Laurie Macha goes through a lot for penguins.
Sure, it’s her job as supervisor of pinnipeds and penguins at the Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration (MAIFE) in Connecticut.
But she’s also leading a nationwide effort to help researchers in South Africa better understand the rapid decline in the African penguin population, which once numbered nearly two million breeding pairs around 1900. As of the end of 2008, only an estimated 26,000 pairs remained.
African penguins have been through a lot, too.
Last September, Laurie and her research team traveled to Robben Island in Cape Town, South Africa, and battled stormy weather to take African penguin population counts, weigh and measure birds and monitor their use of artificial nests, as part of their research into why we’re losing African penguins.
Here’s our interview with Laurie, a page from her diary, and some things anyone can do to help save African penguins from becoming extinct:
O4E: What was the weather like while you were in Africa, and did it make your job a lot harder? How?
Laurie Macha: In Cape Town, South Africa in September, it is the end of winter and beginning of spring. There were a lot of storms with high winds up to 65 mph. With the winds, the rain was driven horizontally, and made the days very cold, wet and damp.
The ferries to Robben Island were not running for almost the entire time we were on the island. We had a list of research project items that needed to be done over the 2 weeks and chose the projects according to what activity would adversely affect the collection of data or handling of birds.
So, we did continue to work but would wait for a break in the weather to head out into the field. All in all, we got got very wet and cold!
O4E: What was the penguin behavior like?
LM: The juveniles (yearlings) were the individuals that were rambunctious. During one of the evening observations looking for tagged birds on the highway, several of the birds would gather in a group to cross in larger groups.
As the birds were waiting for more to arrive, the juveniles would stomp around in the puddles, chase the splashes they made, poke the adults and run, or tug on tree branches.
Of course all of this activity seemed to aggregate the waiting adults and they would respond by giving the juvenile a “honk” and a poke with their beak.
O4E: What are artificial nests made out of, and how do the Penguins use them?
LM:There are two different types of artificial nests that I observed during my visit.
One was a tent like structure made of plywood and the other was dome like (like an igloo) and made of fiberglass. The wooden artificial nests sat on top of the ground while the fiberglass nests were dug into the ground and covered by dirt and rocks.
The penguins nested in them just as they would if it was a natural burrow!
O4E: Do you know yet why they are dying?
LM: There are a lot of theories some being competition for food fish with commercial fisheries and other aquatic animals, and lack of food availability due to a shift in the migration of bait fish, oil spills and competition for nest areas with human populations.
We don’t have confirmed results of why the penguins are dying.
O4E: What are you and your team doing to help them?
MAIFE has a penguin task force dedicated to understanding the factors surrounding their decline through assistance with research, education and conservation.
Several research projects have been started at MAIFE to aid field researchers in South Africa with their efforts to understand these factors and fund-raising events to help support South African penguin organizations.
A Day in the Life of an African Penguin Researcher
We asked Laurie what a typical day is like for her on the job, if there is such a thing. Find out for yourself by reading this page from her diary:
We woke up this morning and the wind has stopped blowing and there is no rain in the forecast.
The ferries are running today and Mario was able to join us from the mainland.
Today we set out to catch 30 chicks at least of P3 and greater (which means more than ½ the adult size to nearly fledgling).
We started walking about in the area of N2 and N1. The measurements we were looking for were length of wing (armpit to tip), length of head (back of head to beaktip) and weight.
In order to get the chicks from the nest one person had to grab the attending adult (if there was one), another person had to grab the chick(s), one person did the measurements and another recorded the data.
We watched Peter grab the first adult off of the nest and Barbara and Mario grabbed the 1st two chicks. We used a millimeter stick to measure the wing, calipers to measure the head and a hanging scale to get the weight.
In order to get the weight, we stuck the chick into a cloth bag and hung it on the scale. The whole time the data was being collected the adult had to be restrained and kept away from the research team.
Once everything was done the chicks were returned to their nest followed by the adult.
Well, it was my turn to give a try at grabbing two unattended chicks from an artificial nest. I lied down on the ground and stuck my arm into the nest up to my armpit and could barely get my fingertips on the chicks.
I stretched and pushed my arm and after a few minutes pulled my first chick out, passed it off and grabbed the second.
By the time I got up with the second chick I was covered from head to toe with guano and mud. It was amazing!
