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Science Careers Blog

December 11, 2009

A Day with Penguin Researchers in Antarctica


If you are a "birder" at Palmer Station like Kristen Gorman or Jen Blum, your day starts early with a quick breakfast, getting your gear in order, donning your "float coat", getting on the zodiac, and heading to one of the several lovely islands in the Palmer Archipelago. Their job sounds way cool: They get to spend their days surrounded by penguins, skuas, giant petrels, and antarctic cormorans, in the open air, no desk work (until the night, when data needs to be put in to the system).

But appearances deceive. Yes, these young researchers spend their Antarctic Summer days surrounded by penguins and giant petrels and they do love their job. But the work is hard. To get to the birds they must climb steep rocky outcrops, or walk long distances in fresh snow, postholing to their knees, carrying stuff. It looks fun until you have tried it a couple of times. In my case at least, the heavy float coat, the heavy boots, the heavy cameras, the heavy waistline, the wind, the sun, the snow, the sea, all conspired to make it quite a workout.

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Kristen and Jen have to observe closely what happens in all these bird colonies. They measure and weigh eggs and chicks, make periodic censuses of the colonies, and take careful notes as to who dies, who is born, who eats whom. Are the parents rearing the chicks properly? are the chicks getting enough to eat? Are the skuas having a better chance to steal eggs and chicks that are not well supervised by distressed parents who have to swim farther out to get dinner? What is the effect of the decrease in the sea ice on the penguin populations, specifically the adelies, which are totally dependent on the ice, both to eat the krill underneath it and to rest on it pretty much like a polar bear would?

For the past 30 years, at least, the leading bird researcher at Palmer, Dr. William Fraser, has been focusing on the ecology of these birds in the Western Peninsula. And even though adelies are still an abundant species, researchers have seen their populations drop to a third of their previous levels. Painstakingly collecting this data day in and day out, Kristen and Jen are contributing to the process of acquiring a deep understanding of this primitive yet wonderful Antarctic ecosystem, which begins with phytoplankton and ends with whales and and encompasses everything in between.

And, oh, yes, they also get to place their hands directly under the soft belly of a mother skua, who courteously allows them to borrow their eggs for a few seconds. Photos: Courtesy of Chris Neill.


 

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