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Adélie penguins, Ross Island

Cape Crozier, the easternmost point of land on Antarctica’s Ross Island, is home to the second most southerly penguin colony in the world. Approximately 270,000 breeding pairs of Adélie penguins, 1,000 pairs of South Polar skuas, and 600 pairs of Emperor penguins call Cape Crozier home during the austral summer months (November-March). This avian metropolis bustles with activity 24 hours a day as penguins court mates, battle egg-robbing skuas, raise their chicks, and evade voracious leopard seals. But as climate warms, sea ice is declining, and these ice-dependent birds face an uncertain future. Will Ross Island be the last stronghold of the Adélie penguin?

For over 20 years, Dr. David Ainley and his colleagues have been studying the Adélie colonies on Ross Island. This year (2017-2018), the science team at Cape Crozier continued to search for flipper-banded birds (a long-term study of survival and breeding success). They also began a new study using tiny sensors, attached to the leg, which collect data for a year. The tags measure light level and time (which gives a rough approximation of position), pressure (depth), and temperature—essentially a fitbit for a penguin. For the first time, scientists will be able to tell what Adélie penguins are doing during the entire winter. For example, they will be able to see how often and how deep penguins are diving, where they are catching most of their food, how their important feeding areas overlap with fishing zones, and if this differs by individual and by year. The team also continued the 'weighbridge' study. A small subcolony of birds is fenced in, and in order to enter/leave they have to pass over a scale, so their weight is recorded each time they leave to forage (and return). This is the first year those weighbridge subcolony birds were also fitted with the year-long sensors, and this combined data will give the team a measure of penguin energetics over the entire breeding season. This landmark long-term research project is critical to understanding the future of this charismatic species.