Less concentrated pressure on penguins

Extreme mobility of fur seals equal less concentrated pressure on penguins during breeding season

There was a strong El Nino this year, a climactic event that can dramatically change the weather patterns in the areas which we work.  Compared to my previous (non El-Nino) field season, the mortality rate in chicks was considerable due to strong cold winds and large amounts of snow and sub-zero temperatures, leading to many adult penguins simply abandoning their nests and heading to sea.  Unfortunately, this also included a number of our instrumented birds, resulting in the loss of the devices and the data they contained.  However, we managed to describe Chinstrap and Adelie penguin foraging behavior during the breeding season for a second season.  These data are critical in seeing how unpredictable climactic events such as El Nino impact breeding penguin foraging ecology, and in turn how these events must be considered when managing the krill fishery.  

We had expected that the fur seals would conduct at-sea feeding trips in the waters around the South Orkneys, and had hoped to be able to see the overlap between the seals and penguins, to determine whether the seasonal influx of male fur seals competed with and put stress on penguins already having to work hard to feed hungry chicks.  Some seals did, however a large proportion of the instrumented seals moved further south and west, travelling over 1,000km down the west Antarctic Peninsula as far as Adelaide Island.  This extreme mobility of fur seals means that the ecological pressure exerted on krill stocks is spread across the entire region, overlapping with commercial fishing areas and penguin breeding colonies throughout the peninsula.  The seal transmitters will continue to provide data for many months, allowing us to look in-depth at how adult male fur seals spend their time between breeding seasons.

Not your everyday morning

Our days are sufficiently different that there is always something new to contend with.  Waking up one morning with the usual caffeine craving and bodily needs after being in a tent for 12 hours, to find that during the night a series of obstacles have been placed in your way.  The first comes in the form of a noise immediately outside your one and only exit from the tent.  It sounds like the kind of snoring that only comes from a very large seal that is very much asleep.  This one thought that my tent was a great windbreak and decided to move in.  Trying to poke a seal awake with a boot merely results in the seal opening an eye and looking at you. Poke a bit more, and he gets the message that he isn’t welcome, yet in his eyes he is much bigger than the small boot protruding from the tent.  Adult male fur seals will try to avoid fights which can result in serious injuries, and in a confrontation the smaller of the two combatants will normally back down.  Unfortunately, the combatant connected to the small boot needs a pee, so he isn’t backing down.  After a lot of snorting, growling and poking at each other, the seal begrudgingly moves just enough for me to get out.  Obstacle #1 complete.  Seals in front of the cooking tent coupled with frozen water provide obstacles #2 and #3 which are overcome on a daily basis, allowing us to start the day.

Every morning at sunrise there is a procession of many thousands of penguins walking in an orderly fashion along the beach, heading to sea for the day.  The sight is incredible, and reminds me of city workers heading to work in the morning.  They are quiet, rather sullen, and they aren’t quite awake.  But a seemingly never-ending stream of penguins walks off the ridgelines around the island, down onto the beach and follows the water’s edge.  The procession goes straight past the campsite, up over an ice ridge and out of sight towards the ocean.  A traffic jam regularly occurs at the bottom of the ice ridge, with some penguins in front sliding back down a few feet, which causes chaos and a beak-to-back traffic snarl common in rush hours all over the world.  Rush hour ends, and the beach road is empty again until about 7pm, when they all come back to land along the same route back home.  The difference this time is they are inflated like footballs, brimming with food (mainly krill) for their chicks.  Krill oil is bright red, and some of these penguins are covered head to to toe in it, giving them the look of having fought a war at sea – just how big ARE some of these krill they are taking on ?? Evening rush hour lasts another hour, then the beaches are clear of penguins again as the parents take to feeding their chicks and settling down for the night.

There are over 2,000 seals on the beach on which we camp, and we have to walk through them every time we want to go check the penguin colonies where the instrumented birds are.  Some will merely look at you with one eye, growl, and go back to sleep.  Others will try and chase you in order to dominate you and guard “their patch”.  Some will run at the sight of you, causing a stampede of seals into the sea and clearing the beach of animals that we wanted to work on in the afternoon.  Simply travelling around requires concentration and observation – “is this seal going to really charge me or is it a fake charge ?”.  Some of the younger seals see you as something that might be fun to play with; “playing” usually involves practice-fights which while not damaging to their opponents would certainly require medical treatment if we were to try and join in. 

