Notes from the Field – Scientific Research in Antarctica

As the only continent on Earth without a native human population – and with the harshest and most extreme climate in the world – Antarctica presents a unique, natural laboratory for scientific research. As challenging as the climate is, it is vital to understanding ecosystems and our impact on the planet.

Half a century ago, the governments of 30 countries collectively formed the Antarctic Treaty System to regulate this natural wonder as a scientific preserve. Now more than 50 research stations are in operation there, with scientists and their support staff numbering a few thousand during the austral summer when conditions are less severe. These include biologists, ecologists, geologists, oceanographers, physicists, astronomers, glaciologists and meteorologists. Even still, the vast majority of the white continent is still little known. Such is the case with the Weddell Sea. Its iceberg-filled waters are unpredictable and treacherous. This is the same sea that captured and crushed Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, 100 years ago.

We sailed the Weddell Sea as part of a recent expedition to Antarctica with scientists from the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) and the Polar Oceans Research Group (PORG). World-renowned polar ecologist and penguin expert Dr. Bill Fraser, head of the PORG, shared his extensive knowledge on board, as he has done as consultant on the Polk Penguin Conservation Center. His research, which spans nearly four decades, operates out of the U.S. Palmer Station on Antarctica and focuses on the ecology of penguins and their habitats. Over the years, Dr. Fraser and his team have revealed a dramatic decline in Adelie penguins in this particular region of Antarctica – an 80 percent drop over the last four decades – due to shifting conditions and disappearing sea ice.

Sea ice remains an essential ecological variable in the Weddell Sea. Somewhat unlike the western Antarctic Peninsula (where the U.S. Palmer Station sits), sea ice is the platform for species survival. During our trek within this sea and our landings at Devil Island and Brown Bluff, we observed tens of thousands of Adelie penguins. The presence of sea ice in this oceanic basin appears to have had a positive effect on this species through processes that are not yet fully understood – but a theory is emerging. Unlike other areas, populations of Adelie penguins are either stable or increasing here. This is a very different situation from the western Antarctic Peninsula where sea ice is diminishing and Adelie populations are decreasing with it. A number of observational metrics including nesting density, chick condition and colony aspect were compared just a few days later during our voyage to the Palmer Station.

Visiting these locations within the Weddell Sea was also important to scouting potential field research sites. No other team or country is doing ecological research here. Given that the Weddell Sea is closer to any other region on the Antarctic Peninsula where sea ice still persists, it offers the most optimal situation to more closely study how sea ice impacts the ecosystem.

These donor-funded excursions are important to the Detroit Zoological Society’s wildlife conservation efforts. They have also yielded significant philanthropic support – our Antarctic expeditions have led to contributions of $15 million for the Polk Penguin Conservation Center, and this most recent venture also secured $67,000 for the Polar Oceans Research Group. While fundraising is an important goal, our relationship with Dr. Fraser and PORG is a compelling example of the power and impact of collaboration between the DZS and conservationists in the field.

– Ron Kagan is the executive director and CEO of the Detroit Zoological Society.

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.

Animal Welfare: Observing Natural Behaviors in Antarctica

Watching a penguin “fly” through the water is breathtaking. In this medium, they are agile, fast and truly awesome. Having the opportunity to see penguins porpoising in Antarctica was incredible, as this is a behavior we don’t often get to see in a captive setting. They reach high speeds and shoot in and out of the water to traverse long distances, at times avoiding predators, and at times being the predators. This is one of the reasons why, from an animal welfare perspective, the new Polk Penguin Conservation Center, with its 326,000-gallon, 25-foot-deep pool, is such an exciting endeavor. This expansive water feature will allow the penguins to display even more of their natural swimming behaviors, minus the predatory dangers, of course!

Watching a penguin walk on land is a somewhat different experience. They amble around, seemingly less acclimated to solid ground. Having now observed three species of penguins in their natural habitat, I can tell you that despite how they might appear, they are good climbers, managing to navigate over rocky, unstable and slippery terrain to gain access to nesting sites and hungry chicks. They can even move rather quickly, as demonstrated when they are attempting to wean their hungry chicks, who will often run after their parents while begging for more food.

I spent a lot of time observing the penguins at the various colonies we visited while in Antarctica, very similar to what the dedicated staff, residents, interns and volunteers of the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare do right here at the Detroit Zoo. For the gentoos, chinstraps and Adelie penguins we saw, this is the time of year during which they are still spending more time on land, as chicks are getting ready to fledge. I was able to focus on parent-offspring interactions, as well as how young penguins interact with one another in groups referred to as crèches. This is a critical time in the youngsters’ lives, as they prepare to leave the only home they have known so far. I was also able to focus on the type of environmental features that the penguins encounter, and how they interact with them. I was even able to test out our infrared thermography camera to look at temperature gradients between penguins at different population densities.

