25 Jun 2020

Voices from Antarctica 5: Waiting for Emperors

From Our Changing World, 8:16 pm on 25 June 2020

A team of NIWA researchers spent a month with a couple of thousand Emperor penguins at Cape Crozier on Ross Island, in Antarctica, during November 2019.

They were hoping that high-tech data loggers glued to the birds’ backs would shed some insights into their journeys and feeding habits out at sea amongst the pack ice.

Young Emperor penguins that haven't begun breeding are curious wanderers, interested in checking out their environment.

Young Emperor penguins that haven't begun breeding are curious wanderers, interested in checking out their environment. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

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The Cape Crozier emperor penguin colony is being studied by a NIWA team as part of the Ross Sea research and monitoring programme, known as Ross RAMP. The programme is monitoring the effectiveness of the very large Ross Sea marine protected area.

Researchers working on a NIWA project studying Emperor penguins at Cape Crozier. From left, Markus Horning, Gitte McDonald, field trainer Scott Barry, Parker Forman and David Thompson.

Researchers working on a NIWA project studying Emperor penguins at Cape Crozier. Fromleft, Markus Horning, Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

The team, led by Gitte McDonald from the Moss Landing Marine Laboratory, attached video cameras and biologging data tags to 19 breeding birds to study their foraging at sea: where they were going, how often they dived and what they were eating.

Unfortunately, five of the tagged birds didn’t come back before the researchers had to leave; these birds included four of the five birds carrying video cameras.

The tags that were retrieved revealed that individual birds travelled to quite different locations – four went east from the colony, but some went west around the northern tip of Ross Island.

The longest foraging trip was 18 days, and in that time the bird travelled at least 250 kilometres in each direction, although its overall journey would have been much further than that.

It was also diving frequently in search of food – as well as many shallow feeding dives it made regular dives to more than 250 metres, when it was probably feeding on the sea floor.

Researcher Parker Forman scans for tagged Emperor penguins returning from the sea to the colony at Cape Crozier, in Antarctica.

Researcher Parker Forman scans for tagged Emperor penguins returning from the sea to the colony at Cape Crozier, in Antarctica. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

Gitte says this is the first time that Emperor penguins from Cape Crozier have been studied in detail and they are making some of the longest feeding trips and deepest dives recorded for the species.

The adult bird can put on two kilograms in weight during a trip, and feeds most of that to its rapidly growing chick which needs to be fully feathered and independent by the time the sea ice where the colony is situated breaks up.

Producer Alison Ballance with the Emperor penguin colony at Cape Crozier, which was the subject of the book 'The worst journey in the world.'

Producer Alison Ballance with the Emperor penguin colony at Cape Crozier, which was the subject of the book 'The worst journey in the world.' Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

Long-term monitoring of the atmosphere

Adrian McDonald and colleagues from the University of Canterbury maintain an MF radar at Arrival Heights, near Scott Base, that allows them to gain insights into one of the windiest parts of the atmosphere.

The elderly radar has been in service for nearly 40 years and provides a valuable continuous record. It provides insights into winds and giant atmospheric waves in the Mesosphere-Lower Thermosphere part of the atmosphere, which is important in relation to the ozone hole and climate warming.

Voices from Antarctica – listen to the full series

Voices from Antarctica 1: Ice Flight

Voices from Antarctica 2: Scott Base

Voices from Antarctica 3: Flags to physics

Voices from Antarctica 4: Best journey in the world

Voices from Antarctica 5: Waiting for Emperors

Our Changing World’s Antarctic collection

Listen to a wide range of stories recorded in and about Antarctica from our archives.