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Worldwide Researchers Flock to Penguin Meeting


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Just about everybody loves penguins, right? They're funny on land. They're amazing underwater, and they're very photogenic, so they show up in lots of ads and movies. But beyond the screen, prospects for the birds are not entirely good. This week, over 200 researches from around the world met in the U.K. to talk penguins, from the prospects of conservation of species to how penguins are able to stay under water so long, to the properties of penguin poop.

Joining me now to talk about it is Peter Barham. He's a professional teaching fellow in physics at the University of Bristol. He's also the chair of the organizing committee for the Eighth International Penguin Conference, which wrapped up today. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

PETER BARHAM: Good afternoon, I think it must be, Ira.

FLATOW: Thank you. First let me ask you: What's a physicist doing studying penguins?

BARHAM: Oh, physicists, of course, we turn our hands to anything. But I have had, through my wife, an obsession with penguins for quite some time. And a while back, must be - it was about 15, 16 years ago now, I went to the Third International Penguin Conference for fun and discovered that there were things to with tagging and marking and following penguins which a physicist's skills were helpful for, and got involved then, and it's since become a major part of my research career.

FLATOW: Yeah. You know, we see penguins in so many ads on TV and the movies, cute little fellows. We don't think of them as endangered at all, but they are, according to...

BARHAM: They are very much endangered, yes. There are 18 or maybe 19 species of penguin. It depends on how you do the genetics. and of those, all but three are listed on the IUCN red listed as being at least threatened, and three - no, four now are listed as being actually endangered. And of those, I would be surprised if any are still around at the end of this century.

FLATOW: Wow. And where is the endangerment coming from?

BARHAM: It's a mixture of causes. Principally, it is down to the inability of the penguins to find sufficient food in the localities where they're situated. Penguins, because when they're breeding and their raising young, have to go return to the colony where the young are, they can only swim for - depending on the species - one day or maybe three or four days before they have to return with food for the young.

And if there is no easily accessible food within that distance that they can find in the time, then they can't breed. So that's one of the major causes. Those, of course, are caused by the changing locations of fish because of a global change in ocean currents and the rising temperatures in the Antarctic of melting the ice, and also by the fact of where the fish are in large quantities is also where our fishing vessels are. And so there's competition with fisheries.

FLATOW: Wow. Is there some tool that the penguin research community really needs now?

BARHAM: There are lots of tools we need, and we've invested a lot of effort into managing to find great deal of information by remote sensing technologies. We had quite a lot of talks at the conference on using satellite imagery to locate penguin conferences(ph). But we still don't have a good technology for really understanding what they're doing on the longer trips away from the colonies between breeding seasons, when, actually, we know now that how well fed they are at the onset of breeding, then it has a great influence on how they breed. There's no technology which will last that long.

FLATOW: Because of the climate down there is so harsh.

BARHAM: People think of penguins coming from cold places. That's a fallacy. Penguins do breed all over the Southern Hemisphere, anywhere there is cold water. So there are penguins breeding in the Galapagos Islands - not many left, but they're there. And there actually are a few pairs of penguins that breed in the Galapagos Islands just north of the equator. Very few of those, probably three or four pairs in total.

But you'll find penguins breeding with their nest sites in the Atacama Desert in the west coast of Chile and Peru. You'll find penguins in Southern Africa. That's where I work, in around the Cape Town area, where the temperatures can easily reach 30 degrees. So the idea that penguins are limited to Antarctica is not true. And, in fact, the most endangered species are the temperate species, the species that are not in Antarctica.

FLATOW: So what's the course of action? How can - first, I guess you would have to get the public to realize how endangered they are.

BARHAM: That's a really key point: getting people involved and on all sides. And then the sort of measures you have to employ are things like habitat reconstruction, because we have effectively destroyed nearly all the penguin habitats in the temperate regions, because penguins live in sea bird colonies. Sea birds poop, and sea bird poop is guano, which is a fantastic fertilizer, and it's all being taken away. So they haven't got anywhere to nest any longer. So we have to put out artificial nests for them, and determining what the best sort of nest is.

That's one thing we can do. Other things we can do is try to influence fishery policy in those areas where penguins live, to sway the policymakers to ensure that the fishermen are not operating the same areas in direct competition with the penguins. And we know where the penguins - well, we have a good idea where the penguins are foraging, and we actually put tracking devices on them so we know where they are, and we can get some information that way.

FLATOW: Well, there are all kinds of treaties for fishing all kinds of different things in the oceans. There's nothing for penguins yet?

BARHAM: Well, there are no local treaties. These treaties that exist are largely global scale. So whilst there are maximum allowable catches in certain areas, they normally do not give escapement in the local area under penguin colony. So penguin colonies can be on a small island, or it may just be a 40-mile area around that island that's important, whereas the fishing (unintelligible) vast tracts of the oceans.

FLATOW: Right. You said one of the real problems you have is collecting data from these penguins. How could you - what kind of technology could...

BARHAM: Well, technology is fairly getting better. But what we need at the moment - and this came up quite a lot in our discussions - is the things we can't found out about are in detail what the penguins are doing when they are fishing. We can put GPS loggers, the time-depth recorders, so we can see when they're diving, how deep they're diving. But we can't really tell when they're eating and what they're eating.

And then if we do that, typically, those devices will only last with the battery power we have for up to a few weeks. Or you can put them on - they switch on. So we don't know what happens through - most penguin species will spend about three or four months away feeding up between breeding seasons, and that is a crucial part. We don't know where they're doing it. So we can't say to the fishing industries please don't fish there at that time of year, because we don't know where to say.

FLATOW: And you don't have any money to study it, I'll bet?

BARHAM: The sort of money you're talking about for those sorts of things would be quite high, but, you know, a -I mean, a typical tracking device which you'd put on at that stage would be lost because the bird would molt and it would leave the device behind. So it has to be a satellite that dumps the information back to the satellites. Those things work out at around about 3 to $5,000 each. You would need to take maybe several hundred tracts to get any real data. So you're looking at several hundreds of thousands of dollars to get one season's worth of data. Not cheap.

FLATOW: That's not really a lot of money, either, in, you know, when you think - compared to other things.

BARHAM: Well, it's not a lot of money, but it's not the sort of money that gets given out for these sorts of conservation projects. They're not sexy. They don't attract high sums of money from funders, by and large.

FLATOW: Yeah. You need a TV show.

BARHAM: That's a good thought, yes. The TV shows tend to be on the nice, cuddly side of penguins. It doesn't mention, oh by the way, they're on the way down. The other thing you said, by the way, penguins being cute. I can assure you they are not cute. They are vicious things, generally speaking. They hurt. They bite and scratch and everything else. So, yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. Years ago, I had a few Emperor Penguins friendly to me when I was in Antarctica, but...

BARHAM: Yeah, I mean, Emperor Penguins are so unaccustomed to people that they will generally wander up to you and ignore you. But if you were, however, to want to put a tracking device on one, you would need to constrain it. You would need to hold it, and then you'd probably feel how powerful its flippers are. Species I work with, the African Penguin, they have - a best description from a colleague of mine was: They're a pair of razorblades on legs.


FLATOW: Wow. Now I know why you've fallen in love with penguins. It's fascinating. Listen, when I was in Antarctica, I fell in love with them, too, down there. So I wish you good luck. I wish now you get the amount of money you need to do your research. Money's tight. It doesn't seem like a lot of money. Good luck to you.

BARHAM: OK. Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Peter Barham is a professional teaching fellow in physics at the University of Bristol and chair of the organizing committee for the Eighth International Penguin Conference, which took place this week in Bristol, U.K. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.