A Night at the Penguin Rodeo

Scientists research penguin chicks to learn about their colonies

January 29, 2014

Jean Pennycook researches penguins at Cape Royds in Antarctica.

"We call it the penguin rodeo," says Jean Pennycook. It's only a 20-minute helicopter ride away from McMurdo Station, but the place we are flying to, Cape Royds, is also a doorway into two other worlds. The first is the world of penguins. The second is the historic world of the first explorers to Antarctica.

There are eight of us flying above the snow and ice and rocky peaks. The volcano Mt. Erebus looms above us. Our crew consists of the penguin research team, which includes Pennycook, Scott Jennings, and Annie Schmidt. There is Peter West of the National Science Foundation (NSF), teacher and NSF Einstein Fellow Lynn Reed and myself. And there is also helicopter pilot Keith Cox, crew member Taylor Smith, and mechanic Seth McCallister.

When we reach Cape Royds, we all climb out, and head down the rocky hill to where the penguins nest.  As we walk, we all marvel at the beautiful landscape, the ice, the water, and most of all the penguins.

Researchers use a small fence to surround penguin chicks that they want to study.

Researchers use a small fence to surround penguin chicks that they want to study.

Banding Penguins

The purpose of our trip is to band penguin chicks. This means we will put a small metal band with an identifying number on the chick's left wing. We will then weigh the chick and measure the length of its wing. Being able to identify individual chicks will help researchers answer important questions. Why does the size of penguin colonies vary so much? Why would one colony have 4,000 breeding pairs of penguins, when nearby colonies have 36,000 and 130,000 pairs? What are the benefits to the penguins of living in a small or large colony?

We use low movable fences to quietly corral, or surround, a group of penguin chicks. The chicks are about a month old and still stay pretty close to the nests in which they hatched. Pennycook invites everyone to help out, including the helicopter crew, explaining to us how to make sure we don't hurt the penguins. Pennycook loves to share her excitement about all things penguin! We get started around 8:00 pm (remember it's light 24 hours a day here this time of year). For more than three hours we carefully move the corral and gently band, measure, and weigh fuzzy gray penguin chicks.

After we are done banding, Pennycook collects samples of penguin waste she will later analyze. She is looking for the tiny disk-shaped earbones (called otoliths) of the fish the penguins eat. A penguin's diet is a combination of krill, the tiny shrimp-like crustacean that is food for so many other animals in the Antarctic, particularly whales. Sometimes penguins eat mostly fish and sometimes they eat mostly krill. It was a puzzle, says Pennycook. Why would they change their diet? It turns out that penguins eat mostly fish when groups of Minke whales are feeding on krill in the same area.  Those whales don't eat penguins, but penguins still like to give them plenty of room!

It is the last day of Pennycook's field season and so she also lowers the flag that flies above the camp. Pennycook invites classrooms to send her homemade flags that she flies over the camp and then returns to the class. She also posts photos and stories each day during the research season that students can read at the penguin science website.

Jean Pennycook researches penguins at Cape Royds in Antarctica.

These grey penguin chicks are about a month old.

Early Explorers

It was after midnight when we finished banding the chicks. But the evening was beautiful and we weren't ready to go home yet. We all visited the nearby historic hut of the British explorer Ernest Shackleton, who first explored Cape Royds in 1908. The hut has very carefully restored with the help of the Antarctic Heritage Trust. Pennycook has seen the hut many times, but says "it still takes my breath away." In the hut you can see socks hanging out to dry, shoes by the stove, clothes laid out on the bed, and cans of food neatly lined up on pantry shelves.

After we are done, we board the helicopter. But we still aren't quite ready to go home. We have one more stop, at Cape Evans, the home of another historic hut. This hut, built in 1911, was from the expedition of Robert Falcon Scott, the British explorer who made it to the South Pole in January, 1912, just a month after the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reached it first. Scott's hut at Cape Evans was larger than Shackelton's and even had a stable for the Siberian ponies that he brought on the expedition.

We fly from Cape Evans and get back to the helicopter pad at McMurdo at 2 a.m. It is definitely late! But everyone agrees that it has been an extraordinary journey into the world of penguins as well as the heroic age of early Antarctic explorers.

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