Having a conversation with my girlfriend on the phone, and I received a report from a colleague that a penguin had just come ashore with a transmitter on.  The issue was, the colony was on another island that could only be accessed at low tide – which was 2 hours ago.  “Sorry love, I’ve got to go and grab a penguin, talk to you later, bye !”.  This struck me as a perfectly normal and correct thing to say, however it wasn’t until I was reminded in an email from her that no, this isn’t what normal partners say normally to each other during the working day.  Seemingly small things like this are normal in the situation we find ourselves in, yet it is only when we relay these things to people in the outside world that we realize how what is normal for one is bizarre for another. Living in close proximity with, and working on, so many animals makes every day a challenge, and no two days the same. 

Step by step, penguin by penguin

Photo: Frank Grebstad

Photo: Frank Grebstad

Unlike the first trip to Powell Island that revolved around instrumenting penguins, we are now tasked with working on Antarctic fur seals, the pygoscelid penguins (Adelie, Chinstrap and Gentoo’s) and southern elephant seals. Consequently, our days are naturally varied, as the work we are able to do is dictated by the weather conditions.  I shall go through in increasing order of complexity the processes by which we collect data on these animals

Southern Elephant seals:

Step #1: approach the front of a sleeping 500-1,500kg adult male elephant seal with a pair of tweezers

Step #2: secure tweezers around one whisker, and pluck.

Step #3: move backwards very quickly as the (now wide-awake) elephant seal wonders what the hell you are doing.

Simple.  But it is a test of nerve to walk up to an enormous animal with very large teeth armed with nothing but tweezers.  However, the information we get from the whisker is considerable; using chemicals that are deposited in the whisker as it grows, we are able to determine what and when (to within a few months) the animal ate.  This is crucial information, as these animals spend over 9 months a year at sea and are therefore extremely hard to observe.

Penguins (all):

Step #1: Pick up a penguin.  Preferably not an angry one, but calm ones are quite rare.

Step #2: Attach transmitters to the back of the penguin (GPS and dive recorders, both combined are about the size of a small box of matches).  This requires a small amount of superglue, some waterproof tape and is generally completed in under a few minutes.

Step #3: Release for 5-10 days

Step #4: Recapture the penguin (by spending many hours stood freezing next to a penguin colony until it decides to come back home, then run around like an idiot trying to catch something that can outsprint you and is only 40cm tall).

Step #5: Remove the devices

Step #6: Repeat at least 40-50 times on individuals from each species throughout the two month period, so you cover the three stages of breeding (egg incubation, chick care and chick fledging)

When the penguin is recaptured we also take a small blood sample, to help us describe what the individual ate during its foraging trip using the same chemical markers as found in the elephant seal whiskers.  The information from the blood combined with the location data forms a very powerful dataset telling us where and on what the penguin ate at very fine scales.

Post-breeding male Antarctic fur seals

Instrumenting these animals is the most complicated procedure we do, and consequently required the best weather conditions – why will become very apparent.

Step #1: select a suitably-sized (sleeping) adult male fur seal, weighing between 100-200kg.  At a distance of 20-30m, use a dart gun to remotely-inject the animal with a sedative.  Allow 5-10minutes for the drug to take effect before approaching the animal.

Step #2: approach with a portable gas anesthesia machine, a capture net and a very large stick.  Hopefully, if you have given the correct (weight-determined) dosage the animal will be sufficiently sedated that you can simply place the anesthetic mask on and maintain the level of anesthesia.  If you haven’t, then you have a bit of a struggle with a very unhappy seal, a net, and three grown men trying to physically restrain the animal and complete the sedation.  In very cold weather, the gaseous anesthetic would not vaporize efficiently, so we were unable to work.

Step #3: once the animal is sufficiently immobilized, including a comprehensive set of health checks (to ensure the plane of anesthesia is not too deep, that the animal is not suffering respiratory distress), we can move onto instrumentation.  A two-part epoxy glue is mixed and a “footprint” of glue the size of the base of the transmitter is applied to the back of the seal, between the two foreflippers.  The instrument is then glued in place on the back, and the glue allowed to set (which can take up to 45 minutes if the air temperature is cold enough).  While the glue is setting, a whisker is clipped from the face of the animal and a blood sample taken from its hind flipper.

Step #4: after the procedure is complete, the anesthesia is stopped and the animal allowed to recover.  We watch the animal until it has completely recovered, as other males nearby tend to like picking fights and we must protect the instrumented individual until it is capable of defending itself.  One procedure can take up to two hours to complete, and you can’t relax for a second.  We had 30 animals to instrument, so this was by far the most intense of our activities.

