Posts Tagged ‘Antarctica’

Penguin Have No Taste (Sort Of)

March 5, 2016

Although most bird species already lack the ability to detect sweet flavors, penguins loose out on even more and are not even able to detect bitter or pleasant savory tastes. By analyzing the genomes of a range of penguin species, scientists discovered that all penguins appear to lack the genes that allow them to detect these flavors.


It is likely that penguins lost their taste between 20 to 60 million years ago a period that saw dramatic climate cooling in Antarctica, as the necessary protein are inhibited at very low temperatures. It may also be down to penguins slippery diet, as the primary aim of their bristles-covered tongues (see photo below!) seems to be to catch and hold their prey after which it is swallowed whole.

Penguins thus perhaps do not need taste perception, although it remains unclear whether these traits are a cause or a consequence of their major taste loss, according to the study published in Current Biology. Unfortunately for the penguins it still means they are left with only sour and salty sensations when enjoying their slippery meals.


Have The Missing Adelie Penguins Rescued Themselves?

February 19, 2016

People who know me know I have a thing for penguins and everywhere I went this past week friends have mentioned if heard about the the demise of thousands of penguins in Antarctica?   My response was and is, people, people let’s give the penguins a little credit.

Yes, the news reported around the world was startling — that some 150,000 Adélie penguins have died in Antarctica because a colossal iceberg cut off their sea access.

But there’s no proof that the birds are dead. No one has actually found 150,000 frozen penguins. In fact, many experts think there’s a much less horrific explanation for the missing birds: When the going (fishing) gets tough, the penguins simply pick up and move. It wouldn’t be the first time Adélie penguins marched to new digs. When an iceberg grounded in the southern Ross Sea in 2001, penguins on Ross Island relocated to nearby colonies until the ice broke up.

“Just because there are a lot fewer birds observed doesn’t automatically mean the ones that were there before have perished,” said Michelle LaRue, a penguin population researcher at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, who was not involved in the study. “They easily could have moved elsewhere, which would make sense if nearby colonies are thriving,” LaRue told the Penguin Post in an email interview.


I’m Dreaming Of A White Penguin

February 6, 2016

Penguins are one of the more popular and easily recognizable members of the animal kingdom. They’ve been studied and observed so much that you probably think you’ve seen it all when it comes to our adorable, flightless friends. Well, Penguin Post readers, guess again.

When a team of scientists working for National Geographic were exploring the Lindbald region of northern Antarctica, they came across a remarkably a very rare penguin specimen.  An Albino chinstrap penguin.   02-mutant-blonde-penguin.jpg

How Does The Mail Get From The Penguin Post Office To Your Home?

July 21, 2015

The Penguin Post Office in Port Lockroy is a working post office, but how exactly does a post card make it from Antarctica to your destination of choice once dropped into the red Royal Mailbox?  As a designated Historic Site and Monument under the Antarctic Treaty, Goudier Island is only allowed 60 visitors at one time, so visitors from cruise ships are broken into smaller groups before stepping into the Penguin Post Office.


Part museum, part gift shop, part post office, the abandoned British base Port Lockroy was renovated by the British Antarctic Survey in 1996 and has been open to visitors during the Antarctic summer ever since. With one or two ships coming past every day, about 18,000 people visit the Penguin Post Office between November and March, and most embrace the unusual postcard opportunity. Last summer, more than 70,000 postcards were sent to more than 100 countries. That’s up from 50,000 the year before.


After choosing your postcard and having Antarctic stamps stuck on them, you drop your postcard or letter into the red British letterbox on the wall, the postcards are removed and franked with their special British Antarctic Territory postmark. Then the journey begins. While many of the people who posted them will finish their Antarctic journey in Ushuaia, on the southern tip of Argentina, the postcards need to hitch a ride on ships that are heading to the Falkland Islands. From the Falklands they are either loaded on to an RAF military plane or a commercial cargo plane and flown to RAF Brize Norton in the UK. At this point, they enter the British postal system and start to make their way around the world. It may be a roundabout journey from Antarctica to your chosen destination, but the well travelled postcards usually take about 4 weeks to the U.K. and about 6 – 7 weeks for the rest of the penguin loving world.

Hidden Penguin Cam Reveals The Secret World Of Penguins

May 2, 2015

Ever wondered what penguins get up to when nobody’s watching? The Penguin Post has learned that the citizen science project, Penguin Watch, has just released 500,000 new images of the flightless birds in the hopes it will reveal their secrets and help conservation efforts. The project launched in 2014 and led by Oxford University scientists with support from the Australian Antarctic Division, asks people to go online and count penguins in images taken by remote cameras monitoring almost 100 colonies in Antarctica. Scientists hope the results from the latest batch of photos published to coincide with World Penguin Day on April 25 will help them discover how climate change and human activity affect breeding and feeding and why some penguin species thrive as others decline in a bid to conserve them.

