Antarctic Research Blog 2010-11
Follow along with Mike as he travels to the Antarctic Peninsula to study penguins. Posts are in chronological order from the top.
Nov. 3rd 2010 - Visiting Students At Gregory Elementary School.
Today I visited three second and third grade classes at Gregory Elementary School in Wilmington, NC. These students will be following along with this blog and sending me questions about penguins and Antarctica while I am on my research trip! Here are the three classes that I visited:
Gregory Elementary School: Ms. Satterfield's second grade class.
Gregory Elementary School: Ms. Rorem's second and third grade class.
Gregory Elementary School: Mr. Pellizzari's second grade class.
While at Gregory we talked about the three species of Brush-tail penguins that I study in Antarctica. The students at Gregory are gaining math, reading and science skills by leaning about penguins using the curriculum developed by the UNCW Penguin Project. Follow this link to explore the second grade curriculum.
OK, that's it for now. Make sure you check back to learn more about our research and see pictures and videos from Antarctica. Students from Gregory Elementary School in Wilmington, NC can also look forward to answers to the questions you submitted to your teachers.
Nov. 19th 2010 - Heading South: Wilmington NC to Ushuaia, Argentina.
I leave today for my Antarctic research project. To get to Antarctica I will first fly from Wilmington, NC to Atlanta, GA. Then I will fly overnight from Atlanta to Buenos Aries, Argentina. Buenos Aries is the capital city of Argentina and its largest city.
I won’t stay in Buenos Aires for long and will quickly get on another plane that will fly to Ushuaia, Argentina which is located at the southern tip of South America. Ushuaia is the capital of the Argentine province of Tierra del Fuego. It is also known as the southernmost city in the world. I will then spend a few days in Ushuaia before I board the ship that will take me to Antarctica. Check out this link to learn more about Ushuaia.
Make sure you check back to follow my trip to Antarctica! Students from Gregory Elementary School in Wilmington, NC can also look forward to answers to the questions you submitted to your teachers.
Nov. 20 2010: Ushuaia, Argentina
After a long day and night of flying I made it to Ushuaia, Argentina. Ushuaia is located at the Southern tip of South America. The city’s nickname is the city at the end of the world, or “Fin del Mundo” in Spanish. For many years Ushuaia was a small port town and the location of an infamous prison. The prison was built in 1902 and was open until 1947 and during that time many of Argentina’s most dangerous criminals were sent there.
Now Ushuaia is a popular tourist destination. It is famous because of its location and acts as the gateway city for people taking trips to visit Antarctica. Between the months of November and March it is very is common to find many tour ships at the central port. People come from all over the world to take trips from Ushuaia to Antarctica and the city has grown very much over the past 20 years. I will be using one of these tour ships to “hitch” a ride to the place in Antarctica will be working for several weeks. Until I board the ship on Monday and I will be spending time shopping for supplies getting ready to sail for Antarctica. Also I will be sure to go out and have my favorite Argentine meal, a “Hamburguesa Completa.”:
As you can see from the picture, this is a hamburger with mayonnaise, lettuce tomato, cheese, ham and a fried egg on top. Together with papas fritas, which is Spanish for French fries, it is a tasty, although not very healthy meal. I’ll check back in later when I get on the ship and am on my way south across Drakes passage to Antarctica.
Nov. 23, 2010: At Sea on Drake’s Passage
Hello everyone! Today I set sail from Ushuaia on my way to Antarctica. I will be traveling onboard a tour ship which is also called “Ushuaia” as it is named after the city. Including me, there are 64 passengers traveling on the ship. These passengers will spend 10 days visiting several locations in Antarctica to see glaciers, icebergs and wildlife such as penguins, seals and whales. I will not stay on the ship for long as I will be dropped off in two days at a field station on King George Island, which is part of the South Shetland Islands near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.
