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19 February, 2002


When people think about Antarctica, they usually think about penguins. There are many species of penguins. Some are more commonly found in the Weddell Sea or the Ross Sea. Others are more common to the Antarctic Peninsula where Palmer Station is located.

Three species of penguins have been seen around Palmer Station this summer: the Adelie, the Chinstrap, and the Gentoo penguins. These three penguin species are beginning to tell an interesting story about climate change.

Scientists have studied penguins and other seabirds here for many years. They study their growth and their health. They study where these birds can be found. They study the numbers of penguins coming back to the islands to breed. These scientists have found some important results. Chinstrap penguins have become more abundant. They have also expanded their territory southward along the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula. Adelie penguin populations have declined around Palmer Station. Adelies have been decreasing steadily in other parts of the Antarctic Peninsula as well. (The Adelie penguin has been studied in Antarctica for more than fifty years.

Here is a little background information.

The adult Adelie penguin is dependent on the sea ice for survival. These penguins do not hunt for their food at night. In the wintertime, the Adelies need to find sea ice. They use the ice as a platform from which to come and go for food. They haul out onto the ice for the night. At first light, the Adelies go back into the water to feed.

In the summertime, the Adelie adults can be found on the rocky islands around Palmer Station. Parents in a breeding pair will take turns going out to forage for krill and fish. This is the food that is fed to the chicks. When the chicks fledge, the adults leave to forage for food to feed themselves. They head into the sea ice. They they follow the sea ice as it moves on.

So, when there is a change in the location and amount of winter sea ice, there is a change in the location of Adelie penguins.

The Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins thrive on the availability of open water in winter. It isn't clear to scientists yet just why they do well in the open water. Scientists think it may be because the open water helps them in their hunt for prey. Chinstraps and Gentoos can eat fish. Gentoos dive deeply, and can find different fish to eat. Chinstraps can spend the winter night at sea. They don't have to find ice to sleep on. Perhaps that means they also can avoid leopard seals by avoiding the sea ice. A lot more has to be known about the Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins.

Bill Fraser is the science team leader for the seabird group. Bill is an ecologist, studying the habitat of this area. He has studied the seabirds here for over twenty-five years. Bill says that seabirds give scientists a window into understanding how the "system" (ecosystem) works. He has observed changes in the seabird population over this time. In 1992, Bill and others wrote an arcticle that was published in the journal, Polar Biology. (Polar Biology, 1992. 11: 525-531). The scientists suggested that the increases in Chinstrap penguin population and distribution in the Antarctic Peninsula was brought on by environmental warming. Scientists have measured a gradual decrease in the number of cold winter years. This change (an increase in the mean winter temperature by 4-5 degrees C in the last 50 years) has resulted in a decrease in winter sea ice cover.

These changes in the sea ice affect the plants and animals. Adelies don't have as much of the winter sea ice to live on. Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins have more open water. Is the habitat is becoming more favorable for the Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins, and less favorable for the Adelie penguins? The research is continuing, but looks like that may be the tale of three penguins.

This image shows the bright orange beak of the Gentoo penguin. Their nests are made of available materials. In this case, their nests are made of rocks and stones. Photo courtesy of Cara Sucher.

This Chinstrap penguin seems to be taking it easy. Adelie penguins and chicks are in the background.

This Chinstrap penguin and chick are on Dream Island. Adelie penguins and chicks are in the background.

Adelie penguins and chicks on Dream Island.

This is a Gentoo penguin. It is noted for its white "eyebrows" or bonnet.

Can you see the penguin in the middle with the transmitter on its back? This photo was taken on Humble Island. The penguin is part of a study. The transmitter tells when he is on the island and when he is not. If he is not on the island, he is out foraging for food to feed his chick.

Here are more Adelie penguins. As the chicks get older, they gather into "creches", or nurseries. This is what is beginning to happen here.

This Gentoo penguin appears to be lying on a nest. Photo courtesy of Cara Sucher.

Some penguins waddle on land, and others really do scoot along on their stomachs. Some people call this "tobogganing".

Adelie penguins are graceful swimmers. Here two Adelie penguins are "porpoising". When they come above the surface like this, they remind people of porpoises or dolphins. This photo is courtesy of Laura Hamilton.

Bill Fraser and Donna Patterson are taking a census of Adelie penguin chicks. This means they go from one penguin colony to another, counting the number of penguin chicks in the colony. Here they are on Dream Island. Notice the counters in their hands. They have three people count the same colony in order to make sure that the number is correct.

Heidi Geisz and Brett Pickering are ready to measure the length of this penguin's beak and the length of its right flipper.

Heidi Geisz. Brett Pickering, Bill Fraser, and Donna Patterson on Humble Island. They are preparing to weigh penguins who are almost ready for offshore travel!

When the penguin has been weighed, it is marked with this temporary blue streak. So, this bird was just weighed by the birder group. It has returned to the group of birds. When the scientists come back in two days to weigh a random selection of birds, they'll know this bird has already been weighed. (The mark wears off after two days). Do you suppose the other penguins notice this fashion trend?

Bill Fraser is ready to weigh this Adelie penguin juvenile.

Chris Denker is a member of the seabird group. Here he is on Dream Island in January, 2002. Notice the penguin surfacing from the water.

Here you see a Gentoo penguin chick. Photo courtesy of Donna Patterson.

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