JUL 12, 2016 7:15 PM PDT

Penguins in Peril


Those cute little penguins that are known for the black line that crosses under their “chin” may be in peril. Chinstrap penguins (Pygoscelis antarcticus) are a medium-size, sub-Antarctic species that breeds on ice-free coastal areas and primarily feeds on krill. The penguins return every year to the same nesting site and most mate for life. The largest colony - over 1.2 million breeding pairs - lives on Zavodovski Island, a small island in the South Sandwich archipelago, located in the Sub Antarctic. However, since March, the active volcano of Mount Curry on Zavodovski Island has been threatening the chinstrap population, along with the 180,000 macaroni penguins (Eudyptes chrysolophus) that also live there.
 
The chinstrap penguin colony on Zavodovski Island is one of the largest penguin colonies on Earth, shown here before the eruption.  PHOTOGRAPH BY MARIA STENZEL, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

The island is part of the British Overseas Territory of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands and uninhabited. Known as the smelliest place on Earth because of the sulphuric air that seeps from the volcano, Zavodovski’s landmarks include Stench Point, Acrid Point, Pungent Point, Reek Point and Noxious Bluff.

The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) recently remapped this chain of volcanic islands and was alerted to a large (7.2) magnitude earthquake last month in the vicinity; however the Mount Curry volcano has been spewing ash for the last four months. It is the first time that has been witnessed erupting, although there is evidence that it erupted in the 1970s, possibly in the 1980s and as late as 2012. In addition to Mount Curry, researchers determined from satellites that another volcano, Mount Sourabaya, on Bristol Island to the south is also erupting.
 
The eruption has covered half the island in ash CREDIT: PETER FRETWELL, BRITISH ANTARCTIC SURVEY

Chinstraps usually frequent Zavodovski from November to April for their breeding season. Unfortunately, the volcano’s eruption coincided with the penguins’ annual molt, during which they lose their insulation and waterproofing. During this time they must stay out of the water, and hence conservationists are concerned because the penguins would not have been able to leave the island to find safety from the ash and smoke.

“As the images were captured during the moult period for the chinstraps, the consequences could be very significant,” said Mike Dunn, a penguin ecologist from BAS. “When the penguins return to breed later in the year, it will be interesting to see what impact this event has on their numbers.”
Two expeditions are planned for later on this year to explore the damage done to the populations. One can only hope that the ash and smoke did not cover the entire island and left the penguins with at least a part of the island to take cover.
 


Sources: National Geographic, Phys.org, The Telegraph
About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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