To get to King George Island I first have to sail across Drake’s Passage which is the part of the ocean that separates South America from the Antarctica Peninsula. We will have to travel nearly 1000 km across this body of water. The Drake’s passage is famous for having very rough weather with high winds and large waves! This trip across was no exception with lots of wind and waves as big as 15 feet high on our first day. We were bounced around quite a bit and many of the passengers felt seasick. By the end of the day, the weather had calmed down and we had smooth sailing throughout the night.
Even though the weather was bad, I spent a lot of time looking at the many seabirds that spend much of their lives flying around the oceans surrounding Antarctica. Today I saw many species of albatross and giant petrels. These birds are really big and have 5-10 foot wing spans! With such large wings they can soar through the air and rarely have to flap their wings. They can fly thousands of miles around the Southern Ocean to look for food and never have to stop to rest on the water. One of my favorite species is the Giant Petrel. These birds can be found nesting near the field station where I will be living. They are the scavengers of the Antarctic, similar to vultures in other parts of the world. They love to find dead seals and penguins to eat!
Tomorrow night, I should get dropped off. I’ll let you know how it goes in my next blog!
Nov. 25, 2010: Arctowski Station & Copacabana Field Station, King George Island, Antarctica
Happy Thanksgiving! Well I made it! Last night I was dropped of by the tour ship on King George Island, where I will be working for the next few weeks. It was quite exciting! The weather was very bad with lots of wind and snow and very large waves. The ship uses small rubber boats called Zodiacs to transfer people from the ship to the land as there are no docks or piers in Antarctica. With such bad weather it was not possible for me to be dropped of at the American field station where I will be living. However, very close (2 miles away) to the American field station is a Polish Scientific station. The waves were smaller near the Polish Station so I was able to get dropped off by Zodiac late last night. I spent the night warm and safe at the Polish Station and just this morning the Polish researchers transported me by zodiac over to the American field station just in time to have Thanksgiving dinner with five other American scientists. It was a great dinner with all the fixings: Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, and of course pumpkin and pecan pies with ice cream. Yum!
That is it for now. Next I will tell you more about the American field station where I am living!
Nov. 26, 2010: Copacabana Field Station, King George Island, Antarctica
Today I would like to tell you a little bit about the place I will be working for the next few weeks. I am staying at an American field station located along the western shores of Admiralty Bay, King George Island which is part of the South Shetland Islands near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The official name of the field station is Pieter J. Lenie Field Station as it is named after the captain of the ship that helped open the station in the late 1970’s. However, the nickname of the station is Copacabana after the famous beach found in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. However you will not find any palm trees here, instead the station is surrounded by penguins! All three species of Pygoscelis penguins nest close to the station: Adélie, gentoo and chinstrap penguins.
View of the Pieter J. Lenie Field Station on King George Island.
The Copa field crew this season: Alexis, Penny, and Kristen.
Copacabana field station is open during the Antarctic summer from October to March every year. Up to six penguin researchers can stay here at any one time, however usually there are only three or four people at the station. Right now there are three other people working here with me. Alexis, Penny and Kristen have been here since October. They are studying the penguins as part of a long term study of their populations, diets and behavior lead by researchers at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center. With only four people at the camp we all have to work together. I will be helping Alexis, Penny and Kristen with their research and they will be helping me collect information for the UNCW Penguin’s Past and Present Project. We also take turns cooking for everyone and all pitch in to keep the station clean and running smoothly. It is definitely a team effort to study penguins in Antarctica!
Nov. 28, 2010: Copacabana Field Station, King George Island, Antarctica
It has been a busy few days as I have started my research on penguins. As part of the UNCW Penguins Past and Present project I am studying the diet of all three species of Brush-tail penguins. We are interesting in learning what types of food penguins are eating now and how it compares to what there diets have been over the past several thousand years. This information can help us learn how penguins have responded to changes in their environment due to recent changes in climate and human influences such as fishing.
A colony of Gentoo Penguins
A close view of a Gentoo penguin head and beak.
