July 19, 2008

Hundreds of Baby Penguins Found Dead On Brazilian Beaches

Rescuers and penguin experts are concerned about hundreds of baby penguins washing up dead on Rio de Janeiro's tropical beaches after being swept from the icy shores of Antarctica and Patagonia.

Eduardo Pimenta, superintendent for the state coastal protection and environment agency in the resort city of Cabo Frio, said over the last couple of months more than 400 penguins, most of them young, have been found dead on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro state.

Pimenta said it is common to find some penguins - both dead and alive - swept by strong ocean currents from the Strait of Magellan, but there have been more this year than at any time in recent memory.

Experts in the penguin world have different theories of why this may be happening.

Thiago Muniz, a veterinarian at the Niteroi Zoo, credits over fishing that has forced the penguins to swim further from shore to find fish to eat.

"That leaves them more vulnerable to getting caught up in the strong ocean currents."

Muniz said Niteroi, the state's biggest zoo, has already received about 100 penguins for treatment this year and many are drenched in petroleum. The Campos oil field that supplies most of Brazil's oil lies offshore.

He said that while he hadn't seen penguins suffering from the effects of other pollutants, he pointed out that already dead penguins aren't brought in for treatment.

Pollution may be to blame, according to Pimenta.

"Aside from the oil in the Campos basin, the pollution is lowering the animals' immunity, leaving them vulnerable to funguses and bacteria that attack their lungs," Pimenta said.

Weather patterns could be involved, according to biologist Erli Costa of Rio de Janeiro's Federal University.

"I don't think the levels of pollution are high enough to affect the birds so quickly. I think instead we're seeing more young and sick penguins because of global warming, which affects ocean currents and creates more cyclones, making the seas rougher," Costa said.

The vast majority of penguins turning up are baby birds that have just left the nest and are unable to out-swim the strong ocean currents they encounter while searching for food, said Costa.

Brazil airlifts dozens of penguins a year back to Antarctica or Patagonia.