The art of tracking penguins

To: Birding Aus <>
Subject: The art of tracking penguins
From: knightl <>
Date: Thu, 20 May 2004 18:47:09 +1000

ID bands may harm penguins
Research tool impedes birds' activities.
19 May 2004

Researchers who study penguins could be unwittingly harming them by attaching permanent identification bands to their flippers. The metal bands, fitted to thousands of penguins each year, seem to adversely affect their swimming and fishing.

Many bird species are monitored using metal bands around their legs. Researchers use information on individuals to deduce the birds' breeding and migration patterns. But penguins' legs are the wrong shape for bands, so the devices have to be attached to their flippers instead.

This is a significant hindrance to the birds, say Michel Gauthier-Clerc of the Station Biologique de la Tour du Valat in Arles, France, and his colleagues. They suspect that aluminium or stainless-steel bands may hinder the penguins as they glide through the water.

Gauthier-Clerc's team compared 50 banded and 50 non-banded king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) from a colony that breeds on Possession Island in the Indian Ocean during the Southern Hemisphere's summer. All were implanted with tiny electronic tags under their skin so that even unbanded birds could be recognized.

Contra band

Over the course of four breeding seasons, banded penguins generally arrived at the breeding grounds later than unbanded birds, the researchers report in Biology Letters1. Over the course of the study, the banded birds produced a total of just 28 chicks, compared with 54 for unbanded penguins.

If bands do indeed hinder penguins, they could also skew researchers' data. Besides being used to track penguin movements, the information has been used as an indicator of the climate effects that drive these migrations.

Despite their widespread use, it is not surprising that the bands seem to impede penguins, says Keith Reid, a penguin biologist with the Cambridge-based British Antarctic Survey. The survey's researchers stopped using bands during the mid-1990s.

Gauthier-Clerc and his colleagues argue that electronic tags should be used in place of bands. The devices weigh just 0.8 g and emit a signal that is picked up by receivers along the penguins' migration route.

Others argue that bands made out of alternative materials are the way forward. Metal bands tend to rub feathers away, creating a small bald patch that leaks body heat, says Duncan Bolton, a penguin expert at Bristol Zoo Gardens, UK. Whether or not they have difficulty swimming, penguins losing energy in this way would take longer to make an Antarctic migration because they would need to collect more food.

Bolton and his colleagues are testing a synthetic rubber band that he hopes will replace metal ones. Bands are desirable because they allow researchers thousands of kilometres apart to observe the same birds without expensive electrical equipment, he says.

The next step is to ensure that the rubber bands are as hardy as their metal counterparts, says Bolton. "Once we've shown that they're durable over two or three years, I would push for them to be used more widely," he says.

Gauthier-Clerc, M. et al. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B (suppl.), published online, doi:10.1098/rsbl.2004.0201, (2004).

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