The Gentoo penguin is one of the species I am studying. They are the largest of the three Brush tail penguins and are a little larger than 2 feet tall. They have a black back and a white breast. Their heads are black with white patched above their eyes and orange-red beaks and feet. Like the other Brush-tail penguins, Gentoo penguins commonly eat krill and fish. Krill is a small shrimp like crustacean that is very common in the ocean around Antarctica. Just like shrimp, krill can have a pink/orange color because they contain pigments called carotenoids. Theses pigments are what help give the Gentoo’s beak its orange-red color. As part of my research I am taking pictures of Gentoo beaks to see if birds that eat more krill have brighter beaks. We can estimate how much krill each penguin has eaten by collecting a feather sample which we can examine using stable isotope analysis. What is stable isotope analysis you might ask? Well, check back later for my next blog for more information!
Dec. 1, 2010: Copacabana Field Station, King George Island, Antarctica
It has been a busy week since I last posted. I have been hard at work collecting eggshell and feather samples for our research on penguins. We can examine these eggshells and feathers using a technique called stable isotope analysis. Basically, the old saying that goes: “You are what you eat” is true. When penguins eat their food (krill and fish) they use the nutrients from their food to grow their eggshells and feathers. Because krill and fish are made up of different amounts and types of carbon and nitrogen, we can examine the carbon and nitrogen “signatures” of a penguins eggshell and feathers and determine how much krill and fish they were eating when they were growing these tissues.
Collecting eggshells is very easy. Right now chicks are starting to hatch, so there are many eggshells just lying around on the ground. They are pretty dirty so we have to wash all the dirt and muck off of them. To do this we use some warm water and a toothbrush (don’t worry it is not the same toothbrush I use on my teeth!). Then we dry the eggshell in front of a heater before placing each one in plastic bag to send back to Wilmington for stable isotope analysis. Eggshells can give us information about what female penguins eat before they return to the nesting locations and lay their eggs.
The week I have been collecting, washing and drying eggshells from all three species of brush-tail penguins (Adélie, gentoo and chinstrap penguin). That is the great thing about the island that I am working at (King George Island). It is one of a few places where it is easy to find all three species of brush-tail penguin right next to each other. Take a look at this picture and see if you can find all three species!
Dec. 2, 2010: Copacabana Field Station, King George Island, Antarctica
Today I would like to answer one of the questions sent to me from Mr. Pellizzari’s (Mr. P) 2nd grade class at Gregory Elementary School in Wilmington, NC. Mr. P’s class and two other 2nd and 3rd grade classes have been following along with this blog and learning about penguins using the lessons and educational actives on the UNCW Penguins Past and Present Website. Today’s question is about my Nov. 24-25 blog post:
“What exactly is a zodiac? You must have gotten pretty wet in the zodiac with such big waves. How did you stay dry and warm?”
A zodiac is a small rubber boat with an outboard engine. At Copacabana field station we do not have a zodiac because we can walk to all of our penguin study sites. However, the tourist ship that dropped me off at the field station has many zodiacs. They use these rubber boats to take people from the ship to the land. There are no piers or docks near our field station, but that is ok because zodiacs are very good at driving right up onto the beach so I was able to jump right out into only a few inches of water and walk up onto the beach. When I was dropped off in the zodiac I was wearing many layers of warm cloths with waterproof pants, jacket, boots and gloves. While I did get a wet on the outside I stayed nice and dry under my waterproof clothes. I am very thankful to both the tour ship crew and the Polish research team for taking me safe and dry to Copacabana field station.
Dec. 4, 2010: Copacabana Field Station, King George Island, Antarctica
In one of my last blogs I told you about how we collected penguin eggshells to find out what female penguins are eating before laying their eggs. We also collect penguin feathers to examine what adults and chick were eating when they are growing their feathers. Adult penguins change all their feathers once a year in a process called molting. This occurs at the end of the breeding season in February and March. We can examine adult feathers using stable isotopes to learn about what penguins eat after they leave the breeding colonies and migrate to where they spend the winter.