Having the opportunity to observe animals in their natural surroundings is extremely helpful when you are attempting to understand their needs and determining how to best meet them. You gain a very different appreciation for the challenges they are faced with, and it really makes you think about the level of complexity that comprises any environment. I am incredibly fortunate to have had such an opportunity, and I’m looking forward to sharing what I have I learned for the benefit of the penguins living at the Detroit Zoo. This is the type of care with which we need to approach habitat design, as well as how we assess the welfare of individual animals. A penguin’s natural habitat is full of challenges, both physical and social, but they are challenges that the animals are equipped to deal with. We should be searching for ways to ensure animals living in zoos have the right kind of stimulation – the right kind of challenges – if we want to see them thrive.

– Dr. Stephanie Allard is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.

Education: Bringing Antarctica to Life in the Polk Penguin Conservation Center

As a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society, I’ve been working on the interpretive plan for the Polk Penguin Conservation Center for the past several years, and the educational value that I received during a recent expedition to Antarctica was immense. All of the decisions that were so intentionally made throughout this multi-year design process are true to the Antarctic experience. What you will see in the new Polk Penguin Conservation Center will be authentic.

The colors we saw surprised me the most. I had expected grays, whites and blues – but the colors we experienced were so much more than just that. Lichens grow there, in oranges, greens and reds. Seeing moss and short little grasses, deep green in color, reminded us of how long it took them to grow in that cold and harsh environment. Kelp is bright red and could be seen floating with the currents near the shore. The icebergs and water are so many different shades of blue. We learned about ice and the visible blue color from all the compacted ice where air bubbles had been squeezed out. We passed many icebergs during our expedition, and I never grew tired of looking at all the crevasses and colors. The landscape was truly incredible.

Renowned biologist and president of the Polar Oceans Research Group, Dr. Bill Fraser, was an incredible person to spend time with on this trip. He did formal presentations for our group, but also interacted with us informally, talking about what he noticed on shore. Hearing him discuss the challenges that penguin species on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula are facing emphasized the impact that the changing climate is having on ecosystems around the world. When we battled brash sea ice on the way to the U.S. Palmer Station – which was a little treacherous – it became clear how harsh this environment is for the researchers and scientists who spend ample time in Antarctica. The people we met at the research station – as well as Matthew Porter, our own bird department zookeeper who has been living and working there the last few months – have a true passion for the work they do. As we toured around the station, it was clear that those who are chosen to work there are an incredible and talented group of people. We peeked in the different labs and learned about their work and life on the base. We developed an appreciation for the important work that goes on at Palmer Station. Part of our interpretive plan in the new penguin center is to focus on the research that is going on in the Antarctic region, and being on the base of this station will help us to build our own capacity for conveying our message to Zoo visitors.

Dr. Fraser was able to open our eyes to how far research has come since he started his work more than 40 years ago. New information that is not yet published ensures that we are on the cutting edge of penguin information and conservation. If Dr. Fraser and his team can better understand the threats to penguins in the Polar Ocean Research Group study area, scientists can utilize methods to better mitigate threats to declining penguin species.

As we near completion of the Polk Penguin Conservation Center, this Antarctic experience has allowed us to reshape some of our interpretive elements in the building. It helped us to take a step back and look harder and deeper into the opportunities we have to embody what our experience was like, and inspire our visitors to protect fragile ecosystems around the world, especially those in Antarctica.

 – Carla Rigsby is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Notes from the Field: Antarctica’s Influence on Penguin Habitat Design

As I walk to and from my office every day at the Detroit Zoo, I watch the Polk Penguin Conservation Center taking shape and I revel in its beauty. Now, after returning from an expedition to Antarctica, I marvel in how the design of the building truly resembles the tabular icebergs found there.

As the Detroit Zoological Society’s associate curator of birds with 22 years of experience working with penguins, I felt right at home in Antarctica – between the overwhelming smell of penguin guano, the sound of penguin chicks vocalizing and the pitter-patter of penguin feet as they walked to and from their nests. It was awe inspiring to witness their natural behaviors, from lying on the ice if they were too hot to collecting rocks for nesting to porpoising in and out of the water while foraging for food.

While designing a new habitat for the penguins at the Detroit Zoo, we consider all of these things and provide opportunities for the aquatic birds to exhibit these behaviors. It was fascinating to observe penguins tobogganing – lying on their bellies and moving through the snow with their flippers – a form of transportation for penguins in a hurry. We were also fortunate to see many chicks near fledging – parents were returning from the sea with full bellies of food for their chicks, and some chicks were taking their first swim in the water. I knew we would encounter three species of penguins – Adelies, gentoos and chinstraps – but I was astounded to see the one lone macaroni penguin that lives amongst a colony of chinstrap penguins.

Observing thousands of gentoos was a highlight of the trip, as it is a fairly new species to the Detroit Zoo, and the 20 gentoo penguins currently in quarantine at the Zoo will be a wonderful addition to the penguin population here.

These observations of how penguins spend their time in the wild will directly influence the home we provide for penguins at the Detroit Zoo. We can include more rocks in the penguins’ habitat, offer a variety of nesting materials other than rocks, provide hills of snow for climbing – not just for standing on – and we can let the penguins choose their nesting site, even if we think there is a better location.

