The ‘Four Vitals’ and the Penguins of Petermann Island (2007)
By Ron Naveen
Petermann Island is where my research project, the Antarctic Site Inventory, camps each year to monitor and assess changes in the breeding populations of nesting Adélie and gentoo penguins. There is historical prominence because the eminent French explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot overwintered here in 1909 on his second Antarctic expedition aboard the vessel Pourquoi Pas?, and scientific prominence because these environs, now, are warming as fast, if not faster, than any other location on the planet.
The 100th anniversary of Charcot’s visit reminds us that he and his men were among the first to describe and study penguin breeding biology and, consequently, Petermann Island is one of the very rare locations with data sets spanning a hundred year time frame. By examining Charcot’s voluminous records in context with ours and with other long-term biological and physical data sets collected in the Antarctic Peninsula, my scientific team will present the first, century-long analysis of change at a single Antarctic location, hopefully unraveling the precise mechanisms for the differences we've detected in these penguin populations.
Petermann’s penguins were great curiosities to Charcot and his men and, today, on a more sobering note, they occupy center stage as proverbial “canaries in the cage” foreboding changes in store for those of us living in more temperate latitudes.
The Antarctic Site Inventory is a large-scale program of observational monitoring using shipboard surveys to collect site-specific biological data and descriptive information throughout the Antarctic Peninsula. Work began in 1994 and assists the implementation of the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, most recently in the Treaty parties’ adoption of site-specific management guidelines. In November 2003, with funding assistance from the US National Science Foundation’s Office Of Polar Programs, the Inventory began a five-year-long, focused monitoring effort at Petermann Island, a frequently visited site with high species diversity and sensitivity to environmental disruptions.
The island is a mile-and-a-half long from north to south and, at most, a half-mile wide. It is situated 133 miles above the Antarctic Circle and nine miles south of Booth Island, where Charcot’s first expedition aboard the vessel Français anchored and overwintered in 1904. In a straight shot, Petermann would be three days’ fast steaming away from the bottom end of South America.
Petermann’s most notable, physical feature is a massive, icecovered dome on its northwestern end, which rises to height of 436 feet and provides the highest vantage on the island. Views from this summit are truly spectacular, what a friend of mine says is the “most beautiful office in the world.”
Some days, it’s possible to spy, forty miles north of Booth,
the twin peaks of Anvers Island, Mt. WIlliams (elevation, 5,249
feet) and Mt. Français (elevation, 9,268 feet), the latter named by
Charcot for his first expedition ship and the tallest mountain in the vicinity. In the other direction, on singularly clear evenings, it’s possible to glimpse Adelaide Island, 187 miles to the south. Hovgaard, Booth, and Mt. Français basking in evening pink alpenglow surrounded by otherwise dusky skies, or Adelaide Island glowing in a red-orange sunset, are sights that truly deserve to be called awesome.
Booth Island is separated from the Antarctic Peninsula by the seven-mile-long, one-mile-wide Lemaire Channel, which was the fabled passage to the Antarctic Circle for late 19th and early 20th century explorers like Charcot, and is still traversed by adventuring, 21st century tourists. Beyond Lemaire, the waterway is called Penola Strait, which averages two-miles wide and takes seafarers past Petermann, the entrance to French Passage (which Charcot used in January 1909 to escape west to the ice-free, open ocean), and past the Argentine Islands, six miles below Petermann, where the Ukrainian scientific research station, Vernadsky, operates year-round.
Temperature records have been kept at Vernadsky since 1957, when the station was called Faraday and run by the British Government. This is the longest time-series of weather data in all of Antarctica and, in that span, the temperature’s risen by 5 ̊ F (2.8 ̊ C) year-round, and by 9 ̊ F (5 ̊ C) in winter. It’s a huge difference that, perhaps, explains why Petermann’s penguin populations have totally flipped, the Adélies declining by almost 60% and the gentoos increasing by almost two orders of magnitude.
Petermann’s stout dome remains ice-and-snow-covered through the year, save for high summer when the slick white gloss on the northerly and northwesterly slopes recedes and exposes one of the densest moss beds in the Peninsula, a very convenient home to many hundred pairs of nesting south polar skuas. Another notable feature is a small, protected cove on Petermann’s southeastern flank, which Charcot discovered on New Year’s Day 1909, the feast day celebrating when Christ first shed blood for humankind, a week after his birth. Aptly, Charcot named it Port Circumcision. The inner portion of this bay is the favored landing spot for upwards of 12,000 visitors who may come to Petermann Island over the course of the November to March Antarctic tourism season.
