April 7 – So Cool!

Today’s factismal: PenguinWatch is the world’s most popular penguin-related citizen science project.

It may be late Spring up here in the Northern Hemisphere, but way down in the Southern Hemisphere, it is late Fall. That means that farmers are reaping their crops in Argentina, shepherds are shearing their sheep in Australia, and penguins are stuffing their faces in Antarctica.

Pebble stealing is a common activity (My camera)

Pebble stealing is a common activity
(My camera)

Antarctic penguins don’t have the easiest of lives. They spend more than half the year in a world of frozen snow with nothing to do or eat and then they spend the rest of the year frantically trying to hatch eggs, raise chicks, and get fat enough to survive the next winter. They have a full schedule which is made even fuller by the fact that they don’t have any trees to build nests with. Instead, their nests are built out of pebbles. Though cold and pointy, pebbles offer one indisputable advantage to nests built out of clay (like those of the ovenbird) or spittle (like those of the swift) or dug into the sand (like those of the kingfisher) – pebbles drain. And when you live in a climate as wet as the coast of Antarctica, you need a nest that will drain. Because there aren’t enough really good pebbles lying around, penguins will steal them from other penguins’ nests!

A proud Chinstrap father huddles over his chicks (my camera)

A proud Chinstrap father huddles over his chicks (my camera)

As is common in warmer climes, the nests typically hold more than one egg. What is unusual is that not all nests get eggs at the same time; instead, the eggs are staggered out over a period of weeks. Why would penguins do this? If all of the penguin eggs were laid at the same time and hatched together, then the whole colony would be vulnerable to an unseasonable cold snap or strong storm. By staggering the clutches of eggs, the colony ensures that there will always be another generation. As a result, it is very common to see eggs, hatchlings, and young adults in the same colony.

Chinstrap penguins porpoising through the water (My camera)

Chinstrap penguins porpoising through the water (My camera)

And when a penguin isn’t on the nest, odds are it is out hunting for food. Penguins spend about three-quarters of their lives in the water, searching for food. It takes a lot of energy to be a bird, and it takes even more to be a bird that lives in a cold region. As a result, penguins must eat almost constantly in order to build up enough fat to survive the winter. Since their food lives in the water, that means that penguins must spend a lot of time in the water, hunting for food.

A Gentoo Penguin father feeding his baby.

A Gentoo Penguin father feeding his baby.

Now because penguins spend so much time in the cold, it is hard for scientists to keep tabs on them. After all, thermal underwear just does so much. And that brings us to PenguinWatch. This citizen science project is run by Oxford University and counts the number of penguins seen on cameras that are scattered around Antarctica. By keeping tabs on the penguin population, they hope to understand how other populations, such as krill (which penguins eat) and leopard seals (which eat penguins), are adapting to the changing conditions in Antarctica. To help them count penguins – and see some cute penguin pictures – just toboggan over to:

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