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Dee Boersma in The Washington Post on climate change's effects on Patagonian penguins

Thursday, February 10, 2022 - 02:30

Dee Boersma, UW Biology Professor, was recently featured in The Washington Post on her recent study of the largest breeding colony of Magellanic penguins. Research Scientist Ginger Rebstock, Professor Emeritus Gordon Orians, and graduate student Caroline Cappello also make cameos in the article. Climate change has been contributing to environmental shifts that cause female penguins to arrive later to lay eggs, and consequently, chicks are born later but still must leave the nest at the same time of year to catch fish before nutrient-rich tidal fronts dissipate.

Turbo, an 18-inch-tall Patagonian penguin with a white belly and black-banded chest, has been a bachelor for all his adult life.

Climate change has complicated his search for a mate.

Female juvenile penguins have been dying in larger numbers than males because they tend to be smaller and are more vulnerable when food becomes scarce, said P. Dee Boersma, a conservation biologist at the University of Washington, who has observed Turbo for 14 years.

That is just one of the many findings Boersma has made about how the lives of the Magellanic penguins she has been studying for four decades are changing. In her most recent study about the largest breeding colony of these penguins, in Punta Tombo, Argentina, she and a co-author report in Ecology that chicks are spending less time in the nest.

Female penguins are arriving later in the September-October period to lay eggs — possibly because there is less food or because they are having to swim farther to find fish to eat. So chicks are born later but still must leave the nest at the same time of year to catch fish before nutrient-rich tidal fronts dissipate.

Penguins “are the classic canary in the coal mine,” said Doug Morris, a biologist emeritus at Lakehead University who was not involved in the study. “They give us a window into seeing changes in marine environments that we might not otherwise be able to see.”

Those changes include climate change, which is causing rising ocean temperatures and acidification, and changing wind patterns — shifts that, along with increased commercial fishing, are probably contributing to the penguins’ struggle to find food.

This latest study found that younger chicks — those with smaller bills, flippers or feet — are more likely to perish at sea. With shortened time in the nest, chicks are having “to do all of their growing to reach a size and maturity where they can have some chance of surviving in the ocean faster than they did 30 to 35 years ago,” said research scientist Ginger Rebstock, who was not involved in the study.

Boersma started studying the penguins in 1983 and has watched their numbers fall from about 400,000 breeding pairs to 170,000. Food scarcity is just one of the emerging threats.

Increased rainfall and extreme heat also have taken their toll. 

Heavier rain kills chicks when their down becomes soaked and their body temperature plummets. Hotter days bring increased danger, as well. In 2019, researchers recorded a temperature of 44 degrees Celsius (111 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade at Punta Tombo — one of an increasing number of abnormally hot days. They watched 264 adult penguins and 90 chicks die in a single day.

Boersma recounted all this from the Indianapolis Zoo, where she had been honored as a 2021 Indianapolis Prize finalist for her conservation efforts. She paused during the conversation to listen to a male lion roaring at a female lion.

“We’ve banded probably 60,000 penguins over the last 37 years,” she said. “Climate change is an important factor in their survival and their success.” Boersma stopped again to listen to a walrus call.

Read the full article in The Washington Post.

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