Citizen scientists are helping biologists shed light on the lives of penguins in Antarctica by viewing time-lapse photos.

Citizen scientists are helping biologists shed light on the lives of penguins in Antarctica by viewing time-lapse photos.

“The problem is that penguins face different challenges across their range, which could be from climate change, from fisheries or direct human disturbance,” said Tom Hart of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology in a statement. “Having many more sites monitored and comparing high- versus low-fished sites, for example, will enable us to work out which of these threats are causing changes to penguin populations and how we might mitigate them.”  Monitoring penguin colonies during breeding season has proven problematic in the past because the areas are extremely difficult to access at the beginning of the season, according to the statement.

But the combination of time-lapse cameras and 1.5 million eagle-eyed citizen scientists has already alerted the project’s researchers to some surprising secret penguin behaviors. For instance, penguins apparently inadvertently use their poop to melt ice so they can breed.

Penguins Melt Your Hearts While Their Poop Melts The Ice

May 2, 2015

The Penguin Post has learned that Gentoo penguins have given the term nesting a whole new meaning.  The penguins poop on their frozen landscape in the Antarctic to melt it, creating the ideal location to rear their young when the time comes, new video footage suggests.42-67137516.jpg__800x600_q85_crop

Though most humans wouldn’t consider poop an appropriate decoration for a child’s nursery (although it is certainly a common element in them), poop seems to play a key role in penguins’ breeding behavior. This poop “landscaping” is probably unintentional: The penguins most likely aren’t considering the feng shui of their feces and deliberately pooping to make room for their chicks’ nurseries, researchers said.

Gentoo penguin pooping in the snowThe new insight came from thousands of hours of video taken by researchers from the University of Oxford in England, along with the Australian Antarctic Division. The researchers spent a year videotaping the behavior of a colony of Gentoo penguins on Cuverville Island, off the Antarctic Peninsula. The team also used snow gauges to measure how fast snow melted as the tuxedo-clad birds came and went. [See Video of the Penguin’s Poop Landscaping]

The frosty region is usually blanketed by snow and ice, but that changed at certain times of the year. The birds aggregated in large groups, leaving huge piles of guano, or poop. The dark color of the poop allowed the light from the weak Antarctic sun to be more quickly absorbed. That, in turn, fueled the melting of the ice and left a lot of bare rocky shelters — perfect nesting grounds for rearing their adorable penguin chicks.

Gentoo penguins, or Pygoscelis papua, are among the rarest of the Antarctic birds, with fewer than 300,000 breeding pairs on the icy continent, according to the British Antarctic Survey. The Gentoo’s, like many other penguins, are monogamous, usually mating with the same partner year after year. Each female penguin lays just two eggs for the season, so it’s no surprise that they aggressively protect their eggs, according to the British Antarctic Survey. The penguins tend to place their eggs on hilltops and open beaches, collecting bits of pebbles and other objects from their surroundings for their nests.

Antarctica Penguin Perfect (For Now)

March 2, 2015

The Penguin Post has learned that Antarctic sea ice levels are perfect for emperor penguins.  That according to researchers, who have found the frozen continent has in the past been (if you can believe) too cold for the bird. A team of Australian researchers, including scientists from the University of Tasmania and the Australian Antarctic Division, has been investigating how emperor penguin numbers have varied over centuries.

6b8e1e81-3fcb-4a0a-b72e-4a225ae36f83-2060x1236The lead researcher, Jane Younger, said that despite emperor penguins being accustomed to temperatures of -30C, the last ice age seems to have been a snap too cold for them, when their population was about seven times smaller than in 2015. “Due to there being about twice as much sea ice compared to current conditions, the penguins were unable to breed in more than a few locations around Antarctica,” Younger said.  “The distances from the open ocean, where the penguins feed, to the stable sea ice where they breed was probably too far.” The finding suggests current sea ice conditions might be optimal for the emperor penguin population, but researchers have yet to determine the impact of further global warming.

It Appears Penguins Have No Taste

February 20, 2015

PENGUINS are among the world’s most dedicated seafood eaters. But they can’t taste fish, biologists have discovered. The Penguin Post has learned that Chinese and American researchers have found that the flightless birds have only two of the five basic tastes — salty and sour — after losing the capacity to detect sweet, bitter and “umami” or savoury flavours.

Jianzhi Zhang, a genomic evolutionist at the University of Michigan, said the results were surprising. “Penguins eat fish, so you would guess they need the umami receptor genes,” he said. The discovery, revealed in the journal Current Biology, adds to the taste limitations known to bedevil some of the world’s most loved and loathed creatures. “Whales and dolphins have lost all tastes except salty,” Professor Zhang told The Australian. “Vampire bats have lost sweet and umami tastes.”

Adelie penguins and their water-going cousins can’t taste their prey’s fishy flavour, scientists have found.

