Saturday, December 3, 2011

South Africa #12: Dassen’s Penguin Study

Penguin biologist Paul Leonard is in South Africa researching African penguins in the wild on Dassen Island, once home to 600,000 penguins. The following is a photo update from the field, where there are only about 8,000 birds today. 

I've mentioned that the goals of this journey to Dassen are to collect data and measure the health of its penguin colony.

African penguin chick
African penguins will leave their burrows and walk to the sea during the dawn hours. They will swim around all day foraging, and return home at dusk. The penguins here tend to be very shy and can be easily scared so we have to be extremely careful when venturing out into the colony. The island stewards say the best time to walk around the island is between 9 am and 4 pm. They have been studying these birds for a long time. Many of the penguin nests are marked and checked regularly for occupancy. When they find a penguin in the burrow, the bird's condition is assessed. The residency classifications are: is the bird on eggs, is the bird molting, is the bird "loafing" or hanging out. If no one is home, there are 2 categories to assess the nest: unoccupied and deserted--for any found with abandoned eggs.

Checking on a penguin burrow

Marking the burrow

Dassen is unique in the sense that its penguins breed both in the winter and summer months. Summer is just now beginning here. Many of the nests on the island have eggs in them, which is a promising sign. However, growing up penguin is not at all easy. Less than half of these chicks will make it to adulthood. African penguin parents share the responsibility for raising their young. Recently researchers have been finding that some African penguin parents are spending more time at sea, foraging for food. They sometimes won't return to their burrows for several days. After raising penguin chicks at the Aquarium, I know how ravenous they can get. They constantly need to be fed. The parent tending to the chicks will eventually grow hungry and leave. The chicks are then left on their own to fend for themselves. This is why the second portion of the work we are conducting is so important.

Attaching the GPS data loggers

Team is placing GPS data loggers on some of the parents to see what they are doing when they go to sea each day. It's not an easy job. First you must find a suitable nest with penguin parents and chicks. Then you must check the nest for a few days to see if the parents are switching places. Once it's confirmed, then you're ready to deploy the data loggers. How do you do that? Do you just reach in a grab the penguin? Well, kind of, but it's not a simple task. The parent has to be carefully removed so that the chicks aren't damaged. So what you do is reach in and let the penguin bite into your hand (we do wear protective gloves while do this). Once the bird has a hold of you, then you can grab its head. The next step is to slowly bring the animal out of the next. While doing this you have to be careful not to injure it, or damage the nest. With the penguin safely out, you can now attach the data logger.

Measuring the chicks

Beak length and weight measurements are also performed on the bird at this time. When we're finished, the bird is placed back into the burrow. They almost always scramble back in, so we must wait for a few moments to make sure the chicks are ok. The data loggers are left on the penguin for a couple of days. Afterwards, we will return to retrieve them. This process has to be repeated on another dozen penguins over the course of 2 weeks. It is not easy work and can be very time consuming. However, the information collected is priceless. Field research is a lot of fun!

Having an amazing time!  

Learn about the time Paul spent nursing abandoned chicks to health at a local rescue facility here.

Follow the adventures of Paul's co-worker, Jo! Aquarium educator Jo Blasi is still on the mainland in South Africa learn about African penguins and raising abandoned chicks at SANCCOB through their chick bolstering project! Read about her experience on the Explorers Blog

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