For the first time, researchers have used time-lapse cameras to study Gentoo Penguins during the cold, dark months of the Antarctic winter, according to a new study published in The Auk today (19 April 2017).
Gentoo Penguins are of particular interest to scientists because their numbers are increasing at the southern end of their range in the Western Antarctic Peninsula, a region where other penguin species are declining. Little is known about the Gentoos’ behaviour during the non-breeding season, so a team of researchers used time-lapse cameras to examine patterns in the penguins’ presence at breeding sites across their range during the winter season.
Gentoo Penguin, Falkland Islands (Photo: John Fielding)
Cameras were deployed at seven sites including Argentina, Antarctica and several islands. Each camera took eight to 14 photos per day, and volunteer citizen scientists were recruited to count the penguins in each image via Penguin Watch.
The seven sites fell into three distinct groups in terms of winter attendance, each with its own patterns of occupation. Researchers found both temporal and spatial factors driving winter attendance. For example, more Gentoo Penguins were present at breeding sites when there was open water or free-floating pack ice than when the shoreline was iced in, and more penguins were at breeding sites earlier in non-breeding season than later. These findings could have important implications for understanding how localised disturbances due to climate change and fisheries activity affect penguin populations during the non-breeding season.
Lead researcher Caitlin Black of the University of Oxford commented: “Working with cameras allows us to understand half of this species’ life without having to spend the harsh winter in Antarctica. It has been exciting to discover more about why Gentoos are present year-round at breeding sites without having to handle a single bird. I believe the applications for this technology are far-reaching for colonial seabirds and mammals, and we are only just beginning to discover the uses of time-lapse cameras as deployed virtual ecologists in field studies.”
“What most seabirds do away from their nest is often anybody’s guess. For Antarctic birds, this is compounded by the long periods of darkness that penguins and others must face in the winter,” added Mark Hauber, Editor-in-Chief of The Auk: Ornithological Advances and Professor of Animal Behaviour at Hunter College and the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York. “This new research in The Auk: Ornithological Advances on Gentoo Penguins colonies reveals critical year-to-year differences in where the birds are when they are not nesting: In some years, only the most temperate sites are visited, and in other years both southerly and northerly locations are busy with penguins.”