two African penguins have the same spot pattern. This characteristic is helping researchers census and study African penguins in the wild without the use of wing bands.

Researchers from Bristol University in the United Kingdom have developed a high tech way to spot penguins, called the Penguin Recognition Project. Using a camera that is hidden at specific locations where the penguins walk as they come and go to the sea on foraging trips, images are taken of the penguins' chests. A computer program maps each spot pattern and can then identify individual penguins. This allows researchers to study individuals in a totally noninvasive way. The data collected using this technique is useful in studying the population dynamics of the endangered African penguin and will help us learn more about the changes in the African penguin populations at certain sites.

Penguin mapping, credit: University of Bristol

For more information on this spot mapping technology check out these links:
University of Bristol: Passport for Penguins program
University of Bristol: Spot the Penguin program
MIT's Technology Review: Penguin recognition software

Here are the spot patterns of a few of our African penguins. See if you can match them up without using a fancy computer program.

Penguins A, B, C and D

Penguins 1, 2, 3 and 4

Could you match up our penguins just based on their spot patterns?

Here are the results:

Penguin A and Penguin 2 are Sinclair II (That one should have been easy!)

Penguin B and Penguin 1 are In-Guza

Penguin C and Penguin 4 are Albatross

Penguin D and Penguin 3 are Mosselbaai

The next time you are at the Aquarium see if you can "spot" our penguins!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Penguin Pals: Beach Donkey

As you walk around the Aquarium you will hear a myriad of different sounds. Some you expect to hear, like excited children gasping as a shark swims by, or an educator talking to visitors about lobsters. But one sound you probably don't expect to hear at the Aquarium is the braying of a donkey.

Does the Aquarium have donkeys?

We don't have donkeys. The braying sound you hear is actually coming from our African penguins! Instead of chirping, hooting or screeching; the African penguins have vocalizations that actually sound like a donkey’s bray.

Have a listen.

Now, the penguin I would like to introduce you to today is Beach Donkey. She has a green and white bracelet on her right wing. She got her name because of the braying sounds of African penguins. When early European fur sealers were rounding the coast of South Africa, they could hear thunderous braying sounds as they approached the coastal islands. When they saw that the sound was coming from strange looking, beach dwelling birds they called them beach donkeys.

Beach Donkey

So the next time you are visiting the New England Aquarium try to find Beach Donkey and keep an ear out for our African penguins braying.