Scientists track Antarctic penguins using chemical signatures

Scientists track Antarctic penguins using chemical signatures

A new method of tracking the general migrations of large populations of wildlife without the time and expense involved in tagging animals is particularly suited to large remote areas such as Antarctica, said Jefferson Hinke, a research fisheries biologist in NOAA Fisheries’ Antarctic Ecosystem Research Division at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla. 

Hinke is coauthor of a paper published online in early August in the journal Biology Letters that validates the use of relatively inexpensive and low-impact biogeochemical methods to help understand movement of chinstrap and Adélie penguins. In effect, researchers can analyze chemical signatures within an adult penguin’s feathers to understand where the animals have been and what they have been eating. “This allows us to see animals’ movements in a way that is more accessible, since we’re not having to capture and tag animals, and look at what that tells us about the ecosystem,” Hinke said.

For more details, read the  press release from Louisiana State University.

An adult Adélie penguin, Antarctic peninsula. Photo: M.Polito, LSU
An adult Adélie penguin, Antarctic Peninsula. Photo: M. Polito, LSU

So where did the penguins actually go?

Despite their small body size, Adélie and chinstrap penguins are powerful swimmers, traveling far and wide in the austral winter months. Using small light-based geolocation tags, researchers from the US AMLR program tracked the winter migrations of these penguin species and discovered wide-spread use of remote habitats in the Southern Ocean. They journeyed as far west as the Ross Sea region, and as far east as the South Sandwich Islands, regions separated by roughly 6,000 km. The animation (shown right) highlights the migration paths of chinstrap penguins as they branched out from the South Shetlands.. Each bird is represented by a multi-color comet that displays a week of tracking data, with the newest data indicated by warm colors.

More information on these tracking studies is available online here

Overwinter chinstrap tracking in Antarctic peninsula region. Animation: J. Hinke, NOAA