This past year, 2010, was a tough one for penguins at Punta Tombo, one of the world’s largest breeding colonies.
That’s according to Dee Boersma, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Magellanic Penguin Project, sometimes called “the Jane Goodall of penguins.” Dr. Boersma studies penguins and other sea birds and uses this research to promote understanding of human impact on marine ecosystems and to advocate conservation. For almost 30 years, she has made annual trips to Punta Tombo – a sand- and gravel-covered peninsula on the coast of Argentina. EarthSky spoke to Boersma in late 2010.
There are more than 200,000 breeding pairs of penguins at Punta Tombo and, this year, a lot of them didn’t bother to come. And those that came, it was as if they had been on a diet. They were skinnier than they normally would be, and the females laid smaller eggs.
Dr. Boersma explained that, along the Argentine coast in 2010, some of the penguins couldn’t find enough enough food. That’s why some of them decided not to breed and skipped the breeding season. She said she believes many penguins will still be alive and able to come back to breed in 2011. But her concern for 2011 is much like that of 2010. In other words, the reason the penguins couldn’t find enough food in 2010 is that anchovies, which penguins eat, are being over-fished.
One of the big concerns I have for 2011 is the anchovy. We’re harvesting more and more anchovy out of the ocean to feed pigs and chickens in China, and salmon in Norway and Chile and other places. And that’s anchovy that can’t go to penguins. As we take more and more food, that means they’re going to be in poorer condition and have a harder time making a living.
Dr. Boersma called the penguins “the athletes of the ocean.”
They can dive deep. They can hold their breath for long periods of time. Magellanic penguins can cover over 100 miles in a day. And that’s why, when they tell us there’s a problem for food for them, what they’re really saying is that humans are having a big impact on the ocean. They’re telling us where climate has varied or shifted. It’s in the interest of our quality of life as well as that of the penguins to notice.
Boersma also talked about some of the reasons she finds these penguins so fascinating and even lovable. For example, she explained that Magellanic penguins swim at the same speed day and night, because they’re trying to hurry back to their nest to feed their chicks before the fish gets digested in their stomachs.
Now, we bring home the groceries and stick them in the refrigerator. But imagine if you had to swim with those from the store every day or two. These penguins do that.
In 2010, Dr. Boersma established the Global Penguin Society, which she says is a way for people who care about penguins to keep track of their health and comings and goings. She said it’s strange and true that our human consumption choices can affect the year-to-year health of Magellanic penguins, even though they are so far away.
And they’re talking about making a big anchovy fishery off the coast of Argentina. And if that happens, it’s gonna be a really bad year for penguins. Penguins are sentinels of the ocean. What they’re telling us is that we have to pay attention and change our ways.
Beth Lebwohl researches, writes and helps produce science content in audio and video formats for EarthSky. She is one of the authors on EarthSky.org, a script-writer for our podcasts, and helps host our English science podcasts in 90-second, 8-minute and 22-minute formats. Beth came to EarthSky in 2006 from the American Museum of Natural History's Department of Astrophysics, where she was surrounded by some of the greatest telescope-building, equation-wielding, code-writing physicists of our time. And they made her think . . . this science thing . . . it's pretty cool.