Adelie penguins and their water-going cousins can’t taste their prey’s fishy flavor, scientists have found.

Birds also lack receptors for sweet flavors, even though many eat fruit and nectar. Scientists believe birds lost the T1R2 gene — which is crucial for tasting sugar — sometime during or after their evolution from meat-eating dinosaurs. The latest study found that receptors for detecting bitter and savory tastes were also missing from the genomes of Adelie and emperor penguins. Subsequent research revealed the other 15 penguin species also lacked these genes.

The researchers believe another key gene, known as TRPM5, may have effectively been frozen out of the genome of living penguins’ most recent common ancestor during an evolutionary stint in Antarctica. TRPM5 is “temperature-sensitive” and doesn’t function properly when things “get really cold”, the journal reported. While some penguins now inhabit warmer latitudes, all penguin species trace their roots to the frozen continent. But the study has raised a chicken-and-egg question, with the researchers unsure if penguins swallow fish whole because they can’t taste them, or vice-versa. Anatomical studies have found that penguins’ tongues are covered by a thick layer rather than taste buds, suggesting they’re used to catch food rather than taste it. “Their tongue structure and function suggest that penguins need no taste perception,” Professor Zhang said. “It is unclear whether these traits are a cause or a consequence of major taste loss.

Adorable Robot Penguin Alert

November 3, 2014

Studying wild penguins is crucial if we are to understand why they behave the way they do. But what if the apparently passive act of observation changes the way they behave? For decades, behavioral ecologists have been very mindful of this problem. A paper, just out in Nature Methods, suggests a cunning new way to collect data from penguins in their natural habitat without causing them undue stress.

A remote-controlled vehicle disguised as an emperor penguin chick makes a stealthy approach Photograph: Yvon Le Maho et al. Nature Methods

A remote-controlled vehicle disguised as an emperor penguin chick makes a stealthy approach.

There are many ways to study the behavior of penguins. You can go out and gain their trust, hoping they get so comfortable with your presence that they carry on as if you weren’t there at all. Or you might want to fit your study population with some kind of gizmo that can collect (and maybe even transmit) data in your absence. But even devices like these are likely to alter behavior.

A microchip implanted beneath the skin is much more likely to go unnoticed by the penguin. The snag is that in order to scan the chip and identify the individual penguin, you have to get pretty close. Researchers have now come up with an alternative: sending in a remote-controlled robot penguin equipped with a scanning device, the ability to collect all sorts of data on the focal animal and then transmit it into the ether. Testing this method out on king penguins, they reveal that it is likely to be a whole lot less stressful for the animals.

When approached by a human, for instance, a penguin’s heart rate increased by an average of 35 beats per minute. When the rover came at it, its heart rate also increased, but only by around 24 beats per minute. In addition, a human caused the target penguin to move much more (average of 43 cm) than the rover (just 8cm). With the robot, the penguins were also much quicker to return to their original physiological state.

The researchers went on to see if emperor penguins had a similarly relaxed reaction to robots. Many were wary. But when the scientists dressed up the rover as a baby penguin, everyone was happy. “Chicks and adults were even heard vocalizing at the camouflaged rover, and it was able to infiltrate a crèche without disturbance,” note Yvon Le Maho and colleagues.

The camouflaged rover successfully infiltrates an emperor penguin crèche Photograph: Yvon Le Maho et al. Nature Methods

The camouflaged rover successfully infiltrates an emperor penguin crèche.

This set-up is obviously not going to be workable in every setting. But it certainly does open up a lot of exciting possibilities for students of penguin behavior. Not to mention some rather wonderful photographic opportunities.

Penguin Watch

October 23, 2014

The Penguin Post has learned that a new webbed site called Penguin Watch which has nothing to do with penguin watches.  It is a citizen science Web site that is trying to understand the lives of penguins. To do this scientists have traveled to some of the coldest areas on the planet to learn more about penguin populations. Citizen scientists can help annotate hundreds of thousands of images of wildlife in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean taken over the past three years.

Penguin Watch features a tool that takes its own and other researchers’ time-lapse imagery and displays it to interested members of the public. This allows volunteers to click on penguins and help extract data from imagery. Individually mark adult penguins, chicks and eggs in an image by clicking on the center of each one’s visible area. Sometimes just a head or tail is showing, other times you’ll be able to mark the center of the chest/torso. Project organizers sometimes need their volunteers to mark up to 30 of each, although participants can mark more.

Chinstrap Penguin (Pygoscelis antarctica) on Livingston Island, South Shetland Islands, Western Antarctica

Chinstrap Penguin (Pygoscelis antarctica) on Livingston Island, South Shetland Islands, Western Antarctica

Mark any other animals too so researchers can see how often they are near the penguin nest. After classifying, citizen scientists can discuss a specific image or the whole project with the science team and other volunteers by visiting Talk Penguin Watch.