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23 January, 2003

January 23, 2003

Charlie the Penguin

Everybody asks me if I have seen a penguin, and unfortunately, no I have not. But my team did! The day I was having my hand x-rayed, a little Adelie penguin came waddling by the Stream Team as they worked at Lake Bonney. As you can imagine, this little new comer caught and held their attention and cameras for several hours, and before he left them for parts unknown, he had been named "Charlie."

Adelie penguins, named for French explorer DuMont d'Urville's wife, are the species most often thought of when picturing penguins. They are completely black and white with a distinctive white eye ring. They often have black feathers growing down on their bills, leaving only a small orange tip showing.

Like other penguin species, Adelies have adapted well to the harsh environment of Antarctica. They have a thick layer of blubber that keeps them warm, and their feathers overlap tightly trapping air near their skin that acts as an insulation layer. Their feathers are much more densely packed than birds in more temperate regions. Per square inch, they have about 70 feathers. Unlike their flying cousins, penguins have solid bones which help them dive to deeper waters to find food. Adelies dive nearly 150 meters. They eat krill, Euphausia superba, and in the winter they stay at sea, resting on icebergs and pack ice.

Adelies are one of the most studied of the penguin species. David Ainley is studying Adelies at Cape Royds, an island near McMurdo. His group is interested in what impact the large icebergs that have broken off of the Ross Ice Shelf this year may have on the Adelie colonies. There are 2.5 million known breeding pairs, but there may be other colonies that have not been discovered yet in little know areas of the Antarctic coast.

Charlie wandered into the Dry Valleys and it may very well have been a disastrous decision on his part. There is no food for him here. The Stream Team watched him swim under the ice in Lake Bonney, but he would find no fish or krill there. We have seen lots of seal carcasses in the valleys and you have to wonder why the animals come here. Charlie was about fifteen miles from the sea, and waddling fast. David Ainley suggests that young birds wander around and investigate things. He says they are the ones that usually find new places. They sometimes wander ten to fifteen kilometers from Cape Royds. Ones that make it to the Dry Valleys are off the charts on wandering! We hope that when he left the area where the Stream Team was working that he turned around and headed back toward the sea.

Thanks to Jen Baeseman for these wonderful pictures of Charlie.

1. Meet Charlie as he stands on the ice edge posing for the Stream Team.

2. Charlie is taking a rest from his journeys. His little legs have walked at least 15 miles. We wonder how long he has been in Taylor Valley.

3. Penguins have several forms of locomotion. They are able to move rapidly by "tobaggoning" on their stomachs. Their stiff wings propel them as they slip and slide on their bellies over snow and ice.

4. Penguins preen their feathers by pulling their bills over each individual feather, kind of like how we comb our hair.

5. Charlie uses his wings for balance as he navigates across the rough ice edge on Lake Bonney. It was a warm day. He may also be holding his wings out to cool off. Penguins fluff their feathers to let air flow to their skin and to cool them. Temperatures around freezing are very warm to the highly insulated penguins.

6. Charlie heads west leaning into the slope of the hill. Notice his shadow leading the way.

7. Turn around Charlie! There's no food ahead! Charlie looked fat and healthy, even after his long walk to Lake Bonney. We hope he got his fill of exploring and headed back to the Ross Sea.

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