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Polar Mail

December 25, 2007

How do you justify invading the penguin’s space, picking them up and disrupting their lives while studying them? I realize you are hoping to learn more about the penguins and potentially improve their lives or reduce the impact of humans on them, but in conducting your studies, aren’t you yourself creating an impact on them and their habitat? 

Missi Howlett

Dear Missi,

That’s a very important question, and I’m really glad you’ve asked it. Scientists are constantly having to balance how much they want to learn about the world against how much trouble is caused by finding out the answers.

Grant Ballard puts it this way: “We love penguins a lot, and we’re fully aware of the special nature of this place. We don’t touch a penguin unless it’s part of a plan that’s been reviewed by a lot of people to make sure it’s OK.”

Ballard also realizes that if his studies were harming penguins, the information he got from them would be useless. “Understanding the mysteries of nature is something I’m interested in,” he said. “We’re not going to understand anything if we’re scaring penguins with our work.”

The researchers carefully evaluate the impacts of their studies, and they constantly work to develop less intrusive methods. For example, the weighbridge colony allows researchers to know the exact weights of dozens of penguins several times per day without even touching them—a much better solution than catching and weighing each one every day. Some of the tagged birds in the weighbridge colony are 16 years old and have been carrying their tags for 12 years without seeming to be harmed by them. For everything else the researchers do—splash tags, flipper bands, and so on—they always study a reference colony that they’ve left alone, to see if there are any noticeable impacts from their work.
Still, Ballard concedes, “It all boils down to whether you believe we need to know these things or not. If you don’t believe that, then you can’t justify any impact to the birds at all. But most people do believe it’s important to understand the world.” Ballard said he takes it as his responsibility to ask his questions as carefully and harmlessly as he can.

Thanks again for raising this important point, and thanks for reading,

Hugh Powell

Hi Hugh,
Just wanted to let you know that Nate and Owen and I have been following your expedition journal and enjoying every day of it. Owen really likes the baby penguins, and he likes the way the penguins jump up out of the water. Nate, contrarian that he is, says he likes the skuas more than the penguins. He especially liked your description of how the skuas hover in the wind, although even he had to admit the baby penguins are pretty cute.

So we mainly wanted to write and say hello and Merry Christmas, but I made them come up with some questions, too. Nate wants to know if a skua ever stole your food from you (and he wants to know if you’ve decided what your favorite animal is yet). Owen wants to know if you’ve seen any leopard seals.
I just want to say congratulations to the media team for creating such an entertaining Web site. The photography is fantastic, and the journal really conveys a sense of the expedition experience, what the scientists are up to, and what an amazing place Antarctica is. Nate is now planning to go to Antarctica himself when he grows up.

Best wishes,
Tim, Nate, and Owen

Hi to all the Stephenses!
I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the expedition, and I’m looking forward to hearing about Nate’s experiences one day when he comes to Antarctica! To answer your questions: The only skua that stole my food so far is
Lead Skua and Chief Photographer Chris Linder, who stole a sardine from me yesterday at lunchtime. Last time I was in McMurdo, though, I did see a skua steal someone’s sandwich. It was amazing. The person thought he was ready for the skua when he walked outside, looking over his shoulder and covering his sandwich with his arm. But the skua was too quick. It glided innocently behind the guy, then wheeled around silently and stuck its beak in a gap between the person’s arm and his food tray. A moment later the skua had a plastic-wrapped sandwich wedged in its beak. It looked very proud of itself as it flew away.

black pengiun

Viola Toniolo is glad you like skuas. She has a soft spot for skuas herself, and she feels bad that so many people down here think that skuas are nuisances. She hopes you’ll help her correct people’s impressions and spread the word about how cool skuas are! If you're asking about specific penguins, Viola does have a favorite. It's an all-black female penguin she's seen at the colony for several years now. Here's a picture of her at right, on her nest with her mate standing beside her.

I like skuas too, but this week my favorite animal is definitely the snow petrel. It looks a little bit like a very white seagull, except smaller and much better at flying. They never seem to land; they just spend the whole day zooming up and down the coastline like little jet planes. On windy days they barely even flap their wings— they just use the wind itself to power their flight, controlling themselves with masterfully tiny changes in how they hold their wings. A lot of the flying they do—such as bombing toward the sheer ice cliffs only to pull up into the sky at the last second—seems to be just for fun.

As for leopard seals, we get to see them pretty much every day at Cape Crozier. Right now Chris, our photographer (and Lead Skua), is down at the water’s edge trying to get more photographs of the slinky, smiley

Thanks again for all your questions and good wishes. Happy Christmas.

Hugh Powell


Hello Polar Discovery team,

With all the guano around, is the penguin colony a smelly place?

Mea Cook

Hi Mea,
The penguin colony definitely has its own special smell. It makes me think of an anchovy-scented household cleaning product. I asked Viola Toniolo and Kirsten Lindquist what they thought. Lindquist said, “It doesn’t really smell like anything else. You walk into the colony, and it’s the first thing everybody says: ‘Oh my God, what’s that smell.’ But pretty soon you don’t notice it any more. It’s like a fishy barnyard, with the smells of ammonia and digested sea products.”

Toniolo added, “I sort of like the smell, honestly, except on hot days when I walk over the stinky pools—rank pools of guano melt that come from thousands of penguins concentrated in a single spot. Honestly, though, the penguins smell much better than our outhouse.”

I have to agree about the smell. Pretty soon you come to associate it with the penguins themselves, and then you begin to like it. Thanks for your question, and I hope you get the chance to smell a penguin colony yourself someday!

Hugh Powell