Being a field ecologist requires you to be able to adapt and modify equipment and procedures based on the conditions you experience, and to have the common sense and experience to know when not to push it. In spite of how simple my outlines appear, it’s an intensely complicated set of procedures we have to perform – all the time remembering these are wild animals and that we need to keep disturbance levels to a minimum.  The weather doesn’t make things any easier, with at best not working optimally and at worst simply not bothering to work at all. No two sets of circumstances are the same, and to paraphrase, “the only easy day was yesterday”

The world's largest natural refrigerator

Moving into the world's largest natural refrigerator

This is my second time to Powell Island, my first visit being two years ago.  I came here with preconceived ideas about how it would be, where I would find animals and how they would react – all based on what I had learnt during my first field season here.  However, fate (in the shape of one of the strongest El Nino Southern Oscillation events in years) decided it would be otherwise. This time the bay wasn’t full of ice, so the landing craft could put us closer to our campsite and the three of us could avoid the slow, painful process of walking backwards and forwards over a 200m stretch of beach carrying a couple of tons of equipment, food and water.  God, Buddah or the Great Pumpkin in the Sky decided to give us clear skies and calm winds which allowed us to secure tent guy lines, dig in valances and generally set up the tents properly, in preparation for the inevitable howling winds, horizontal snow and generally unpleasant weather that often swings by this neighborhood. Also, I could have sworn that the expression on the penguins faces as they waddled by our mountain of equipment was one of “seriously – you lot again ?”.

Our campsite consists of three tents; one to cook in and two for sleeping.  The cook tent is a British Antarctic Survey “pyramid” (which I keep referring to as a “teepee”, just to wind up the Brits) in which three of us would spend sometimes days trying to keep out of the weather and remember what conversation felt like.  The surface area of the tent is around 3m x 2m, and unless you are a midget you are constantly bent over double (at best) or on your knees (at worst) for the entire trip.  This is NOT a job for people who treasure the cartilage in their joints.  The sleeping tents fall into two categories; one is a three-person “teepee” which houses two people, the inside temperature of this tent reached a record 2oC, and given its enormous size the two occupants had ample space to spread out.  The other tent was mine, considerably smaller, and tended to change shape a lot depending on the strength and direction of the wind.  On particularly windy days (30-40knots and above) it resembled being inside a gigantic bag of chips while someone shook it around.  Not only is this not a job for those with joint issues, it is not appropriate for light sleepers.  My tent is not the same size as the enormous skyscraper that the other two are in; it reminds me of moving into a tiny apartment and wondering “how the hell am I going to fit all this (scientific/personal gear for 2 months) into here (a small tent 2m x 1m) ?”.  But you do, and you become remarkably efficient and stowing things away.

Antarctica is the world’s largest natural refrigerator, thus we were able to carry enough “fresh” food into the field camp to last us the first month.  The kitchen and associated cooking is rudimentary, with a paraffin stove and two pans being sufficient for our needs.  The Panasonic breadmaker with automatic nut dispenser and pasta-making menu options sat in the corner of the cooking tent is so out-of-place that you could be excused for thinking you were hallucinating.  However, when combined with a small 800W petrol generator, the production of fresh bread and apple and cinnamon cake is crucial for both morale and the consumption of bacon.  Toilet facilities include the world’s largest naturally-powered flushing toilet (the ocean) which can be an invigorating experience when surprised by seals and/or penguins rocketing out of the water next to you, or when the wind is so strong it drives snow into places it really shouldn’t go into.

We work on UTC (which is 3 hours ahead of local time) as the telemetry devices we fit to animals are calibrated to this time zone. So we settle into our routine. Now it’s time to go to work.

Sending equipment months before you go

Gerlache Photo: Frank Grebstad

Gerlache Photo: Frank Grebstad

So you are going to go to the Antarctic.  Not so difficult to plan for really if you are a tourist.  Enough warm clothes ? Check. Enough money for souvenirs ? Check. Batteries for the camera ? Check.  Easy.

What about if you are camping ?  Hhhm.  A tent – good enough for the weather ? Define “good enough” – well, sufficient to withstand 50-60knot (120km/h) winds, snow and rain (because if it doesn’t, you and your gear are in BIG trouble), big enough that you wont go mad if you are trapped inside it for a week due to bad weather and one that does not look like an elephant seal (unless you like a 500kg animal rubbing up against your tent in the middle of the night, thinking its “ in with a chance here”).  Ok – camping…what else ?  Food – well, you wont have a refrigerator, nor a fully stocked kitchen and your clean water supply is limited, so better take camping food and enough to last you three months.  Have you ever tried camping food for three months ?  If not – better pack enough toilet roll for four months.  Next – a good sleeping bag (one rated to -20 or 30 should do it), something to sleep on, and a pillow (possibly THE most important item of equipment). Clothing: better take enough socks for at least one fresh pair every couple of weeks. Thermals, warm shirts, fleeces, waterproof / snow proof outerwear, hats, gloves, goggles, down jacket, fleece pants (for inside the tent)……the equipment pile is starting to get quite large now.

