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The Mystery Of The ‘Naked’ Penguins

April 10, 2011

Scientists have discovered that some penguins are suffering from a mysterious condition which causes them to lose their feathers.

Researchers are puzzled by the appearance of “naked” penguins on both sides of the South Atlantic.

This “feather-loss disorder” has been found to afflict penguin chicks in colonies in both South Africa and on the coast of Argentina.

Dee Boersma, from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), said there were fears the condition was spreading to different species.

This condition was first spotted in African black-footed penguin chicks and later in several colonies of Magellanic penguins in Argentina.

Chicks suffering from the disorder were found to take longer to grow while Argentina chicks that lost their feathers tended to stay out longer in the midday sun that those with feathers.

Scientists fear the condition can leave chicks vulnerable to the elements and may increase death rates.

“Feather-loss disorders are uncommon in most bird species, and we need to conduct further study to determine the cause of the disorder and if this is in fact spreading to other penguin species,” Boersma said in a statement.

“We need to learn how to stop the spread of feather-loss disorder, as penguins already have problems with oil pollution and climate variation. It’s important to keep disease from being added to the list of threats they face.”

Researchers also worry that the feather-loss disorder may be caused by pathogens, a thyroid disorder, nutrient imbalances, or genetics.

“The recent emergence of feather-loss disorder in wild bird populations suggests that the disorder is something new,” Mariana Varese, Acting Director of WCS’s Latin America and Caribbean Program, said in a statement.

“More study of this malady can help identify the root cause, which in turn will help illuminate possible solutions.”

A study on the disorder appears in a recent edition of the journal Waterbirds. The authors of the paper are: Olivia J. Kane, Jeffrey R. Smith, and P. Dee Boersma of the Wildlife Conservation Society and the University of Washington; Nola J. Parsons and Vanessa Strauss of the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds; and Pablo Garcia-Borboroglu and Cecilia Villanueva of Centro Nacional Patag³nico.

Image 1: A researcher holds a featherless Magellanic penguin chick. Credit: Jeffrey Smith

Image 2: Feather-loss disorder has also been observed in African penguins, which inhabit the coast and offshore islands of South Africa. Credit: Nola Parsons

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