To collect feathers from adult penguins we first have to catch them. When they are near their nest it can be very easy to just walk over and pick them up. However, when penguins are not near their nest it is not so easy and so we use a small net to catch them. When we caught the penguin we can then quickly clip a few feathers and let then let the bird go. Brush-tailed penguins have many different types of feathers. They have thousands of small white and black feathers that cover their breast and backs which help to keep them dry even when swimming. Under these feathers they have downy feathers that look like cotton balls and these feathers help keep them warm. Just like the name implies Brush-tailed penguins also have long tail feathers that they use to help them steer through the water while swimming. These long feathers also help them keep their balance while walking! That’s it for today. Check back later for more posts and answers to questions from students at Gregory Elementary School in Wilmington, NC.
Dec. 6, 2010: Copacabana Field Station, King George Island, Antarctica
Today I would like to answer some of the questions sent to me from Ms. Satterfield’s 2nd grade class at Gregory Elementary School in Wilmington, NC. These two questions are from Brandon:
“How do penguins waddle?”
“How fast to penguins toboggan?”
Penguins have evolved to swim in the water, so they can look a little silly when they are walking on land. They have short, stubby legs and therefore have to take small steps that move their body from side to side. This funny way of walking is called “waddling”. When they waddle through fresh snow they leave funny little penguins foot prints. When there is a lot of snow penguins prefer tobogganing to walking. This is when they lie down on the bellies and use their feet and flippers to push while they slide on top of the snow. They can toboggan very fast, much faster than a person can run though snow. When they toboggan they leave funny tracks made with their bellies, feet and flippers.
Waddle tracks in snow.
Toboggan tracks in snow.
Dec. 8, 2010: Copacabana Field Station, King George Island, Antarctica
Time again to answer one of the questions sent to me from second grade elementary students at Gregory Elementary School in Wilmington, NC. This one is from Mr. Pellizzari’s (Mr. P) 2nd grade class:
“It looks cold but not really too cold. What is the temperature like?”
Thank you for the question. Because Antarctica is in the southern hemisphere, it has the opposite seasons of Wilmington, NC and other places in the northern hemisphere. That means that right now it is the summer in Antarctica. During this time of year on King George Island (where I am working) the temperature is around 32 degrees Fahrenheit on average. That is right around the temperature that water freezes into ice. On days where it is not windy or cloudy the temperature can commonly get above freezing (about 33-40 degrees Fahrenheit). However, when it is cloudy and windy it can get very cold!
The weather station at Copacabana Feild Station.
The picture above is from our weather station that helps to track the temperature and wind speed near our station. As you can see, it has been pretty cold the past few days with temperatures near 25 degrees Fahrenheit (that is 7 degrees below freezing). Also the wind has been very strong (up to 37 miles per hour!). With such strong wind it makes it feel colder than the actual temperature. We can estimate what the temperature outside feels like by comparing the actual temperature and the wind speed (this is called the “wind chill”). The wind chill has been as low as 9 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 23 degrees below freezing. On days as cold as this we do our best to get out work outside done quickly. Burr!!!!
Dec. 10, 2010: Copacabana Field Station, King George Island, Antarctica
This week Kristen Boysen, one of the NOAA penguin researchers working at the field camp I am staying at, has provided some answers for a few questions from Ms. Satterfield’s 2nd grade class at Gregory Elementary School in Wilmington, NC.:
“How small is a newborn penguin?” – Brandon
Almost all of the penguin eggs have hatched now, so the colonies are busy with chirping chicks. They are so cute! Brandon asked about the size of penguin chicks—when a chick first hatches, it is tiny! I can easily hold a chick in my hand, or keep it in my vest pocket. But the chicks are fed by their parents many times every day and grow very quickly. Already some of the chicks are almost too big for their nests. When they are young and little, the chicks cuddle under their parents’ bellies, but once they are bigger, they have enough feathers to stay warm.
