Notes from the Field: Conducting Scientific Research in Antarctica

Hello from the bottom of the world!

As a zookeeper who spends a lot of my time in an “arctic” environment in the Detroit Zoo’s Arctic Ring of Life, I never thought I’d be lucky enough to find myself on either pole and yet, here I am in Antarctica. The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is engaged in ongoing field conservation work here alongside the Polar Oceans Research Group, studying the populations of penguins and other seabirds. As part of this project, I joined the team at the U.S. Palmer Research Station on the Antarctic peninsula to live and work for a month during the austral summer.

The route from Detroit is through Punta Arenas, Chile and then aboard the Laurence M. Gould icebreaker supply ship for a four-day ride across the rough seas of the Drake Passage. It was well worth it as we passed icebergs and whales along the way. Other passengers on the ship included biologists, a welder, an artist, IT personnel and others who had various goals once they reached the White Continent. The DZS’s mission for the next month is to take part in a three-person team involved in a long-term ecological research project studying Antarctic seabirds.

Weather permitting, we spend each day taking small boat rides to various islands to conduct as much fieldwork as the conditions will allow. This includes counting various species of birds and marine mammals, attempting to read ID band numbers (placed by biologists on birds’ legs to be able to keep track of age and location over the years) and adding GPS tags to different animals to monitor their movement.

The animals here are so removed from human activity that some species can actually be approached very closely by researchers and not fly away. All of this work is coordinated by the principal investigators and founders of the Polar Oceans Research Group, Dr. Bill Fraser and Donna Patterson-Fraser. Dr. Fraser is a well-respected polar ecologist and consulted on the design of the Detroit Zoo’s Polk Penguin Conservation Center.

Our research is indicating how populations of seabirds are being altered as a result of the changing climate. For example, adélie penguin populations have declined 80 percent in the area near Palmer Station, while more ice-independent species are moving into the area, such as gentoo penguins (one of four species of penguin who live at the Zoo). I’m so grateful to be here representing the Detroit Zoological Society and studying these incredible wildlife species alongside brilliant biologists.

– Flo Yates is a zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society who is taking part in a rare and extraordinary opportunity to conduct scientific research in Antarctica during the austral summer.

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.

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 Van Kampen is a curator of education 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.

Notes from the Field: Growing up in Antarctica

Greetings from Anvers Island! The front of the U.S. Palmer Station doesn’t usually have many icebergs, but this summer, the waters around the station have become something of an iceberg parking lot. The last few days have been breezy with a couple inches of summer snow, but that has not stopped us from making our rounds. Throughout the area, the seabirds are busy raising demanding chicks while humpback whales are swimming by.

The south polar skuas are just starting to hatch and we are seeing their chicks on a couple of the islands. The brown skua chicks have grown significantly. Their primary flight feathers are starting to come in and they are becoming more challenging to measure. The sneaky youngsters are often hiding behind rocks away from the nest. They are quick on their feet and run from us when we approach. The ages of the southern giant petrel chicks vary with some newly hatched and others barely fitting under their brooding parent because they’ve grown so much. Often as we walk by, we’ll see a fuzzy white head sticking out under mom or dad.

All of the penguin chicks are growing rapidly but the gentoo chicks are the smallest, with many still fairly young. These chicks are very cute; their beaks already show orange and somehow the young birds manage to stay very clean.

 

The chinstrap chicks are also tidy-looking and have grown significantly. The Adelie colonies are thinning out as the parents are spending more time out foraging. Their extremely messy chicks are forming groups called crèches. At this stage, the young birds are really starting to grow up and are willing to venture away from their nest to hang out with other chicks. The oldest chicks are in the process of molting their down and many look quite funny. They are partially covered in down with some of their first molt showing. This next generation of penguins is developing quickly, which is important as the quick Antarctic summer is flying by.

As I reflect on this wonderful journey, I continue to marvel at the purity of Antarctica’s environment. Please try your best to respect the environment wherever you are and leave behind the smallest footprint you can. We share an incredibly beautiful world and it’s all of our responsibility to protect it.

Thank you for reading.

– Matthew Porter is a bird department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society and has 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.

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: To the Moon and Back

Hello from the U.S. Palmer Station! The weather has been behaving and we were able to have a very productive week. Because of the warmer temperatures in Antarctica this time of year, some long-distance travelers from the north came to visit us – a group of more than 100 arctic terns have made their way down for the summer.

The arctic tern is an incredible bird that only weighs as much as a small apple yet it migrates farther than any animal on Earth. They breed in the Arctic during the northern summer and they travel to the Antarctic for the austral summer to feed in the rich waters of the Southern Ocean. They will travel some 45,000 miles every year and may live for decades. This bird lives a full life; it flies the distance to the moon three times over. It is absolutely inspiring watching these weary travelers make it down here, knowing they were at the top of the world just a few months ago.

Back in Michigan, the Detroit Zoological Society helps conserve two different species of tern – black terns and common terns. The DZS has worked with other agencies to develop and maintain a new nesting site for common terns, which have become quite uncommon along the Detroit River over the last 50 years. We are also working with the National Audubon Society and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, looking at nesting success of black terns in the St. Clair Flats. Black terns are suffering population decline across their range and we are committed to learning more about their life history in order to reverse this trend and protect the species.

Besides the arctic terns, we have been very busy studying the local birdlife. The Adelie penguin colonies seem to show some variation with regard to what stage of development the chicks are in. Some of the chicks are getting huge and the nests are getting crowded as many proud parents have two chicks growing well. That being said, the noise level continues to climb and the colonies are starting to become messy! It does appear that the chicks pick up bad habits at a very young age (stealing rocks from the neighbors).

The brown skua chicks continue to hatch and grow as well. We have been measuring their beaks and routinely weighing them, tracking their growth. The parents can be a little feisty, but overall they tolerate us well. The chicks are beginning to run around and explore, which can make it tougher for us to find them.

As the days of this incredible journey continue to pass, the northern hemisphere has started to tilt back toward the sun and our days are shortening a touch. It’s still pretty much always light out, but it’s getting slightly easier to see the sun set.

Have a great week; I will report back soon!

– Matthew Porter is a bird department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society and is spending the next 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.