Charcot had planned the 1903-5 Français expedition to assist the rescue of Swedish explorer Otto Nordenskjöld, whose ship was lost in the Weddell Sea. However, arriving in Buenos Aires and discovering that Nordenskjöld had been rescued, Charcot changed mission to focus on whether newly described “land” in the Antarctic Peninsula was, truly, mainland Antarctica or, rather, offshore islands connected by ice. Six hundred miles of coastline were charted. This first expedition was substantially self-financed by Charcot, including the sale of his family’s valuable Fragonard painting.
Happily, Charcot’s success enticed considerably more governmental and public backing for a second adventure, much of which was invested in a new, three-masted, larger, and better stocked expedition ship, Pourquoi Pas?, at the time the best Antarctic ship ever built — thick beams for increased ice protection, 131 feet long, a fourteen foot draft, and a crew of 22, eight of whom were veterans of Charcot’s first expedition. When done, the second expedition increased knowledge of Antarctic Peninsula coastlines by an additional 1,250 miles.
Public fame perhaps accrued more substantially to those who almost died in spectacular fashion (Shackleton, Nordenskjöld) and those who did (Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Evans, and Oates on their return from the Pole), with much less cachet for others, like Charcot and Scotsman William Bruce, who dutifully managed to stay alive.
However, within this intrepid cohort of gentlemen explorers who risked life and limb in pursuit of geography and science, Charcot was legend and regarded with high esteem. Commander Scott dubbed him “The Polar Gentleman” and the character traits evidencing this opinion were apparent during the Français expedition.
Charcot took impeccable care of his men, especially in regards to their provisioning and their psychological and physical health. Like his father, he was a physician sensitized to apparent as well as potential, psychological trauma. Well-rounded meals, private quarters, good wine, holiday celebrations, games and competitions, and a abundantly stocked library were part of the gig.
Charcot also exuded a great love and admiration of animals. Among Français’s menagerie was a pet pig, Toby, who’d been a gift from the Argentine Captain Irizar of the Uruguay, who’d rescued Nordenskjöld and whom Charcot met in Buenos Aires on the way south. Irizar told Charcot that Toby had shared in the triumph of retrieving Nordenskjöld and, having been Uruguay’s mascot, Irizar hoped that Toby would become Charcot’s mascot as well.
Toby had full rein of the ship and was loved by all, but developed a very special relationship with the expedition’s Argentine cook. Toby often stuck his snout into the galley to peruse what was being prepared and the two would strike up expressive, albeit indecipherable, grunting conversations, Sadly, Toby died consuming hooks in a fish the crew had caught. Charcot operated, but couldn’t save his patient. Toby was respectfully buried, rather than eaten. Charcot recollected of Toby:
“Perhaps he had been worried about the approach of Christmas and of that date so often unlucky for many of his race. If so he was wrong, for our greatest wish was to take him back to France where I intended to ensure that he had a happy old age. In any case during the year he’d been on board he had no reason to complain about his lot. Spoilt by everyone, he always had as much to eat as he wanted, and during the twenty days of his illness he was fed exclusively on condensed milk, which the men fed to him with a spoon.”
There also were two lazy cats, Cuyo and Marianne, who loved lounging and napping rather than hunting the rats onboard. As Charcot ruefully observed, while scrawny Marianne constantly whined and Cuyo obsessed about playing with the men before their evening chess matches or with the serviette rings after meals were cleared, the happy rats would be gnawing away in the hold or warming themselves in front of the stove.
For Charcot, though, the marquee animals were the wild, free-roaming penguins onshore. Because of their waddling gait, upright posture, and resemblance to little children, these little known creatures proved eminently fascinating. There are pictures of Charcot lying prone in the snow at Booth, attempting conversations with nearby penguins, or marching among groups of them, seeking their acquaintance.
Charcot also entertained his feathered friends with music from the ship’s gramophone, with the ever curious penguins obligingly and trustingly wobbling over to inspect the bell emitting such weird noises.
Many years later, Arthur G. Bennett, an administrator in this region for the British Crown Territories, aptly described the penguins’ nesting antics as constant “feeding, fighting, courting, thieving, and philandering,” all of which Charcot observed keenly. Little was then known about penguin life histories, but Charcot and his men, both on the first expedition and five years later on the second, began unlocking their secrets. Charcot couldn’t fathom what the penguins thought of him or other previous explorers and fancifully suspected the penguins’ gossiping and arguing about their new confreres and their influence:
“I often wondered what went through their bird minds when they saw things happening that they had never known before, and that even the penguins with the most fertile imagination could never have dreamt of, since they had never even had hints of such things . . .
