The Place Penguins Stay On Patagonia’s Edge

The Place Penguins Stay On Patagonia’s Edge

Updated on July 30, 2022 14:29 PM by Anna P

Patagonia’s Flightless Marine Birds

There's just something about penguins, and for the scientists and conservationists who work with Patagonia's flightless marine birds, it's usually love at first sight.

Marine biologist Andrea Raya Rey decided on her career at age 10. As an animal lover who wanted to study the unique behaviors of creatures, she would find herself staring out at sea for hours on end, watching dolphins frolic in the waves through her binoculars.

As an undergraduate student, she began studying dolphins in the wild, and in the far south region of Argentina, she also found seabirds.

The National Scientific And Technical Research Council

When I met the penguins in person, I loved them, said Rey, a researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council in Tierra del Fuego. And I can't stop loving them.

Like dolphins, penguins are excellent divers and speedy swimmers. By studying the marine birds, Rey realized she could better understand the ocean.

Along Patagonia's edge at the southern tip of South America, different populations of penguins act as beacons for how ecosystems respond to the climate crisis.

Penguins come on land to breed and nest, but they also spend a lot of time in the ocean, foraging for food.

Rey has studied their swimming behaviors, like where penguins go to forage and what they feed on, as well as the demographics of penguin populations.

Together, this data creates parameters to help biologists understand how penguins react to the changing environment around them.

Rey said it is the perfect animal to get to know the ocean better. It is like an early alert for how the sea is suffering. All the marine environment threats are threats for penguins, too, like climate change, pollution, shipping, oil exploration, and exploitation.

Related: For the first time, same-sex penguins in a US zoo become foster parents

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Patagonia The Penguins Home

Patagonia is home to multiple types of penguins that live across the region's diverse environments, including gentoo penguins, Magellanic penguins, and king penguins.

Rey studies the 50 pairs of gentoo penguins that live on south Argentina's Hammer Island, a harsh and remote place where the only residents are marine birds.

She checks on the health of the birds and collects blood samples to make sure the population considered stable for the time being remains healthy.

Attaching a small camera to the back of each adult penguin allows Rey to learn more about how they feed when they depart on hours-long foraging trips. The penguins swim for miles and can dive down 200 feet (61 meters) or more during a single food-finding expedition.

Magellanic penguins populate Hammer Island and the beaches along Patagonia's desert coast at El Pedal.

The King Penguin Comeback

Pollution has threatened Magellanic penguins on the desert coast, but conservationists have worked hard to clean up the trash and create a protected area. These efforts allowed the colony to grow from six penguins to more than 3,000 pairs.

The king penguin is also making an unexpected comeback in Patagonia. Hundreds of thousands of king penguins had once lived in Tierra del Fuego, but European settlers hunted them, wiping out the colony.

The colony grows and prospers under the watchful eye of local conservationists like Cecilia Duran, founder of the King Penguin Nature Reserve. She has built an enclosure around their breeding grounds and keeps visitors at a safe distance from the penguins.

While some penguin colonies are growing, the largest ones are decreasing in Patagonia, Rey said. Closely monitoring different penguin groups can reveal if certain types of populations interfere with other penguins that are pushed out of their typical environment, like the vulnerable southern rockhopper penguin.

Nest cameras allow researchers to track stressors for penguin colonies, like microplastic pollution or heat waves capable of killing penguin chicks.

Rey said that if penguins disappear from Patagonia, it could cause a massive environmental shift because penguins are top predators in marine food webs and ecosystems. Penguins help regulate these food webs on land and in the ocean, and another animal can't fulfill their crucial role.

The Remote Environments

Raya studies the colonies by going to the remote environments where the penguins live in the far south. She hopes that humans can live in harmony with animals rather than causing stressors that can decrease their populations. She wants the wild parts of Earth to remain wild.

And there's a kind of peace that comes from studying the penguins who live in isolated places that cars, smartphones, and computers can't reach.

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