Notes from the Field: Peeping Penguins and Spyhopping Whales in Antarctica

Happy New Year from 64°46’27” S, 64°03’15” W!

In Antarctica this time of year, the nights are very short – the sun sets around midnight and rises at 2 a.m., so it never really gets dark. As the days pass, many icebergs drift by and their variation and beauty leave me in awe. From small to huge, they come in any shape you could imagine and they express a variety of whites and blues.

It is snowing a bit less, and the islands are starting to melt down a bit, which exposes the rocky cliffs and reveal a variety of different lifeforms. Antarctic hair grass is one of only two species of flowering plant found in Antarctica, and mosses and lichens paint the rocks on the islands in greens, yellows, oranges and more. Lichens are organisms made up of a symbiotic (or mutually beneficial) relationship of a fungus paired with algae and/or cyanobacteria.

This nice break in the weather allowed us to make our way further south to conduct a survey of gentoo penguins. This species of penguin is the third largest in the world and there are currently around 300,000 breeding pairs worldwide. Where we are right now is on the southern extent of their range. It’s exciting to see this particular species in the wild, as gentoos are one of the four species of penguins at the Detroit Zoo. And while I’ve been in Antarctica, 20 additional gentoo penguins arrived at the Zoo as we prepare for the opening of the Polk Penguin Conservation Center in April.

Our team split up into groups and together we achieved a full survey of gentoo nests on the island. Most of the birds are incubating two eggs each in nests formed out of rocks. The sun peeked out of the clouds and lit up the sky as we marched from colony to colony.

We also had some excitement as we were counting Adelie penguin colonies when we heard some faint peeping noises. The next generation of these amazing black and white birds had just started to hatch. A couple of lucky parents had very young chicks so small the gray downy bird could fit on your hand. We could see that many more birds were about to hatch as well – multiple eggs had externally pipped, which means that the chick has cracked or put a hole through the eggshell. Very soon the colonies will become incredibly noisy and messy! In the coming weeks, we will see the parent’s inexhaustible efforts as they travel back and forth from the ocean to the nest to feed and raise their young.

As is the case with many bird species, the chicks of Antarctica have to grow extremely quickly. Because the summer season (providing warmth and abundant food) is short, the young birds must grow quickly and prepare for migration or become ready to brave the harsh winter.

Brown skuas are also starting to hatch and soon the giant petrels will as well. We have been doing a lot of monitoring of the giant petrels and have identified almost all of the breeding pairs in our study area that have eggs. The giant petrels take turns incubating, with one bird at the nest, while the other bird goes foraging. Once we get the first parent’s band number, we wait about a week to let the birds switch roles. Then we can get the other parent’s band number while it is incubating the egg. All of these hatching chicks should keep us very busy in the upcoming weeks.

Throughout our travels, we have been keeping our eyes open and are listening for blow spouts as humpback whales are usually in the area this time of year. Over the past weeks, we have had a few sightings of minke whales and we had a pod of orcas come by right in front of Palmer Station. The orcas were popping their heads up out of the water looking for seals on the ice floes. This behavior is known as “spyhopping”. It was incredible watching these iconic, powerful animals work the inlet by station.


Thanks for reading; 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.

Notes from the Field: ‘Iced in’ at the Palmer Station in Antarctica

With the right wind, the harbor can go from totally clear to completely packed with large pieces of ice and glacier chunks within just a few hours, icing us in at the Palmer Station. When this occurs, we have to wait for the winds to change before we can work to clear the ice out. Being stuck at Palmer for a couple days was no problem though; it gave us time to catch up on data and paperwork and we were able to hike to a cove to do some fieldwork with southern giant petrels.

Land travel requires a lot of gear and also snowshoes, which we outfitted ourselves with before walking out into the “backyard” of the Palmer Station. We hiked up to the top of the glacier, where the views were absolutely breathtaking.

