Te Papa’s curator of terrestrial vertebrates Dr Colin Miskelly tells the third part of the unfolding story of the emperor penguin that went where none had gone before (at least in the age of digital media). Colin accompanied Department of Conservation staff to Peka Peka Beach on the morning of 21 June, and identified the bird just before the first journalists and media photographers arrived. He is also a member of the committee advising on the care and rehabilitation of the bird, and told the first two parts of its story in Te Papa blogs posted on 23 June and 29 June.
Some momentous news – it’s a boy! DNA tests of feathers collected from the Peka Peka emperor penguin have revealed that it is a male. Apart from the obvious (“No wonder he got lost – he wouldn’t stop to ask directions” quip), what does this tell us about why he wandered so far north?
In most seabirds, it is the females that are more adventurous, at least in terms of where they settle to breed compared to where they were raised – males are the stay-at-home sex. But that is in relation only to breeding sites. Many seabird species are highly migratory, in some cases travelling tens of thousands of kilometres between breeding seasons; and there is no consistent pattern for one sex to travel further than the other during these migrations.
Penguins are seabirds in the strictest sense. Many species come ashore only to breed (they haven’t yet figured out how to incubate a floating egg!) and then shortly afterwards return ashore for their annual moult, during which they lose their water-proofing for 2-3 weeks. Were it not for these earthly constraints, most penguins would spend their lives all at sea. And, with a few exceptions (and their annual moult), that is what juvenile penguins do.
Studying the at-sea distribution of young penguins presents many technical challenges. Australian and US-based researchers have attempted to study dispersal of emperor penguin chicks on their maiden journeys from their colonies, by glueing satellite transmitters to their lower backs. These transmitters emit signals, and if the bird happens to be on the sea surface or on an ice-floe when a satellite passes over, the location of the bird is ‘fixed’, and sent to the researcher via a webpage or an email.
These studies revealed that the young penguins leave the colonies in late December, and head north, beyond the pack-ice, into open ocean. By February-March they had reached up to 54° south (based on a combined sample of 33 birds), up to 1200 km north of the pack-ice. Then they turned south, and were back among the pack when their transmitter batteries failed 5-6 months after fledging.
We do not know in any detail where emperor penguins spend the next 4.5 years of their lives. The transmitters drop off when the birds moult about a year after they first go to sea. It is has long been assumed that emperor penguins stay in ice-congested waters during adolescence, where individuals are often seen. But penguins standing on ice-floes are a lot easier to see than penguins swimming in stormy Southern Ocean seas. Studying emperor penguins of this age group in any detail is almost impossible, because they don’t come ashore or onto fast-ice, so they cannot be readily caught to have satellite tags attached.
Occasional emperor penguins turn up further north, even as far as 41° south (i.e. Peka Peka Beach – the northernmost record known). As this was considered a natural event, the northern edge of emperor penguin distribution lies somewhere between 41° and 54° south – a trifling distance of 1500 kilometres!
So where should the Peka Peka penguin be released?
As just mentioned, the penguin’s arrival at Peka Peka is considered a natural event. If we were to adopt a minimal intervention approach, we would return the bird to the point where he arrived in good health 2 weeks ago. But Peka Peka is a dangerous place – there is sand everywhere, and we now know that emperor penguins and sand are not a good combination.
If we were to bow completely to Happy Feet sentimentality, the bird would be whisked south into the midst of the pack-ice, regardless of cost, logistic difficulties in the middle of the Antarctic winter, disease risks to other emperor penguins, discomfort to the bird, and whether or not he wanted to go south.
This bird swam north of its own volition. Do we have the right to tell it that it was wrong to do so? To follow this argument further, should we start returning all vagrant birds to their country of origin?
But then we mustn’t forget that penguins are almost human. Apart, that is, from feathers, and a propensity for eating sand. We shouldn’t fall into the trap of judging ordinary birds by the standards applied to penguins.
The Penguin Advisory Committee was unanimous in agreeing that the penguin be released into waters south of New Zealand. But that could be anywhere between 47° and 54° south – allowing 780 km of robust discussion!
Apart from the ethical question of whether we have the right to force our will over that of a voiceless penguin, other complications arise the further south we look. Firstly, a suitable boat needs to be found, preferably one that can take a large media contingent (at no cost to them). Large boats are very expensive, but are still uncomfortable in rough seas. Smaller boats may be more affordable, but there is less room for media, and they are no fun at all in rough seas – for people or penguins. We don’t know how susceptible emperor penguins are to motion sickness, and the eventual release site may yet be dictated by the bird’s immediate welfare rather than our wish to take it ever south in stormy subantarctic seas.
But when he takes that eventful plunge off the heaving deck into the welcoming sea, the world will be watching. Not only will at least one film crew have braved the ride, but the penguin will be carrying a satellite transmitter that will let you plot its daily progress from the comfort of your smart phone.
I had said that I would give you details of how to do so here, but have run out of words. Next blog, I promise.
Previous blogs on this topic:
For later blogs on this bird: