May 13, 2009

Research Sheds Light On Penguins’ Mysterious Lives

Made popular with movies like "March of the Penguins" and "Happy Feet," the penguin in reality has a mysterious life, sometimes living for months in the ocean before coming back to land.

Zoologists have long wondered where the penguin, famed for its quirkiness and funny walk, goes throughout these long periods of time in the ocean.

French scientists, in a study available on Wednesday, think they have the answer.

A research team from National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) placed monitoring systems on 12 male and female "macaroni" penguins during the winter at the French Indian Ocean province in the Kerguelen Islands.

The devices, weighing a fifth of an ounce, were tied to the penguins' legs via a gentle plastic strap.

The birds swam out to sea shortly after for their yearly exploration and the devices recorded the location and water temperature wherever they swam. Six months later the penguins came back to Kerguelen to mate.

The scientists removed the devices and removed the information from them, and also took blood samples to acquire a chemical signature of their diet.

The data found that the birds moved quickly away from Kerguelen, swimming east to the southern Indian Ocean.

They separated extensively, using 80 percent of their time at sea in a geographical area of 47 and 49 degrees latitude south.

They spent the rest of their time closer to the Southern Ocean. They did not swim directly into it, nor did they scavenge in pack ice.

The birds swam astonishing distances, about 8,930 miles during their six months at sea.

In the last part of the migration, the birds hurried to return, swimming 1,108 miles in only one month.

The blood test indicated that the penguins had eaten crustaceans during their trip. Defying expectations, they did not join the major species of Antarctic krill, which live further south.

The research is significant because it identifies the penguins' main feeding areas in the Indian Ocean, thus boosting conservation attempts.

The research is published in Biology Letters, a journal of the Royal Society.


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