Peter had quite a laugh at the site of me with all of the guano, but, the chick I was holding conveniently aimed his rump toward Peter and covered him pretty well. We all laughed together and the team took the measurements and returned the chicks to the nest.
We continued walking and spotting chicks repeating the process over and over until we reached our goal of 30 chicks.
Some of the nests where chicks were hiding required us to crawl on our bellies into brush and thorn bushes to get access.
Everything went well and it was a great team effort. We also were able to identify several more tagged birds that we will add to the data base in the evening.
Peter also found a tagged bird that was poorly banded, so, he pulled the bird from the brush and Mario and Barbara fixed the tag.
We had finished all of our work by 12:00 pm, just in time to head back to the house for lunch. Hopefully tonight we will be able to shower? So far, we’ve only had limited cold running water.
We had a great lunch at the house with Mario followed by a trip back out to N1 and N2 to look for more recaptures.
Kevin, Michelle and I were dropped off at 2:30 and we were to be picked up at 4:30. We found about 5-6 more tagged birds which we jotted down into our notebooks.
One penguin was in a gun turret and wedged into a small crevasse. He kept his band to the wall and we were unable to read it. Hopefully we’ll have a chance to check on him tomorrow.
After our pickup from the retraps we headed out to conduct a game count. To do this we all packed into the “backie” and drove around the island.
We counted almost 300 Fallow deer (a European introduced species), 1 Steenbok, 2 dozen Springbok and 2 male ostriches (the only 2 on the island!).
There is also one remaining Eland which we didn’t see. The game count took us about 2 hours. We also just found out that we will be able to go down to the guest house and be able to take a hot shower!
Our day will end with hot showers, warm dinner and a lot of data entry from today’s adventures.
4 Simple Ways to Help the African Penguin
Over the last five years, the African penguin population has decreased by 42 percent. As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services proposed listing the African penguin as endangered in December 2008.
Mystic Aquarium has responded to the population decline by uniting researchers, husbandry staff, educators, and concerned citizens to develop a Penguin Task Force.
The mission of the group is to save the African Penguin through leadership and assistance in research, education, and conservation efforts.
Below are four simple ways you can help the African penguin species, from MAIFE:
1. Donations –
Donations made on the Aquarium website, through the “Pennies for Penguins” collection at the admission gate, and funds from the Run or Walk for Penguins go directly to support Aquarium penguin programs.
Your generous contributions assist with the care of the Aquarium penguin colony; help maintain a healthy genetic diversity among captive penguin populations through the support of the Species Survival Plan, support research on penguin health including nutrition, hormone function, and immunology, and sponsors staff travel to South Africa to assist in field research.
2. Becoming an Aquarium volunteer –
Whether you are a docent educating the public at the exhibits, assisting with school groups in the education department, or working along side the animal care staff, becoming an Aquarium volunteer help contribute to our mission of research, education, and conservation. For more information on becoming a volunteer or to complete the volunteer application form visit the “Get Involved” link at www.mysticaquarium.org.
3. Participate in Mystic Aquarium’s Penguin Encounter Program –
The African Penguin Encounter Program is a 60-minute session in which participants get the opportunity to interact with an actual African penguin.
Lead by penguin specialists, this program describes these remarkable birds, their care here at the Aquarium and educates participants on the life history of the species and conservation issues affecting these intriguing animals.
Contact the reservations department at 860-572-5955 ext.520 for additional information regarding this exciting program.
4. Participate in the Run or Walk for Penguins –
Participation in the Run or Walk for Penguins is a great way for the whole family to become involved in the conservation of African penguins.
The money that is raised from the 5K run or 2 mile walk goes toward the Aquarium’s penguin research and conservation efforts. Join us on October 17th, 2009 to participate in the walk or to just celebrate the African penguin during the third annual Run or Walk for Penguins.
Visit www.mysticaquarium.org for more information how you can register for this event.
Penguin Facts You Might Not Know
Alexa always wants to know what’s little-known. I think it’s becoming her signature interview question. Laurie doesn’t disappoint – here are three quick, and for some, little-known, facts about African penguins:
They pair bond for life!
Have the ability to individually recognize each other – first through sound, second through sight, which gives them the ability to recognize their trainers!
They have a vocalization that sounds just like a donkey braying.