These times would have seemed to the penguins to have been marked by extraordinary happenings, by miracles, and then all these things had disappeared, yet they would have left behind tangible evidence of their presence. Years, then centuries would pass. The legends would pass from one generation of penguins to the next, and perhaps some forgotten tool, some ancient empty tin, some pieces of wood preserved as idols, would be shown to free-thinking penguins who would still shrug their shoulders and, in spite of all, would still express their doubts. However, other penguins from distant regions of the Antarctic where last year’s expedition spent the winter, would nod their heads and tell how in their part of the world too, prodigious miracles had been performed; that there too, almost identical legends prevailed, supported by the same relics dating from the same epoch! And who knows whether in this icy world, previously so peaceful, penguin wars might not break out to decide whether de Gerlachism, Scottism, Brucism, Nordenskjöldism, or Charcotism should triumph!”
On the second expedition, Charcot and Pourquoi Pas? charted well south of Petermann Island, passing the Antarctic Circle, examining the full length of Adelaide Island, and discovering a beautiful bay south of Adelaide that Charcot named Marguerite, after his new and second bride, Meg. Reverently, the long swath from Booth Island to Marguerite Bay is dubbed the “French Antarctic” because it was painstakingly charted by Charcot and brims with place-names honoring Charcot’s men, financial backers, and family, as well as various French politicians and government officials.
Charcot hoped to winter south of Adelaide Island, but worsening ice conditions dictated a 275-mile return trip to Petermann and the safety of Port Circumcision. Hawsers were strung across the bay to protect Pourquoi Pas? from incoming icebergs and, over the course of the next month, winter camp was established. The new generators were strong enough to power strings of electric light onshore.
The second expedition’s time ashore at Petermann marks the beginning of modern penguin science. The hands-on work was instigated by Charcot’s lead biologist, Louis Gain, whose banding and censusing studies were innovative and illuminating. Gain attached variously colored rings to the legs of the Petermann penguins: violet for 50 Adélie adults, yellow for 75 Adélie young, brown for 20 gentoo adults, and pink for 20 gentoo young. When the penguins returned in the austral spring that October and November, none with yellow or pink rings were recorded, from which Gain became the first to deduce that adult Adélies and gentoos return to the same location, while their chicks from the preceding breeding season don’t, at least not immediately.
It would be another two years before the discovery of breeding emperor penguins by Edward Wilson, Birdie Bowers, and Apsley Cherry-Garrard on The Far Side of the Antarctic at Cape Crozier in 1911, and thirteen years before Thomas Bagshawe’s and Maxime Lester’s studies of gentoo and chinstrap penguin life histories in 1922-3 at Waterboat Point in Paradise Bay, 40 miles north of Petermann Island.
Gain wrote that the gentoo penguin was “distinguished by the white spot above each eye and by its red beak” and that they are “much quieter,” very “careful of their own appearance and of their rookery,“ and that their nests are also “better constructed, most frequently made of stones to which they add some tail feathers.”6 But Gain found the Adélies more captivating, the prototypical black-and-white birdin-a-tuxedo that “watches over everything; it is to him, indeed, that the Antarctic belongs. Curious, unruly, violent, a chatterbox and blusterer, of an extraordinary liveliness.”
He particularly admired the “brave” Adélies because they rarely fled from danger:
“If it happens to be tormented it faces its aggressor and ruffles the black feathers which cover its neck. Then it takes a stand for combat, the body straight, the animal erect, the beak in the air, the wings extended, not losing sight of its enemy. It then makes a sort of purring, a muffled grumbling, to prove that it is not satisfied and has not lost a bit of its firm resolution to defend itself. In this guarded position it awaits events. If the enemy beats a retreat, then the penguin abandons its menacing attitude; often it stays on the spot; sometimes it returns and, lying flat on the ground, pushes itself along with all the force of its claws and its wings. Should it be overtaken, instead of trying to increase its speed, it stops, backs up again to face anew the peril, and returns to its position of combat. Sometimes it takes the offensive, throws itself on its aggressor, which it punishes with blows of its beak and wings.”
Gain was also the first penguin counter in the Antarctic, carefully tracking the number of penguins returning each spring day. We now use occupied nests as the measure of penguin population size, but, in 1909, no standardized protocol existed. Gain’s maximum counts were 1,850 Adélie adults and 112 gentoo adults, which, assuming that two individuals comprise one occupied nest, pegs the 1909 nesting population at 925 Adélies and 56 gentoos, and sets the table for our recent studies.
