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.

Animal Welfare: New Penguin Center is Fit for a King

The start of a new year is the perfect opportunity to share an update on the penguin welfare project the staff of the Detroit Zoological Society’s Center for Zoo Animal Welfare began in November of 2014. This kind of long-term study is an incredible opportunity for us to examine a variety of factors that affect the well-being of the individual penguins residing at the Detroit Zoo, and to contribute to the body of knowledge on penguin behavior.

Since we began, we have looked at the effect of cataract surgery on the behavior and use of space of the affected penguins, how wearing data loggers – which in our case, track water-related behaviors – impact the penguins, and very importantly, the ways in which moving to the Polk Penguin Conservation Center has changed the lives of the penguins at the Zoo.

If you have visited the new facility – the largest in the world for penguins – then you know what an incredible experience it is. Our research demonstrates that this is also the case for the penguins, a critical goal of the new habitat. Although we are not yet done with the study, we regularly explore the data to see what trends are emerging.

One such finding is the change we’ve seen in the king penguins and their use of water. Long-term data collection allows us to compare changes in behavior and habitat use over time. When we compared water-related behaviors for the king penguins in October of 2015 in the Penguinarium and October of 2016 in the Polk Penguin Conservation Center, we saw that the king penguins increased their use of the water ten-fold! The new habitat has ten times the amount of water available to the penguins, so this is solid evidence that having additional space to perform species-typical behaviors is reflected in their behavior. The king penguins are making great use of the water, and this lets us know that the decisions we made in the design of their new habitat translate into an improvement in their welfare.

king-swimming-jennie-miller

This type of research is imperative if we are to understand what matters to animals living in zoos and how to best meet their needs. We just have to let them “tell” us!

– Stephanie Allard, Ph.D., is the Director of Animal Welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.

Education: Penguin Center offers Wealth of Learning Opportunities

The Polk Penguin Conservation Center is not only a state-of-the-art facility for penguins – the largest of its kind in the world – but it also contains a wealth of educational information about Antarctic explorers, modern-day researchers, and the incredible, fragile ecosystems at the bottom of the Earth.

During a visit to this incredible facility, visitors first enter the South American Gallery and are “met” by Sir Ernest Shackleton and the crew of his legendary ship, the Endurance. Shackleton led the ill-fated 1914 expedition to complete a transcontinental crossing of Antarctica. The endeavor became a survival story when his ship became trapped, and eventually crushed, by ice in the Weddell Sea. A dock scene tells the incredible survival story of the Endurance crew.

As you descend the entrance ramps and venture further into the penguin center, you “board” Shackleton’s Endurance and cross the Drake Passage to Antarctica. You may be met with a calm sea at day, a starlit night sky or the Drake’s notorious rough seas. Continuing down the ramps, you cross the Antarctic Convergence, which occurs when the moist air above the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans meet the frigid air above the Southern Ocean. The mixing of warm and cold air causes the moisture to condense and create fog. As you make your way below deck, portholes show glimpses of Antarctic wildlife including orcas, krill and leopard seals.

After passing through the acrylic underwater tunnels and the Underwater Gallery, the path brings you to a world of ice. Spotlight on Science showcases the research of world-renowned polar ecologist and penguin expert Dr. Bill Fraser, head of the Polar Oceans Research Group, and the importance of sea ice for the Antarctic ecosystem. Food sources for many species in the Antarctic region require sea ice for survival. Understanding these ecological changes caused by the shifting formation of sea ice can help us protect ecosystems in the future.

Across the cavernous room, Ice Core Investigations allows guests to explore ice cores, an important tool in uncovering the history of the Earth’s climate. Ice cores are drilled and excavated from thousands of years of compressed snow that has turned to ice. The air pockets trapped between layers serve as a record of what gasses filled the atmosphere over time, allowing us to compare different periods of climate history.

Watch for calving glaciers as you climb the stairs to the Antarctic Gallery. A glacier is a very large piece of ice that is pulled across land by gravity like a slow conveyor belt. Reaching the ocean, ice breaks off from the rest of the glacier and falls into the sea during a process known as calving.

