Hidden Lives of Emperor Penguins
Despite being the first emperor penguin colony discovered in 1902 during Scott’s Discovery Expedition (1901–1904) little is known about the at-sea behavior of emperor penguins from Cape Crozier. The first scientific expedition to study them was in 1911, when a small group from Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition team made the perilous journey to the colony in the winter to collect eggs. Since this early study, most research at the Crozier colony has involved counting the birds to monitor the population. In the Fall of 2019, we headed to Cape Crozier to study the foraging ecology of one of the southernmost emperor penguin colonies, and after two years of delays due to the Covid pandemic, we are excited to be returning to Cape Crozier this year to complete the study. We hope that you will follow along on our adventure as we prepare for the fieldwork, travel to Antarctica to study the birds, and analyze the data. We look forward to sharing with you new discoveries about the ecology of the emperors of the ice.
Emperor penguins, the largest species of marine birds, are an abundant year-round predator in the Antarctic ecosystem. Like other predators, they are vulnerable to environmental change that impacts ecosystem productivity: these changes permeate through the food web and modify foraging behavior, and ultimately survival and reproduction. Despite their importance in the Ross Sea ecosystem, relatively little is known about Ross Sea emperor penguins’ foraging ecology and habitat use. Developing a comprehensive understanding of these metrics for penguins in the Ross Sea is imperative for predicting how climate change will impact emperor penguin populations and foraging ecology, and understanding the impacts of these changes on the Ross Sea ecosystem.
To understand their role in the ecosystem and how this may shift with environmental change, it is imperative to learn what food sources are important to them and how hard they have to work to get a meal. Our collaborative project is investigating the foraging ecology and habitat use of Ross Sea emperor penguins during late chick-rearing, an energetically challenging phase of the life cycle when parents must meet the demands of their rapidly growing chicks. We will tag the penguins with dataloggers (small electronic devices) to find out where they go in the ocean and how deep they dive to find food. Additionally, we will be measuring how many calories they need and collecting guano samples (poop) to learn more about their diet. This study will fill important knowledge gaps on the energy balance, diet, and habitat use of emperor penguins during this critical time.
Additionally, while our focus is on emperor penguin foraging ecology, this project is part of a large-scale project, “Ross Sea Research and Monitoring Programme: is the world’s largest MPA effective?” This collaborative project’s goal is to characterize the Ross Sea Ecosystem as it is now (baseline) and develop and apply methods that can measure long-term changes for the purpose of testing Marine Protected Area effectiveness.
Funding and logistical support
This is an internationally collaborative project with funding and logistic support provided by the National Science Foundation (CAREER Grant #: 1943559), Antarctica New Zealand, and funding provided to NIWA as part of the project “Ross Sea Research and Monitoring Programme: is the world’s largest MPA effective” (New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment).
Permit for penguins in snow storm: US Antarctic Treaty Permit (2011−016).
Penguin going in water with tag on: US Antarctic Treaty Permit (2013-006).