On one blue-sky-filled November afternoon, an animated radio call from one of my two colleagues, Heather Lynch, announced further chaos in an Adélie penguin group she was monitoring: “Hey guys! Get over here. You’ve got to see what’s happening!”
She was on the eastern side of the island, just north of Port Circumcision and close to where Charcot and his men built two rock signal cairns during the winter of 1909. One of the females had just laid its second and last egg, but, instead of an expected handoff of incubation duties to the male, so she could leave for a 10-day-to-two-week replenishment swim, the mates uncharacteristically begun an epic struggle over their two eggs. Just a few days earlier, Heather had reported other unusual behavior in this group, an incubating Adélie that opportunistically corralled and started to incubate a third egg rolling downhill from a higher nest. Penguins, like all creatures, don’t always behave as expected. What’s “normal” is, simply, a baseline to which we researchers are inured because we spend many hours each day observing a select number of study nests.
Melissa Rider, our camp manager, and I skied over to join Heather. I’d been tending my gentoo study nests south of Port Circumcision and Melissa was working her Adélie nests in the uplands below the dome. As we arrived, Heather’s pair of crazy Adélies was vigorously wing-whacking and beak-jabbing each other and forbiddingly rolling their sclerae — the whites of their eyes, seemingly oblivious to exposing their clutch to the cold air. The skirmish continued with no end in sight and the pair toppling about like enraged professional wrestlers. Luckily, none of Petermann’s resident skuas were scouting the clamor because, assuredly, the exposed eggs would have been easy pickings. That night, over dinner in our office tent, Heather’s update was that peace had returned and that each mate was proudly incubating one egg.
Recalling Charcot’s memoir, it is entirely possible that Heather’s rowdy Adélies were descendants of a “loony” penguin Charcot observed in the same vicinity on Petermann in February 1909, shortly after his men set up winter camp.9 Charcot described this one penguin as a loufoque, which translates either to nutter or crazy, depending on whether your dictionary is French-to-King’s English or French-toAmerican Slang. Charcot describes the loufoque flaunting “extraordinary contortions” while trying to play “nurse” to young penguins whose parents were away feeding. When the penguins returned after the long winter, Charcot noted that the absence of the loufoque, perhaps because it had been “shut up in an asylum” by the other penguins.10 For Charcot as well as for us, knowing what’s routine and being able to separate typical from atypical makes one a better observer.
In the grand scheme, there are at least seventeen penguin species, five of which breed in the Antarctic, and two of which, the Adélie and gentoo, regularly breed at Petermann Island. Along with the chinstrap penguin, Adélies and gentoos comprise the genus Pygoscelis, referring to legs erupting from their broad rumps. These three possess long, stiff tails and are often referred to as the “brushtailed” penguins. The other Antarctic penguins not breeding at Petermann are the macaroni, whose breeding stronghold is in the sub-Antarctic, and the emperor, whose unique, winterized solution to evolutionary success is immortalized in the movie March Of The Penguins.
Adélies breed exclusively in Antarctica and are found around the entire continent; the overall population is 2.6 million pairs, with fewer than a third breeding in the Antarctic Peninsula. The other Pygoscelids — gentoos and chinstraps — are only found in the Antarctic Peninsula. Gentoos have a worldwide population of more than 314,000 pairs, a quarter of which breeds in the Peninsula; chinstraps, a worldwide population of more than four million pairs, between a quarter and half of which breeds in the Peninsula.
On the eastern side of Antarctica, where its getting colder even as the Peninsula warms, Adélies are increasing, though increasing ice cover will cause difficulties if they have to travel further to find open water. Over the past decade in the Peninsula, we’ve recorded plummeting Adélie and chinstrap populations, while, contrastingly, the numerically smaller clan of gentoos is increasing and extending its range southward.
Among the Pygoscelids, gentoos are the tallest and heaviest, chinstraps the shortest and lightest. Overall, they are two to almost three feet tall, weigh from eight to fifteen pounds, and take just over a month to incubate their eggs. At four weeks, the brush-tailed chicks form crèche groups and, by eight weeks, having shed their natal down, they take their first swims and head to sea. For Adélie and chinstrap chicks, this is the moment when the parental cord is totally cut; they generally don’t return to their natal colonies to breed for at least three years, assuming they survive. In this early span of life, each year class of chicks may suffer a mortality rate as high as 90%.