We walked around an inlet and back down the glacier over to a couple spits of land where southern giant petrels, Antarctic terns, and kelp gulls can be found. Giant petrels can have a wingspan of almost 7 feet and their eye colors vary from light to very dark, with every individual having its own unique color pattern. Many of these majestic and often very gentle birds have been banded throughout the years, and we were able to retrieve identification numbers from several of them, which will aid in the study of these birds. We were also able to outfit one of the birds with a transmitter to collect data on where the bird is travelling.

Finally, the winds shifted direction and we were able to travel by boat to continue our island fieldwork. We spent a lot of time catching up on censuses of Adelie penguin colonies – much to our excitement, many were full of parents incubating eggs! One humorous mainstay is the elephant seals that hang out around the station. Most mornings when exiting the building, there are multiple elephant seals present, which I’m told isn’t so common from year to year. We have to watch where we walk and keep our distance, giving the proper respect and privacy to all the local wildlife. In Antarctica, there are treaties and conservation acts to follow with regard to viewing wildlife, which is a good reminder of how we should treat all wildlife and wild places, no matter where we are in the world.

Thanks for reading; 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.

Animal Welfare: Penguin Research Continues as Opening of New Facility Nears

Our ongoing research project on penguin welfare continues as we get closer to the opening of the Polk Penguin Conservation Center, and we are learning a lot! For the past nine months, we have been keeping track of what the penguins are doing in the Penguinarium; where they spend their time, and with whom they are spending time. In addition, the data loggers that some of the birds have worn to track their swimming behavior have really highlighted how different each individual penguin is when it comes to spending time in the water. Some like to get their swimming done early in the morning, and some like to dip in and out throughout the day. Studying the welfare of animals is focused on each individual animal, and this is a perfect example of why this is important. By understanding how individuals differ, we can best meet the needs of each one.

We began this project to understand how the new Polk Penguin Conservation Center, opening in Spring 2016, would impact the penguins living at the Detroit Zoo. This not only helps us to ensure that the penguins here are thriving, but also to gain information that can be shared with others to benefit penguins living in other zoos and aquariums. An important part of the research is collecting what is referred to as baseline data, which is then used to compare with data collected in the new habitat so changes in the penguins’ behavior or activity patterns can be identified and so we can understand how they are experiencing the new habitat.

Some of the techniques we are using here may also help penguins in the wild. Field researchers can’t always study animals as closely as we can, so we may be able to provide valuable information to them, such as how we are using data loggers. We are also working on measuring hormones in penguin feathers that can provide more evidence on how penguins respond to changes in their environment. This is useful for penguins both in captive settings and in the wild.

We will continue to provide updates on this project, so be sure to check back to see our progress!

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

Notes from the Field: Antarctica Fieldwork Begins

The first day in the field was an absolute dream come true for me. After an early breakfast and an intense look at the weather, we collected our gear and got dressed for a day of fieldwork. We dressed in layers to protect ourselves from the harsh environment and the potentially soaking boat ride. During my time in Antarctica, we will travel by boat to many islands to study different colonies of birds. The weather can change in a heartbeat, with strong winds bringing rough seas and treacherous ice drifts, so we need to be prepared.

We headed out to a nearby island, which has multiple colonies of Adelie penguins. We tied up the boat and proceeded to count birds and collect data. I was speechless staring at a colony of these penguins and the pure beauty of nature – some birds were working on building nests out of rocks and others already had eggs – Adelie penguins generally lay a clutch of two. It is fascinating watching the birds work on their nests and interact within the colony.

Another bird of note in this region is the brown skua, a good-sized bird that will nest up on rocky ledges around the penguin colony. They often lurk on the edges of the colony waiting for an opportunity to steal eggs. Their strategy works well and they certainly get their fair share of Adelie eggs.

Near another Adelie colony, we spotted a southern elephant seal nursing her pup. There are many southern elephant seals in the area – the females weigh close to a ton while full grown males may weigh as much as 4 or 5 tons! Antarctica is a magical place that surrounds you with beautiful, pristine nature.