Just outside the Drake Passage Gift Shop, Focus on the Field features the Detroit Zoological Society’s own Matthew Porter, a bird department zookeeper who had the rare and extraordinary opportunity to spend the 2015-2016 austral summer doing field work for the Polar Oceans Research Group in Antarctica. Matthew studied adélie penguins, chinstrap penguins, gentoo penguins, brown skuas, south polar skuas and southern giant petrels.

Learning about the Antarctic ecosystem while journeying through Polk Penguin Conservation Center may compel you to want to help in some way. Before exiting the penguin center, visitors have the opportunity to Make a Difference in the Antarctic Gallery. The Make a Difference kiosks guide you in finding ways to help. Whether it is buying your groceries locally, changing your home lighting to energy-efficient light bulbs, or riding your bicycle to work, you can make a difference with every step you take. The machines allow for you to take a picture of yourself, which is then placed onto a digital card that includes your pledge as well as facts about sustainability and the hashtag #MakeADifference. The digital card is emailed to you, with the option of also posting to social media sites to share with your friends and family.

All those who pass through the Polk Penguin Conservation Center have the ability and opportunity to join us in our mission of Celebrating and Saving Wildlife and leave a lasting, positive impact on the Earth.

– Claire Lannoye-Hall is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Veterinary Care: New Penguin Facility is a Veterinarian’s Dream Come True

Anyone who has visited the Detroit Zoo’s Penguinarium probably knows that it is impossible to escape the charm of the penguin. I have been caring for penguins at the Detroit Zoo for more than 20 years, and can attest to this firsthand. I find them to be exceptionally interesting and charismatic animals, and even after all these years, I enjoy every visit to the Penguinarium immensely. More than a few penguins have stolen my heart over the years.

Generally speaking, penguins are strong, feisty birds that rarely develop health problems. In recent years, the penguin flock at the Detroit Zoo has become older, and we have treated penguins for a variety of age-related medical problems. In the course of this work, we realized that there were gaps in the scientific literature concerning penguin health. As a result, we focused our efforts on gaining a better understanding of some of the most important conditions, including cataracts, melanoma and bumblefoot. Our animal health and life sciences departments and the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare all share the same long-term goal of better understanding how we can provide an environment that allows penguins to thrive and maintain the best possible health and welfare.

The new Polk Penguin Conservation Center is a penguin veterinarian’s dream come true. We feel so fortunate to have been able to use our expanded knowledge of penguin health to inform the design of their new home. Every aspect of the habitat is designed to meet their unique needs:

  • The lighting in the new habitat provides a much wider spectrum of wavelengths, with more ultraviolet light and improved nighttime lighting in the red wavelength ranges. The lighting intensity capacity is greatly increased, and can be adjusted to mimic seasonal variation.
  • The flooring has been designed to enhance foot health and prevent development of bumblefoot lesions. In some places, the floor is coated with a resinous material to provide cushioning, and in other areas the flooring has variable rocky textures, mimicking conditions seen in Antarctica.
  • The penguins will have an enormous pool for swimming, and a swim channel that will allow them to circumnavigate the entire habitat. This will result in increased activity levels and opportunities for natural porpoising and diving behaviors and will help them avoid weight gain.
  • The water filtration system is state-of-art, and will include an ozonation capacity and improved water filtration.
  • The air quality will be significantly improved, providing 100% air exchange and improved air filtering.
  • The nesting areas are designed to be easy to clean and allow better chick-rearing success.
  • We will also have more places to temporarily hold animals needing special attention during illness or quarantine, and fold-down stainless steel exam tables for veterinary exams and procedures.

 

 

 

 

Over the years, we have been able to provide treatment and loving care to a number of very special penguin patients and have had a lot of success: We’ve helped chicks who have gotten off to a rough start, restored vision to a number of geriatric penguins with cataracts and significantly reduced the incidence of bumblefoot. Despite these successes, our greatest measure of achievement is in the medical problem that is avoided altogether. We constantly strive to prevent issues from developing, through carefully designed diets, vaccination and parasite prophylaxis, disease surveillance and excellent care. The Polk Penguin Conservation Center is a big stride forward toward this goal, and we thank the community for their support of this exciting project. Thank you for helping us provide the best possible care to our penguin family.

– Dr. Ann Duncan is the Director of Animal Health for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

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.