By contrast, while gentoos-of-the-year also head to sea at eight weeks, they continue returning home for another four weeks to partake a few more food handouts from their parents. Gentoo chicks may return and attempt breeding at age two, while, for chinstraps and female Adélies, three is the norm. Adélie males don’t get the hang of it right away, and may not start breeding until age six or later. The Pygoscelids spend most of their lives in sub-freezing water, endure horrid weather, and if they survive a decade in the wild they’re lucky.
In terms of prey preferences in the Peninsula, gentoos eat what’s available (fish, krill, invertebrates), while Adélies and chinstraps prefer a krill diet. In terms of foraging routines, Adélies are the longdistance travelers (roundtrips potentially exceeding two weeks and over 200 miles) and the gentoos are the deep-diving champs (up to 500 feet or more). The gentoos’ feeding runs are comparatively short, with daily or more frequent nest changeovers.
As Louis Gain learned, adult Adélies tend to return to the same nesting rocks from the previous season; and, from studies subsequent to Gain’s, there is confirmation that their chicks, if they survive, also return to the edges of their natal colony to breed, albeit, years later. After the breeding season, Adélie parents head to other sites for a complete, post-breeding molt of all feathers, before heading in separate ways to the edge of the winter pack ice. Adélies have the lowest mate fidelity among the Pygoscelids — a 35% or higher divorce rate, which means lots of adults changing partners from season-to-season. By contrast, gentoos have a pronounced mate fidelity — only a 10% divorce rate, and the pair may stay together if there’s open water during the winter. Gentoos molt where they’ve bred and generally return to the same colony from season-to-season, although they may move the precise location of the nest if they’re disturbed by predating skuas or neighboring penguins.
To monitor how this scheme plays out at Petermann Island involves two, 3-4 week work periods, accomplished with as small a footprint as possible — an office tent and three pup tents, with the bulk of our food, fuel, and gear stored in the refuge hut built by the Argentines in 1955 on a small spit south of Port Circumcision. The tents are taken down and all gear and material stored in the hut between work periods, with everything, including all of the season’s garbage, removed and taken away by the National Science Foundation’s vessel Laurence M. Gould after the season.
The first work period mandates an early November arrival before the penguin’s peak of egg-laying, which will be the best time for our annual census of occupied nests; the second work period begins in early-to-mid January before the peak of chick-crèching, the best time to count chicks. At the start of each field season, we pick 12 Adélie groups and 20 gentoo groups spread across the whole of the island. From each group, five nests are selected to be followed on a daily basis, for a total of 60 Adélie nests and 100 gentoo nests (more gentoos being tracked because they outnumber the Adélies).
When we first arrive, a few pairs already may have laid their eggs, especially the Adélies, whose schedule is about 7-10 days ahead of the gentoos. Otherwise, we find most of the penguins in the midst of courtship, copulation, and gathering stones to fortify their nests. The clutch completes quickly, the second egg coming within three days after the first is laid. The peak of egg-laying is ascertained when all of our sample pairs complete their two-egg clutch, launching the week-to-ten-day counting window in late November and very early December.
The later peak of chick-crèching is determined when chicks from the sample nests are approximately four weeks of age and leave their nests to form groups with other chicks and wander on their own. In the end, the number of chicks per occupied nest yields a productivity figure that can be compared from season to season.
During our first season, we mapped, named, and GPS-marked every penguin group on the island. Each season’s study groups are noted in our field notebooks, handheld GPS machines, and database, and further supplemented by a series of photographs and sketches to pinpoint the five selected nests in each group. The daily monitoring is assisted by our temporarily placing a conspicuous colored rock among the selected nests, which provides additional orientation when the nesting groups become snowmelt-induced swamps of guano and mud in mid-January.
We divvy up the study groups and each of us makes daily rounds to survey the selected nests, often waiting for hours until each and every incubating penguin stretches sufficiently so we may see what’s happening underneath. It’s a totally hands-off, disturbance-free approach that may be routine, yet, as Heather describes, it’s endlessly addictive:
“There are no bad days when you’re working here. In all directions, there is both visual and biological overload: Penola Strait is often caked with fast-flowing ice, with skuas and shags swirling over the surface, all against a backdrop of the snow-capped peaks and glacier on the mainland. We’re at 65° South, so, weirdly, the sun sets toward the south and, on clear nights, the landscape is bathed in weirdly luminous pink and orange.”
