A Real Passion For Real Penguins

University of Washington researcher Dr. P. Dee Boersma has spent nearly 40 years following her passion to learn about and protect penguins.

There once was a Michigan schoolteacher who gave her little girl a butterfly net and a suggestion: Every kid should have a hobby, could collecting insects be yours? The little girl, driven by curiosity and a sense of duty, embraced her mother’s words so completely that, for a long time, the schoolteacher believed that her daughter had caused the crash of butterfly populations across the entire Midwest. Of course, the real threat was pesticides such as DDT. The little girl grew up and moved on. Now, she chases penguins, whose numbers are also spiraling downward. This time, climate change is one of the culprits. The butterfly-and-penguin chaser is Dr. P. Dee Boersma, a preeminent penguin researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she holds the Wadsworth Endowed Chair in Conservation Studies. A 2009 winner of the prestigious Heinz Award, Dr. Boersma has spent nearly 40 years studying penguins from the Galapagos Islands to Argentina. I sat down with her to chat about penguin commute times, the human population problem, and why you should have a TV. People love penguins because penguins are like people Dr. Boersma first fell “madly in love with penguins” when she was doing her PhD research in the Galapagos Islands in the 1970s. Since then, she’s moved further south and for the past 27 years, she and her research crews have been following Magellanic penguins along the temperate southeastern coast of Argentina. Perhaps Dr. Boersma keeps these model penguins in her University of Washington lab as a reminder that penguins are a lot like people: both are struggling with climate change. Photo: Ashley Braun Why bother studying the same group of penguins for so long? Because long-term research like Dr. Boersma’s comes in extremely handy when looking at what an increasingly warmer world does—if anything—to the creatures that live in it. Magellanic penguins, for example, can swim more than 100 miles each day in search of a nice fish dinner. After eating it (and hopefully leaving a good tip), they book it back to the nests to feed their fluffy chicks before the food is digested in their own stomachs. “It’s not that different than [human] parents that are trying to raise their kids,” noted Dr. Boersma. (Except that your parents probably didn’t regurgitate into your sippy cup.) Analyzing satellite data from tagged penguins Dr. Boersma discovered that climate change is forcing these penguins to swim twenty-five miles farther each day to find food than they were traveling a decade ago. That’s fifty extra miles roundtrip—every day! A situation Dr. Boersma compared to a human family where mom’s office has moved from San Diego, where the family still lives, up to San Francisco, where mom now works. The longer commute means mom spends more money on fuel and less time and energy at home. It’s basically the same for a penguin family. Except penguins can’t store extra food in the fridge, and if papa penguin also leaves the nest for food, the kids might get eaten by an armadillo. “Penguins … [are] having to commute farther to be able to find fish,” said Dr. Boersma. “That’s the price they’re paying for the change and variability of climate.”

Dr. Boersma with some of her penguin pals in her University of Washington lab.


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