Wonderful conversations transpired among animal care staff, veterinarians and researchers – including world-renowned polar ecologist and penguin expert Dr. Bill Fraser and his wife Donna Patterson-Fraser – all of us sharing our observations and questions with each other about what we were seeing in the field. One of our final destinations was to the U.S. Palmer Station to pick up Matthew Porter, a bird department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society. He has been assisting the “Seabird” field team, a division of the Long Term Ecological Research Network, focusing on penguin research for the last few months. Matthew – and those of us on this expedition – will be sharing the wealth of knowledge we have gained from this experience with staff and guests at the Detroit Zoo.

– Bonnie Van Dam is the associate curator of birds for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Veterinary Care – Antarctica Brings a New Respect for Penguins

I have a new respect for penguins. As one of the veterinarians at the Detroit Zoo, I know a lot about these aquatic birds – how to collect blood from a penguin, how to anesthetize a penguin, what types of medications I can give to a penguin, and how the inside of a penguin should look on a radiograph (X-ray image). In fact, the day before I left for an expedition to Antarctica, my veterinary ophthalmology colleagues and I restored vision to two of our rockhopper penguins by performing surgery to remove their cataracts. However, after visiting these amazing little birds on their home turf and seeing how they live their daily lives, I realize that I had no idea how a penguin actually “works”.

Antarctic penguins live incredibly harsh lives, but they make it look simple. They appear to be perfectly at home in 29°F salt water. That is not a misprint. The salt causes the water to freeze at a lower temperature than fresh water, so they actually swim daily in water than would be frozen if it were in the Great Lakes. We saw penguins everywhere in the water, swimming like bullets and porpoising with ease at high speeds. Penguins, in fact, live most of their lives at sea. Their only use for land is during a relatively brief nesting, breeding and molting season. Our visit to Antarctica took place during the austral summer and, at this time, the penguins are on land for breeding. Although their stout little bodies and short legs are much more suited to swimming, they manage to navigate rocks of all shapes and sizes, sometimes climbing steep and treacherous cliffs to get to their chicks. Aside from a few relatively flat beaches, we rarely saw penguins walking on level surfaces. They do fall occasionally, sometime frequently, but they get up every time and continue on their mission.

Late in the breeding season – when we arrived – penguin parents spend hours hunting for food in the water and then return to feed their chicks, who are at this point nearly the same size as their parents.  After the parents have hunted all day – making difficult and treacherous climbs up the rocks – their large, pudgy chicks seem much more greedy than grateful for all of the parents’ hard work and dedication.  After feeding all that they have to their chicks, the adults head directly back down the treacherous rocky cliffs and back into sub-freezing cold water to start over again.

These amazing birds live such a hard life, and they make it make it look easy. Or maybe not easy, but they manage it. Because it’s what they do. It’s how they “work”. Now that I’m back at the Zoo working with our penguins, I have so much more awe and respect for these amazing creatures, and I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to witness the workings of wild penguins firsthand.

– Dr. Sarah Woodhouse is a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Notes from the Field: Saying Goodbye to Antarctica

In what seems like the blink of an eye, this incredible journey at the bottom of the Earth has come to an end as I write to you back home at the Detroit Zoo. Three months ago, I flew to Chile, sailed across the Drake Passage and landed on Anvers Island in Antarctica. My home became the U. S. Palmer Station where I joined the expert field team of Polar Oceans Research Group.

We zodiac’ed around the local waters through wind, snow, and ice day after day, traversing the stunning landscape to study penguins, skuas, southern giant petrels, and more. Through the quick Antarctic summer, we travelled to many rocky islands, watching the birds lay eggs and diligently incubate them to hatching. Then the dedicated parents brooded their chicks, foraging often to find krill, fish, and more to feed their downy kin in an effort to raise them to maturity.

In my final days of observation, the birds continued to grow. The Adelie chicks lost most if not all of their down and are were almost ready to hop in the Southern Ocean for their first swim. The chinstraps were just behind them, but the gentoos were still downy, with a little more time to grow before hitting the chilly waters. The brown skua chicks were running all over the place as their primary flight feathers were quickly developing. The southern giant petrel parents were regularly leaving their chicks alone at the nest while they went out in search of food.

As we studied the birds, we had to watch out for the many fur seals that had joined the neighborhood, as they do around this time every year. We also saw a couple more humpback whales in the area. One playful individual made quite a commotion on the surface and was repeatedly lunge-feeding, devouring lots of krill.

Antarctica is now a part of me, and a very special part of our world. The Antarctic peninsula is one of the fastest changing places as the world’s environment changes. It will take a worldwide effort to help our planet, but every conscious decision you make to respect, recycle, and conserve will help turn the tides. I am so proud to be a part of our Detroit Zoological Society. Please walk with us down the path of sustainability. Thank you for reading and joining me on this extraordinary journey.

– Matthew Porter is a bird department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society who spent the last few months at the U.S. Palmer Station in Antarctica for a rare and extraordinary scientific opportunity to assist a field team with penguin research.