“Do penguins get cold?” and “Why do penguins live in Antarctica?” - Emma
Penguins are great at staying warm—they have very dense and thick waterproof feathers. When they swim, these feathers trap air bubbles to help the penguins stay warm in the water. It is important for the birds to keep their feathers in good shape, so they spend a lot of time preening and grooming themselves with their beak. The penguins seem to love the cold weather, whereas I am always bundled up in a lot of clothes. Because penguins are so good at staying warm, they can live in Antarctica where a lot of other species couldn’t survive. Antarctica is a great habitat for the penguins— they have fewer predators to worry about and they are close to the cold Southern ocean, where there is a ton of krill for them to eat! Yum! Penguins live all over the Southern hemisphere, though. You can find them in Australia and New Zealand, Chile and Argentina, and even South Africa!
Thanks Kristen for your great answers!
Dec. 13, 2010: Copacabana Field Station, King George Island, Antarctica
Today I would like to tell you a little bit about one of the species I am studying as part of the UNCW Penguins Past and Present project, the Adélie penguin. They are about two feet tall and weigh about 10-12 pounds. An Adélie penguin is larger than a Chinstrap penguin and smaller than a gentoo penguin. They have a black back and white breast with a black head and white eye rings. During the summer time Adélie penguins can be found breeding all around the Antarctic coast and nearby islands. They spend the winter time away from land at sea in parts of the Southern ocean that have lots of sea-ice.
Right now on King George Island where I am working, the Adélie penguin’s chicks are starting to hatch. The chicks are about 1 to 2 week old and starting to get pretty big. To keep the chicks warm the adult penguins will “brood” their chicks. The adults will sit on top of their chicks and tuck the chick’s heads and backs in a place along the adult’s belly called the “brood patch”. This is a small patch on both males and female adult penguin’s bellies where they loose all their feathers before they lay their eggs. The bare skin along their bellies helps to keep their eggs and chicks warms. After the chicks have grown up, the adults will re-grow the feathers along their bellies as well as the rest of their body. With the cold weather here on King George Island, the adult Adélies are doing a good job of keeping their chicks snuggled up underneath them to stay warm and dry. In a few weeks the chicks will be much bigger and have many thick, downy feathers so they can stay warm all by themselves. Chicks grow fast and in about 8 weeks they will be as large as their parents!
Dec. 14, 2010: Copacabana Field Station, King George Island, Antarctica
This week Alexis Will, one of the NOAA penguin researchers working at the field camp I am staying at, has provided some answers for a few questions from 2nd grade classes at Gregory Elementary School in Wilmington, NC.:
Do penguins cry? - Taemon from Ms. Satterfield’s 2nd grade class
As far as we know, penguins don’t cry, at least not like people do. But they do something else that is really cool and is a little like crying. Have you ever accidentally swallowed sea water? It’s gross isn’t it? If we drank sea water we would actually get thirstier because of all the salt in the water. Well penguins also need fresh water to drink. When they are on land that is easy, they eat snow or drink from puddles. But they also spend a lot of time in the ocean. What do they do when they get thirsty? They have no choice but to drink the sea water. But, here’s the really cool part, their bodies separate out the salt from the water. Where does that salt go? It comes out their nose in super salty tears! So, penguins do sort of cry, but from their nose not their eyes. Penguins are really neat.
How many penguins are there and how many eggs have been laid? - From Mr. P’s 2nd grade class
Mike mentioned that you were wondering how many penguins are at Copa and how many eggs they laid. Well you are in luck; we counted them in early November. This year we counted amost 2800 Adélie penguin nests. At each nest there are two birds so that’s 5600 Adélie penguins. If every pair laid two eggs (the normal number a penguin here lays) there may have been 5600 Adélie eggs laid this season. Can you imagine how many chicken eggs that would be? That’s probably more eggs than you see at the grocery store.
If you’re 7 now and ate an egg a day you’d be 22 by the time you ate 5600 eggs! (And if you’re 8 you’d be 23!). It would take 15 years to eat that many eggs.
We also have Gentoo penguins nesting here. We counted about 4800 of their nests. So that would mean that there are at least 9600 Gentoos at Copa who may have laid the same number of eggs (9600). There are more Gentoos here than there are people in the town I grew up in Alaska! And they all live in an area the size of a small neighborhood. That’s a lot of penguins!