Ok – so you are camping in the Antarctic.  We aren’t there on holiday, so what do we need to do work ?  Well, I am here anesthetizing 150kg adult male fur seals to put satellite transmitters on them, and to fit penguins with GPS and dive recording tags.  I also need to be able to take blood samples from all the animals, and centrifuge the blood to store the different components (plasma, blood cells) separately.  So – sedative drugs and the equipment to administer them (dart gun,  portable gas anesthetic machine, oxygen, sofnalime, ammunition), glue (for the tags), the tags themselves (with the computer cables for each manufacturers type), computer (to program the tags and download them – better take two in case one breaks), laboratory equipment (centrifuge, pipettes, ethanol, tubes, needles, syringes, swabs) and sample bags.  The dart gun needs to be shipped via courier to the Falklands Islands, and held at the local police station before being handed over to the captain of the ship, before finally being given to me when we are “in international waters”.  One of the many, many peculiarities of preparing for Antarctic fieldwork on marine predators.  You never get used to them.

Now I need to have a bigger room to put this equipment pile in.  It’s well over the 200kg mark, and Im only allowed 55kg of luggage on the flights – which I need to book, from Tromsø (latitude 69 north) via the UK and Ascension Islands to the Falkland Islands (54 South).  From there, weight isn’t an issue as it’s a three day journey on the British icebreaker RRS James Clark Ross to the South Orkney Islands (60 South).  So if I want this gear to get there, I had better make sure most of it is on the icebreaker before she leave the UK.  In August.  Even though I don’t go into the field until December.  Talk about forward planning.  Better make a really REALLY good list of what I’ve sent down on the ship, because come December I need to make sure that what I take in my 55kg of air allowance doesn’t duplicate what I already have, and more importantly doesn’t miss something that I really need. 

Ok – equipment packed and sent to the UK for shipping “down south” ? Check.  Travel arrangements ? Check. 

Damn – did I pack enough UK plug adapters ? Better take another one just in case. Now its time to fly south for the winter.

About the extreme scientist Andy Lowther

Do non-breeding Adélie, chinstrap, and gentoo penguins potentially use different habitats and feeding locations than those used by breeding penguins? That is something Dr. Andrew Lowther and his colleagues from Norwegian Polar Institute and British Antarctic Survey will explore during the summer at West Coronation Island, Signy Island and Powell Island.

He admits choosing to become a scientist due to his curiosity about his surroundings, always wanting to know 'why things are the way they are'. He also enjoys learning about the real world, so to him being a field biologist is the perfect combination of exercising the grey matter as well as enjoying a life outdoors.

Lowther et al. aim to address the knowledge gap on adult, non-breeding, and therefore more mobile, birds in a region where most of the krill fishing in the Southern Ocean takes place. During the 2015-2016 field season they will collect at-sea foraging data on non-breeding adults at several different sites in the same year.

When discussing why he decided to do research in the Antarctic in the first place, his reasoning was based on understanding the adaptive coping mechanisms of the species there. In his mind animals have three basic options. They can adapt and survive in order to reproduce, migrate the area for a more suitable environment, or three - lay down and die. Exploring the mechanisms in these species that made them stay in the harsh environment of the Antarctic continent is very interesting. He also adds that the southern ocean plays a critical role in global climatology, and that we can identify changes in this system through the behavior of animals, as well as using them as sensor platforms to collect environmental information in regions that humans cannot venture.  

In his research the data will be collected alongside similar data on breeding adult penguins from each species, providing additional comparative studies on breeding and non-breeding penguins and the effects of interspecific competition between birds that are breeding versus those that are not breeding. This will contribute to a better overall understanding of the habitat and prey needs of penguins.

Finally, we challenged him to tell us about his most interesting research, using only five sentences: 

"In terms of importance it would have to be the long-term monitoring programme at the worlds most remote island, Bouvetøya. The island hosts the second largest population of Antarctic fur seals in the world, and huge populations of penguins and flying seabirds. There are also hundreds of elephant seals that travel yearly to the Antarctic shelf, making this location literally a biological oasis in the middle of the South Atlantic. To see environmental change over time, it stands to reason there is a critical need for long-term datasets of how animals respond to their environment. By conducting dietary and tracking studies on all these species we are collecting such a time series both around Bouvetøya and, using elephant seals, the Antarctic continental shelf around Dronning Maud Land."