hundreds of penguins on a beach

Happy World Penguin Day! And who doesn't love penguins? With their comic upright waddle and adorable tuxedo patterning, they seem almost human. But penguins are more than just cute — they are an interesting and important part of our ecosystem.

To find out more about these flightless fowls, we talked to Dee Boersma and Ginger Rebstock from the University of Washington's Center for Penguins as Ocean Sentinels, which has been studying the largest colony of Magellanic penguins in the world at Punta Tombo, Argentina, since 1982.

Penguin Places

Most people assume that polar bears and penguins share a neighborhood, but this only happens at the zoo or in the movies. Polar bears live in the Northern Hemisphere, and penguins live in the Southern Hemisphere.

"The most surprising thing for people is that I don't work in Antarctica," Rebstock says. "Where I live in Seattle is farther from the equator than my study site is."

Many of the places where penguins come ashore to breed are hot, dry desert areas in South America, South Africa and Australia. In fact, Galapagos penguins breed right on the equator. Cold is important to penguins in the water, but not on land. "The thing all of these places have in common is cold water," Rebstock says. That's because cold water contains more fish than hot water does, and penguins need a lot of food that's close enough to swim to.

penguin mother and father with baby chicks

Penguin Basics

What type of animal is a penguin? If you said a bird, you are correct. But not everyone knows that. "A fair number of people don't realize that penguins are, in fact, birds," Rebstock says.

"The early explorers weren't sure if they were fish or if they were ducks or mammals," Boersma adds.

The uncertainty is understandable because penguins are unusual birds. They don't have hollow bones like many other birds, for example, because they basically fly through the water instead of the air. "Water is such a thick medium, they can have solid bones — they don't have to be light in the water," Boersma says.

Their feathers are very different from those of other birds as well. Each feather is double, with an outer layer and a down feather underneath. According to Boersma, a penguin "has its own down sleeping bag with a covering — a waterproof layer that keeps the down dry."

It's not just the type of feathers that separates penguins from other birds, though. "One of the other odd things about penguins is that they have a lot of feathers," Boersma says. "Most birds have a few feathers per square inch. Many species of penguins have over a hundred feathers per square inch."

Penguins can also hold their breath for a long time and dive incredibly deep, behavior that's more like marine mammals than birds. Emperor penguins, for example, can dive to over 500 meters. Penguins also live longer than most other birds; some of the penguins Boersma and Rebstock study are over 30 years old.

penguin under a truck

Penguin Personalities

To the untrained eye, most penguins look identical, but not to the penguin researchers. "Just like us, they have individual personalities," Rebstock says. The researchers measure chicks and eggs, which means they have to take them out of the nests and put them back. "Some penguins will just fight you as hard as they can," she says. "Some just look at you like, 'What's going on?'"

Boersma and Rebstock have gotten to know one penguin in particular, a male named Turbo. He got his name after he was beaten up by another penguin and decided to hide out under the researchers' turbo diesel truck. "I think he decided we were nicer than the penguins and he liked us better," Rebstock says. "Before we knew it, he was knocking on the door wanting to visit us."

Turbo also follows Boersma and Rebstock around in the field — and he clearly recognizes the two researchers. "He'll greet us if he's coming back from the sea and he finds us in the field between the ocean and his nest," she says. "He doesn't interact in the same way with the tourists — he just ignores them. We get new volunteers ever year, and those of us who have been there before, we introduce those [new] people to Turbo."

Penguins and the Problems of the Planet

Penguins aren't just interesting in themselves, though. Because of their lifestyle, studying them is a way to learn something about a much bigger picture.

"There's a lot of different animals in the oceans, but they're really hard to study. Whales, dolphins — they never come to land, and they spend a lot of their time underwater where you can't see them," Rebstock says. "Penguins are relatively easy to study when they're on land, and tend to be relatively faithful to their breeding sites, so you can find the same penguins year after year."

The research project at Punta Tombo, which combines three decades' worth of observational data and cutting-edge technologies, has enabled scientists to explore how these penguins — and their ocean habitat — are being affected by human influence.

When penguins are breeding, one mate stays on the nest while the other swims out to find food. Modern satellite tracking devices have allowed researchers to discover how far these foraging penguins go. "We found that they went much, much farther than anyone thought they did," Rebstock says. "During incubation they can go 600 kilometers one way and then back to relieve their mate."

Unfortunately, humans are changing the oceans in ways that are directly harmful to penguins. Because penguins have no way to carry food once they find it, a penguin will eat what he finds — and store the food until he can regurgitate it into the mouths of the young. When humans overfish and penguins have to go farther to find food, more of the food can be digested on the longer return trip, so there may be less available for feeding the chicks. "We've been tracking since 1996. Since then we've been seeing them going farther" to search for food, Rebstock says, "and we've found a relationship between how far they go and the chances of their chick starving."

Oil spills — which are always caused by humans — are also bad for penguins. Oil causes the penguins' feathers to lose their insulating and waterproofing properties. "Even a small amount of oil can end up killing penguins," Boersma says. "They get wet to their skin, and they get cold, and they come to land — so they're not cold anymore because they're not in the cold water, but there's no food on land, so eventually they starve to death."

It's not only changes to the ocean that threaten the penguins, though; they are also being impacted by environmental changes during the time they spend on land. Over the time the colony at Punta Tombo has been studied, researchers have seen an increase in the amount and frequency of rain at their breeding grounds. "They're living in very dry environments, and when we get these rainstorms, it can fill up their nest with water," Boersma says. "When the chicks get wet, it's just like making you stand in the rain in a down coat — it loses its insulation." Then, when the temperatures get cooler at night, the wet chicks die of hypothermia.

A Plea for Penguins

Boersma says that what she wants the public to understand is that "penguins are not that different from people — they're trying to make a living, and if we want to have these other creatures in our lives, we're going to have to balance penguins' needs with peoples'."

While we can't stop climate change, Boersma says, "there are ways that we can use our natural resources to make it better for people and make it better for penguins." The more oil we use, the more likely ocean oil spills become, for example. And if we're going to take fish from the ocean, she'd like to see them used efficiently. "I'm all for people eating anchovies on their pizza," she says. What she objects to is fish meal being used to feed farm-raised salmon or chicken and hogs. "I want those fish to either go to people or penguins directly to eat them."

And we can support the type of ongoing science that the Penguins as Ocean Sentinels project is engaged in.

"We need long-term studies to understand what is happening in our world," Boersma says. "Penguins are excellent ocean sentinels, and it's only people that can give voice to penguins."

To learn more about the Penguins as Ocean Sentinels program and Dee Boersma and Ginger Rebstock's research, sign up for the Penguin Sentinels newsletter.

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