Thanks for the great answers Alexis!
Dec. 15, 2010: Copacabana Field Station, King George Island, Antarctica
Today I would like to tell you a little bit about one of the species I am studying as part of the UNCW Penguins Past and Present project, the Chinstrap penguin. They are a little larger than about one and a half feet tall and weigh about 7 to 9 pounds. Chinstrap penguins are the smallest of the three brushtail penguins. They have a black back and white breast and black cap on the top of their heads. They get their name from the strip of black feathers the runs from their head and under their chin. During the summer time Chinstrap penguins can be found breeding all along the Antarctic Peninsula, the South Shetland, South Orkney and South Sandwich Islands. They spend the winter time away from land at sea in parts of the Southern Ocean that do not have much sea ice.
Unlike the Adélie and Gentoo penguins which breed very close to the field station I am staying at, the closest colony of chinstrap penguins is about 4-5 miles away. To visit these colonies for our research we have to walk about 1 mile, then take a small canoe across a glacial lake, and walk another 3-4 more miles to reach the place where chinstraps are breeding. When the snow is very deep we use snow shoes to help us hike without falling down in the snow. It is a long hike with lots of hills, but after doing it a few time, it can be a lot of fun! The name of the place where the Chinstraps are breeding is called “Patelnia” and is named after the Polish word for the handle of a cooking pot or pan. There are close to 800 pairs of chinstraps breeding here, and the populations have gotten small since that last time I was here 5 years ago. Hopefully our work with stable isotopes will tell us what the chinstraps have been eating and give us some clues as to why the population in the site is declining.
Ok, I only have a few more days here before I am picked up by another ship to be taken back to South America. Check back later for more blogs and answers to questions submitted by students at Gregory Elementary School in Wilmington, NC!
Dec. 16, 2010: Copacabana Field Station, King George Island, Antarctica
This week Alexis Will, one of the NOAA penguin researchers working at the field camp I am staying at, has provided some answers for a few questions from Ms. Satterfield’s 2nd grade class 2nd grade classes at Gregory Elementary School in Wilmington, NC.:
How do penguins lay eggs?- Taemon
Another neat thing about penguins is how they lay eggs. Penguins have only one hole in their bottom. They poop and lay eggs from their cloaca. Penny, one of the girls that I work with here, was weighing a female Adélie and as she was pulling it out of the weigh bag (they come out rear-end first) she saw the top of an egg starting to come out. She set the bird down and she (the bird) ran straight to her nest and “plop” the egg slid out into it. The only special thing that happens when a penguin lays an egg is they hunch down a little so the egg lands very gently on the ground so it doesn’t crack.
Is the ice dry in Antarctica and does it rain in Antarctica? - Emma and William
William and Emma had a couple of good questions about the weather in Antarctica. Does it rain here? It does rain where we are, but we are quite a bit further north than the main part of the continent. So where we are is warmer than the main part of Antarctica. It can still be cold here and we get quite a bit of snow, but it also warms up enough to rain. On the main continent rain is very unlikely, or doesn’t happen at all (depending on how far south you are).
The ice here is just like the ice in the ice cubes that you might have in your drink. Well, it’s a lot older, often very blue with neat bubbles in it, and sometimes travels around the ocean in huge chunks. But, in terms of what it feels like to touch it, it feels just like ice you’d find in your freezer. If it’s really cold the ice sometimes feels dry and your hand might stick to it. But it’s not that cold here so the ice often feels a little wet. It is also delicious. We often eat pieces of glacier ice we find when we are hiking on the beaches.
Thanks for the great answers Alexis!
Dec. 17-20, 2010: At Sea Traveling to Punta Arenas, Chile
My time at Copacabana Field Station is over. I was picked up by the US research ship the Laurence M. Gould. Over the past two days we have sailed from King George Island in the South Shetlands to Punta Arenas, Chile. This will probably be my last blog for this season. In about 10 days I will leave from Ushuaia, Argentina on another research trip to the Antarctic Peninsula.