Notes from the Field: Island Hopping in Antarctica

This week started with our usual routines and turned into the best “fieldtrip” ever. We cruised through our work of counting penguins and weighing chicks and then we saw a wonderfully calm weather window. We had an extremely favorable, gentle forecast, which allowed us to make a special trip out to the Joubins – a special group of islands that our field team only has the opportunity to see once or twice a year because they are located outside of our boating limits. We packed two boats as a safety precaution and sailed westward.

The krill was thick and the ocean was pulsing with hungry predators. We spotted a humpback whale on our journey out, shortly followed by hundreds of crabeater seals and numerous penguins swimming around. Crabeater seals have very specialized teeth, which enable them to filter the ocean water while devouring krill. Some crabeaters were in the water while many others were laying on the large pieces of ice that drifted past us. There was even a leopard seal in the area, which could’ve been bad news for the “crabbies”. The much bigger leopard seals will eat crabeater seals given the right situation.

We made it to our first study island and were pleasantly greeted by Adelie, chinstrap, and gentoo penguins. This island was particularly fascinating with all three of these penguin species breeding together in the same colony. Many of the chicks were quite young but looked healthy.

Throughout the day, we continued to explore island after island, surveying nesting birds and taking in the unblemished beauty of this Antarctic paradise. As the day came to a close, we packed our boats and made the journey home through gentle seas safely back to the U.S. Palmer Station.

In our local area, the giant petrel eggs have been hatching and there are some excited parents! The chicks are darling fuzzy balls of fluff. Their cooperative parents take excellent care of them and allow us to do our measurements with no complaints. When we return the chicks, the parents snuggle them under the safety of their bodies.

The gentoo chicks are still small but growing quickly, and most of the Adelie chicks are huge. The Adelie parents are incredibly busy trying to keep the begging chicks full. During the upcoming weeks we should start to see the Adelie chicks venture away from their parents into little chick groups within the colony. They will also start to lose their down.

 

Thanks for reading; I will report back soon.

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

Notes From the Field: Siamese Crocodile Hatchlings

Paul Buzzard, Ph.D., is the director of conservation for the Detroit Zoological Society.

We are very happy to report that 10 Siamese crocodiles recently hatched at the Detroit Zoo and will soon be released into the wild in Cambodia. The Siamese crocodile is one of the most endangered species of crocodile in the world, and was thought to be functionally extinct in the wild until the year 2000, when a small population was found in the highlands of southwest Cambodia. Now a total of around 250 Siamese crocodiles are believed to remain in three sub-populations. But it is still necessary to bolster the wild population so it can be sustainable into the future.

With Siamese crocodiles at zoos, there is sometimes a concern that there has been previous mating with other crocodile species, but genetic testing of the Siamese crocodiles at the Detroit Zoo confirmed that they are genetically pure and could be included in the Siamese Crocodile Species Survival Plan (SSP). An SSP is a program of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which strives to manage and conserve species populations in zoos and aquariums to ensure the sustainability of healthy, genetically diverse, and demographically diverse populations.

When suitable areas are available within the natural habitat of a species, individuals from SSP programs can sometimes be returned to the wild. The young crocodiles from the Detroit Zoo will be raised for several months by an adult crocodile pair at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park in Florida while permits are arranged for them to be released into protected areas of Cambodia.

– Dr. Paul Buzzard