Throughout the week we have visited multiple islands surveying the birds and taking data. The conditions have been good with temperatures around freezing, with snow and rain mixed in. Thankfully the high winds tend to hold off until the evening, allowing us to get our work done. While I’m known at the Detroit Zoo for wearing shorts year-round, here I am wearing pants. What can I say – it’s Antarctica!

Thanks for reading; 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.

Notes from the Field: The Journey to Antarctica

Seven weeks ago, I was asked by the Detroit Zoological Society to travel to Antarctica for part of the “austral summer”, which is the time period from November through March in the southern hemisphere, for a rare and extraordinary opportunity to assist a field team with penguin research. Before leaving, I had to pass rigorous medical testing, losing a couple of wisdom teeth along the way. Over the next few weeks, I acquired gear and packed everything I would have for the next three months into two 50-pound bags.

With bags in hand, I headed to Detroit Metropolitan Airport to begin the long, 7,500-mile journey. I traveled from Detroit to Dallas to Santiago, Chile and finally landed in Punta Arenas, Chile, some 25 hours later. Punta Arenas is a very windy but beautiful city with the Andes in the background and the Straights of Magellan winding along the coast.

The following day, I moved onto the Laurence M. Gould, a 230-foot Antarctic research and supply boat, which will be my home for the next week. We then set sail for the U.S. Palmer station. I woke up the next morning with the boat slowly rolling, as we traveled south down the east coast of South America in the Atlantic Ocean. We have been greeted with numerous Magellanic penguin sightings.

Throughout the day, we continued south towards the infamous Drake Passage. We will enter the Drake with our fingers crossed, as it is known to have some of the roughest waters in the world. Once we arrive at the Palmer Station, I will join the “Seabird” team, which is a division of the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) studies in the Antarctic Peninsula. Here I will assist with the annual austral summer research for projects headed by the world-renowned polar ecologist and penguin expert Dr. Bill Fraser and his wife, Donna Patterson-Fraser. Bill and Donna are incredible, experienced scientists who have spent years studying Antarctic birds, climate change and how they relate.

Our typical day will start by getting up early and watching the weather. As long as conditions look promising, we will get in a zodiac and drive to one of the many smaller islands located around the Palmer Station, where we will study the birds. Most of our study subjects will be gentoo, chinstrap and Adelie penguins as well as southern giant petrels. Throughout the summer, we will examine diet, population numbers, breeding and more.

Back on the boat, there has been a lot of wildlife around us. Dolphins swim through the ocean while birds cruise around us. Cape petrels, southern fulmars, black-browed albatrosses, and many more have gracefully glided alongside the boat. We are just passing the tip of South America, headed for the Drake Passage. Wish us luck and calm seas! The next time I report back, we should be on land at the Palmer Station.

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

Animal Welfare: Penguin Project

Stephanie Allard, Ph.D., is the Director of Animal Welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society.

The Detroit Zoological Society is home to the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare. Among the goals of the center is to conduct research that can help us to better understand and improve the welfare of animals living in zoos. One of the ways in which we do this is by studying how the animals at the Zoo are interacting with each other and with their environment.

This type of research is really important when we are designing new habitats for the animals. The Zoo is currently constructing a new state-of-the-art Polk Penguin Conservation Center (PPCC) that will house four species of penguins: king, macaroni, rockhopper and gentoo. The PPCC is designed to allow for a wide variety of species-appropriate behaviors and for the penguins to have greater choice and control in their environment.

The new habitat provides us with a greatopportunity to compare the behavior and well-being of the same group of penguins in two very different living spaces: their current home in the Penguinarium and their future home in the PPCC. This project is off to a great start! We collected behavioral data on a subset of penguins to test out our methodology and are now observing 27 of the penguins – something we will keep doing for a year after they move to the PPCC.

Technology is playing a part in this, as we are using data loggers, small trackers that some of the penguins will wear like a flipper bracelet that will tell us how much time they are spending in the water and at what depth.  This will be especially important in their new habitat, as that pool will be four times the depth of their current one.

If you see one of our data collectors in the Penguinarium during your next visit to the Zoo, ask them about this cool project!

– Dr. Stephanie Allard