Thursday, January 14, 2010

What do penguins eat for lunch?

Krilled-cheese sandwiches. Or maybe ice-bergers, I'm not sure.

Today is our first “weather day”: wind gusts of up to 40 knots have prevented us from going out to collect water samples. The water is almost black due to the over cast sky, and I can see squalls move across the inlet in front of the station. Many of the other scientists have gathered here by the wood stove in the dining room. Now that today’s New York Times crossword puzzle has been dispatched, I thought I would take this opportunity write about a topic that many of you have been eagerly anticipating: those well-dressed creatures of the South, penguins!

About 20 small islands lie within the 2-mile boating limit at Palmer station, and several of them host Adelie penguin colonies of significant size. Along with Emperor Penguins, Adelies are the only true Antarctic penguins because they breed on Antarctica. This is the same species that sustained the great Shackleton during his time on Elephant Island. I have been lucky enough to visit the colony nearest to Palmer station twice.

My first impression came before I even set foot on the island: an overwhelming stench filled my nose. The rocks have turned pink with the krill-filled guano of thousands of penguins. However, after several minutes I got used to the smell and it didn’t bother me anymore. Groups of about 20-100 birds gather together in small patches, with stony expanses between. These areas are covered with small flat stones that fit perfectly together like a garden patio. They were placed there by penguins making their stony nests, and have since been abandoned. This colony has decreased 80% in size since 1974, just one of the effects of the rapid warming occurring here. Two species of sub-polar penguins have moved in: Chinstraps and Gentoos. Unlike the Adelies, these species are not dependent on sea ice for foraging strategies. The groups of penguins still living in the colony consist of individuals and pairs tending their chicks. Some adults lie down flat on the ground, often still trying to incubate an egg that sadly is not viable if it hasn’t hatched by now. The chicks are not yet ready to search for food on their own in the water, so their parents ingest krill for them and then regurgitate it into the chicks’ mouths. Very appealing! It is fun to see the chicks that are more than half the size of their parents try to burrow underneath when the parents trade places caring for the chicks. Large, menacing skua birds glide low over the island, looking for untended chicks to carry off.

Another memorable part of the experience is the noise the penguins make. They always seem to be squawking at eachother, especially their mates. They’ll quiet down and then 30 seconds later they’re at it again. It’s not uncommon to see one bite another as well. However these disagreements can’t be too serious because Adelie penguins often mate for life! Every square inch of space within the nesting groups seems to be spoken for, so if one bird gets jostled out of its claimed area, it will be squawked at by all the others, and generally gets so flustered that it desperately waddles around getting nipped until it finds its way out of the group. There are always individuals wandering between groups, tottering along. I have no idea why they move around. Maybe towards the water to find food, but certainly not all of them are going to or from the water because I didn’t see very many of them jumping in or out of the water. Their feet make little pattering noises as they cross the stones. The rock type seems to be slate, which rings out if they misstep.

This brings me to possibly the most important question of this blog post: Why are penguins so cute? I believe that it is because their way of walking is enough like humans for us to compare them to ourselves, but because their bodies are so different, they move in what seems like an awkward way. So they are comical little people. You wouldn’t think that a chicken walks in an adorable way because it is just too different from a person. But the penguin, with its flippers held out from its body like scarecrow arms, looks like it just hasn’t quite figured out how to walk yet, like a toddler. Except that this is how penguins walk. They have nothing more to learn. But they are still adorable. Their legs are so short and far apart that if they want to get up or down a break of more than about two inches, they have to stop, study the terrain and then jump two-footed. So regardless of my previous discussion of their walking, they do trip pretty frequently and it's incredibly entertaining to watch. I found myself just standing in one place and staring at the birds for minutes without being aware of any time passing. It was totally engrossing. I eagerly await the time when the chicks start molting as they get ready to strike out on their own. However, they will always come back here, to the colony where they were born.

You can find out whether penguins have knees (yes) and many other important questions at

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