Notes from the Field – The Struggle for Life in Antarctica

As soon as I arrived in Antarctica I began observing penguin behavior. After working in animal care and observing zoo penguins for more than two decades, this comes naturally to me – it’s what I do. I not only wanted to develop a better understanding of how penguins exist in their natural environment, but I also wanted to glean any information that would benefit the penguins that live at the Detroit Zoo. My first glimpse of penguins was on the shoreline of King George Island before we boarded the Ocean Nova. I was thrilled to see two chinstrap penguins that came ashore, presumably to rest after foraging at sea. As the ship made its way through the Shetland Islands towards the Weddell Sea, I began seeing small groups of penguins porpoising through the waves. Their torpedo-like bodies are well designed to travel efficiently for what are sometimes great distances in search of food for themselves and their hungry chicks.

 

Thereafter, we visited penguin colonies daily, most of which numbered in the thousands. It was the height of the breeding season and the islands and Peninsula were teeming with birdlife. The Adelie penguin chicks were the first to hatch and most were too large to brood under their parents. They formed small groups, or crèches, which provide protection from skuas and southern giant petrels that were always nearby looking for meals for their own growing chicks. Ravenous penguin chicks were frantically chasing weary parents down incredibly high rocky slopes and across rocky beaches, only stopping when the parents went out to sea. At this age, penguin chicks are only fed once or twice daily as their parents need to make longer trips to find food. When they finally return with full bellies, the chase begins again. The most vigorous chicks will get the largest meal and will ultimately thrive.

A visit to a gentoo colony made the struggle for life very apparent. There were numerous skuas present, more than I had observed at any penguin colony thus far. The later-hatching gentoo chicks were still being brooded by their parents and many were just starting to crèche. They are most vulnerable during this time when both parents must spend more time at sea and can no longer guard them. I was struck by this proximity of predator and prey. Although they seemed to be coexisting somewhat peacefully, it became apparent that the skuas were constantly watching for any sign of vulnerability. I began noticing obvious signs of this.

There is also danger at sea. Leopard seals will typically linger just offshore of penguin colonies during the breeding season looking for an easy meal. Fledgling penguins are especially vulnerable as they venture out to sea for the first time, unaware of what lies ahead. I observed a group of loafing Adelie penguins sharing an ice floe with a leopard seal that was resting just a few feet away – a seemingly peaceful coexistence that could and would change at a moment’s notice. I began to not only see the struggle for life here, but feel it as well.

I have read much literature about wild penguins and the Antarctic environment over the years, but the knowledge that I gained is something that could only be experienced firsthand. I returned home with a much greater understanding of the plight of these wild penguins, and an even greater sense of resolve and satisfaction in knowing that our resident penguins have lives that include great care and welfare, and without the struggle for life.

– Jessica Jozwiak is a bird department supervisor for the Detroit Zoological Society.

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