Tourists often ask if it gets lonely, just three lone scientists on such a tiny and remote island, but the sheer scale of non-human activity makes it seem anything but desolate. The penguins, always close at hand, are perpetually busy, fussing with their nests or neighbors, gathering little stones with an intensity bordering on obsession, or tottering back and forth to and from the ocean. Incubation and feeding are shared responsibilities and both penguin parents have lots of work to do. Over the course of a field season, we get a first-row seat to the soap opera of penguin life — eggs hatching only to be crushed by carelessness or inexperience, hungry chicks chasing parents for food, or a skua triumphantly taking flight with a tiny penguin chick struggling against its fate.
There are also quiet moments of indescribable beauty which belie the constant struggle for survival. There is a tiny bay, maybe 20 feet across and three feet deep, which forms near the shore when the water is calm and the channel is choked with ice. Too shallow for predators, penguins gather at this rare bit of open water to swim and bathe and, to all appearances, play. Its hard not to anthropomorphize as they hop in, dart in and among their fellow penguins, and hop out again into even shallower water to preen, rest, or gossip with their fellow swimmers. And then, just as inexplicably, they hop out for good and totter back their nest, their partner, their eggs, back to that fight for survival and reproduction which defines penguin domesticity.
Working Petermann is also humbling. In terms of ambience, it’s quite remarkable: No traffic noise, no contrails in the sky, and, for sure, no newspapers or politicians. You are one-on-one with the penguins and you can feel your racing, enthused heartbeat thumping through your parka. The sights and sounds are startling. There have been evenings when I’ve emerged from our office tent to encounter many hundreds of penguins fanning out in strings and files in all directions, to all parts of the island, bringing home the bounty from a long feeding run offshore. They pass silently and deliberately, frequently stopping to preen or to plop in the snow for a rest. The immigrants’ march may last for hours. There have been other nights, tucked and snug in my sleeping bag, when I’ve been startled awake and bolted straight upright by a returning gentoo screaming its loud hee-haw call right next to my ear, just inches beyond the tent flap.
There’s also a sense of connecting with history. In our daily routine, the three of us roam all over the island, whose nooks, crannies, and photographic view points are as familiar to us as they were to Charcot and his men. Comparing the old black-and-white shots depicting how the penguin groups appeared in 1909 with our recent digital captures leaves no doubt that there have been major changes. There are numerous indicia of Charcot’s presence — the restored cairn and plaquette on top of Megalestris Hill (elevation, 115 feet) to the west of Port Circumcision, commemorating the second expedition and listing the name of all the men, as well as the rubble from Charcot’s signal cairns, just north of Heather’s study group with the quarreling Adélies.
The affecting bond of science, solitude, and history is unique, and strikes everyone who’s privileged to work this special laboratory. As Melissa comments:
“Everyday we go out and collect science data around the island, routinely and consistently, all according to standard methodologies used throughout the Antarctic. We get to know the penguins in our study colonies very well. Too well, in fact, because it’s easy to lapse into naming birds and eagerly awaiting their eggs to hatch or their chicks to start roaming on their own.
I’ve worked in the Antarctic for ten seasons, assisting many of the projects and funded by the National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs. Petermann is my second home and there’s a rather special combination of up-close-and-personal penguins and Charcot’s legacy from his 1904 and 1909 expeditions. This long historical perspective is important because conservation everywhere, including Antarctica, requires monitoring and assessment — detecting population changes and, then, analyzing why they are happening.”
In this vein, the highlight factoid is that Petermann’s penguin populations have totally flipped since 1909. The Adélie population has dropped by 56% from 925 to 410 nests in our latest censuses in November and December 2006, while the gentoo population has increased by a factor of forty from 56 to 2,207 nests. The Adélie slide is consistent with the 50-60% decline of Adélies the Antarctic Site Inventory and other research projects have documented throughout the western Antarctic Peninsula, and which coincides with the climate change Petermann and its environs have experienced in just the last six decades.
For those of us with long Antarctic resumes, the issue of climate change is exceedingly personal. I've witnessed fundamental shifts and impacts first-hand — receding glaciers in Admiralty Bay, the collapsing Larsen Ice Shelf on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula and declining Adélies and chinstraps on the western side. Humility creeps in because one question leads to ten or fifteen others, and you’re never quite sure of answers.
Realistically, ascertaining the underlying cause for these fundamental changes is infinitely more complicated because of the complex interplay of myriad biological and physical factors, let alone the fact that the Antarctic is so remote. Comparatively speaking, data are few and far between in such outposts, which makes me think of the Antarctic Peninsula as an enormous piece of Swiss cheese, 250 miles north to south and the same distance east to west. However, by relying upon advanced analytical methods and techniques, we hope to advance the science. As Heather explains:
“Plant and animal populations are in a constant state of flux, and the state of affairs at any moment is just a fleeting snapshot of the unseen struggle for survival. Although year-to-year fluctuations in population size are virtually guaranteed, long-term spatial or temporal trends in population size signal changes that ecologists seek to understand.”
The Inventory’s database compliments other Peninsula research and by coupling our data points with historical information and other long-term data sets on biological and physical phenomena like temperature, oceanography, and winter sea ice coverage, we hope to have sufficient information to analyze both spatial and temporal population trends over this vast region.
The cutting-edge methods and computing power now available enable us to fill in the holes, so to speak, to identify what changes are occurring, precisely where they are occurring, and, hopefully, why they are occurring. It’s an unparalleled chance to understand, and conserve, one of the most inaccessible ecosystems on the planet, which may be remote, but which lies at the heart of our concern about a warming climate.
Like penguins, we humans have succeeded in evolution's lottery: We've made it, we're here, and it's great to be alive. Then again, as Stephen Jay Gould repeatedly reminded, we’re also lucky because, if that extraterrestrial object hadn’t crashed to Earth 65 million years ago, dinosaurs wouldn’t be extinct and mammals would still be “small creatures, confined to nooks and crannies” and “incapable of evolving the larger size that brains big enough for self-consciousness require.”
Our lottery winnings, however, are tied to the very thorny news that things change, sometimes rapidly and terribly, and that survival is far from certain. Will the penguins, will we, continue being blessed with "The Four Vitals" necessary for our continued existence — food to eat, sufficient homes or breeding territory, progeny passing genes to the next generation, and a satisfactory climate?
The Peninsula’s plummeting Adélie penguin population brings all of this to a sharp focus. The Adélies’ adjustments to the warming climate may or may not succeed, yet their plight is clear and their coping mechanisms are in full view.
Regarding food, the starting point is that Peninsula Adélies are known to be predominantly krill feeders, opposed to the gentoos whose tastes are more catholic, eating anything and everything from krill to fish to invertebrates. By observing the color of the penguins’ guano — pink for krill, white for fish and invertebrates, green for stomach bile (when the birds are fasting or not finding any food), we glean clues as to food availability in the offshore marine environment. Recently, we’ve noted the PetermannAdélies spewing more and more white guano, indicating, perhaps, a shift to a fish diet. We’ll have to see if this continues. Little is accurately known about the ranges and stock sizes of the penguins’ favored krill and fish, and if warming surface temperatures are mirrored by similar perturbations below the waterline, consequent impacts on prey abundance and distribution could add to the penguins’ woes.
Regarding their progeny, there’s no assurance that genes will propagate and flow. Already, we know that penguin chicks suffer a potentially high mortality during their first three years of life. In addition, there may be stress or disease factors of concern, even before the chicks fledge. During the 2006-07 season, we documented an outbreak of tick infestation among the PetermannAdélies. The thumbnail-sized ticks caused the parent penguins to spasm and fidget uncontrollably to the point that they totally ignored their eggs and chicks, while contorting themselves much like Charcot’s loufoque. Loss of eggs and chicks by stressed parents equates to breeding failures.
Regarding their homes — their breeding territories, Adélies, like their much larger cousins, the emperor penguins, are creatures of frigid Antarctica. If Petermann Island is getting too warm for them, they may be moving south to colder, icier parts of the continent, but, as yet, there’s insufficient census data to suggest an answer, one way or another. However, given the Adélies’ propensity to return to their natal colonies, the ongoing population decline suggests that they’re dying, not relocating. The Adélies also may be at the mercy of the larger gentoos, and I’ve seen more than a few gentoos pushing Adélies off of nesting stones and taking control.
And, yes, the weather. During the 2006-07 field season at Petermann, we endured a half-dozen November days with temperatures soaring to 50 ̊ F (10 ̊ C), leaving the penguins, in their dense feather coats — the thickest and densest array of feathers on any bird, panting and gasping. Penguins are built to retain heat, not expel it. The warming Peninsula climate also means additional precipitation, which may translate to earlier and heavier snow cover that thwarts the start of the penguins’ breeding season, or increasingly wet, muddy, and quickly changing conditions when the chicks are most vulnerable.
Thus, we add the Adélies’ altered feeding, fighting, courting, thieving and philandering routines to so many other warnings of a vastly changing planet — the fast-melting snow on Mt. Kilimanjaro, receding glaciers worldwide, fast-diminishing Arctic sea ice, and an increasing number of Category 4 & 5 hurricanes. As we seek to understand these signals, humbly we must recognize that as penguins go, so go we.
On a recent visit to London, I spent a day talking up the glories of the Seventh Continent to more than 400 students at a small private school in South Kensington. These 5-11 year-olds were lovingly polite and totally engaged, and affirmed what I’ve known from years of public speaking: That often, from the freewheeling, unselfconscious mouths of babes, spring the most amazing questions about science, life and death — even, the sex lives of penguins.
At the conclusion of my second presentation to groups of these children, a nattily clad youngster named Edward rose and worryingly asked: “Ron . . . where will the penguins go when all the ice melts?”
“Perhaps,” I said, “They’ll sprout wings and fly somewhere else. Or, perhaps, they’ll be goners. Many millennia ago, Antarctica was ice-free and a happy home to six-foot tall penguins that possessed the girth of Arsenal strikers and ate giant clams on the shoreline edges of beech forests. So, what existed once may adapt or evolve yet again.”
Or, maybe, not.
Penguins evolved 37 million years ago, while, comparatively, we humans are veritable youngsters with a mere 8,000 years of existence. Albeit, we’re children who’ve caused stunning impacts since the Industrial Revolution — particularly our emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases — has greatly exceeded expected changes due to natural processes.
The problem is that carbon dioxide lasts for a century or more and our present-day atmosphere still contains more than 50% of the carbon dioxide humans have generated since we first burned fossil fuels. Upward spiraling levels of carbon dioxide will continue warming the atmosphere and, in turn, trigger the production of more water vapor, also, technically, a greenhouse gas, which, in a positive feedback loop, will take temperatures even higher. Against this background, with projections of a global temperature increase of 1.1 to 6.4°C (2.0 to 11.5°F) in the 21st century, a temperature shift that Petermann Island and its environs already have suffered.
There also are projections of global sea level rise of 7 to 23 inches. More catastrophic is concern that either or both the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets will face substantial melting — or even collapse — if temperatures rise another 2.0 to 7.0 ̊F (1.1 to 3.8 ̊C), potentially causing an additional rise of 13-20 feet and the inundation of low-lying coastal areas and parts of major cities. This would put half of Florida underwater, potentially halt the Gulf Stream, and, threateningly, put Europe under ice.
These conclusions bode nothing but ill for Homo sapiens. Because of the inherent inertia of Earth’s climate, we’ve already set calamity in motion and, like Petermann’sAdélies, whether we’ll be able to maintain The Four Vitals is an open question. Some of us will adjust and have food, mates, and homes, while many others won’t. Multiply the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina in the US by hundreds if not thousands of times worldwide, and one sees the far horizon filling with political instabilities and the collapse of civilizations. Another lottery, our survival lottery — or crapshoot, has already begun.
Humankind thinks and functions almost exclusively in the present tense — the immediate “here and now,” ignoring our status as relative flea specks in geologic time. Earth is approximately 4.6 billion years old. Over eons, there have been many mass extinctions, including 65 million years ago (MYA), at the boundary of the Cretaceous and Tertiary Periods, when the dinosaurs and more than 50% of marine invertebrates disappeared; and 55 MYA, when methane erupted to Earth’s surface from seismic depths and carbon dioxide levels soared to approximately twice what they are today. In the succeeding Eocene epoch (54-37 MYA) more mammals, primitive whales, and that huge, striker-sized Antarctic penguin appeared, and in the Miocene (24-5 MYA), familiar mammals like horses, dogs, and bears, as well as modern birds, erupted.
The first Homonids arose in the Pliocene (5.0-1.8 MYA), before Earth plunged into the Pleistocene ice age (1.8 MYA to 11,000 years ago) that ended with another large extinction of mammals and birds. As Earth then warmed, about 8,000 years ago, Homo sapiens stepped forth into our present, very conducive Holocene epoch. But for how long will these favorable circumstances last?
In our post-truth, post-factual age of instant gratification, Petermann’s penguins make me think. They should make all of us think, though humankind, as yet, isn’t primed to absorb the messages they’re sending about an inevitably hotter future. There are no clear, black-and-white solutions averting the potential consequences of global warming and we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking we can steer the planet. We can make better choices, but there are no guarantees we can change outcomes.
On the front lines with the penguins, I therefore wonder whether we’re hastening our own demise and whether we’ll ever think seriously about generations and changed lifestyles, rather than, like Charcot’s loufoque, wobbling about seeking the immediate pleasures of our present, flickering moments of life. Poignantly, we can’t beg asking:
What about us?
Where will we go when all the ice melts?