March of the Fossil Penguins

Fossil penguin discoveries and research

Archive for February 2013

Penguins on the Prowl

Critter cams are revealing the efficiency of Adélie penguins in picking off prey.  A recent study by Dr. Yuuki Watanabe and Dr. Akinori Takahashi involved attaching small cameras and speed monitors to penguins in order to see firsthand how they forage.  The penguins turned out to be remarkably skilled hunters, gathering prey with unerring accuracy and breathtaking speed.  In dense prey swarms, they can capture two krill per second.  One bird gobbled up over 200  krill in about an hour. And it turned out that they can be sneaky, using the ice as a barrier to trap fish. It is impressive to see how rapidly the penguins move their heads, and it makes me think about their brain structure.

Reference: Watanabe, Y. and A.Takahashi. In Press 2013. Linking animal-borne video to accelerometers reveals prey capture variability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Written by Dan Ksepka

February 19, 2013 at 1:53 pm

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Happy Valentine’s Day from March of the Fossil Penguins

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The Black-footed Penguins at the California Academy of Sciences have it good.  Every year, they get Valentines from people – and seem to enjoy them! This video is from last year’s ceremony shows a few eager penguins accepting their card. You can also check in on the colony live anytime here: http://www.calacademy.org/webcams/penguins/

Written by Dan Ksepka

February 14, 2013 at 1:12 am

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You Are What You Eat

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Today a neat new study was published demonstrating that it is possible to determine what a penguin was eating from its bones. The article appeared in Journal of Avian Biology, and was written by two of my favorite penguin collaborators, Dr. Daniel Thomas and Dr. Ewan Fordyce (recent winner of the Hutton Medal) and their colleague Keith Gordon.  They applied a method called Raman spectroscopy to measure the chemical composition of penguin bones from museums in New Zealand.  Raman is a cool technique. Basically, they blast the bones with a low-powered laser, and the way energy is scattered back gives a good estimate of what elements are prevalent in the bone. Raman spectroscopy is really useful because it does not damage the bone.  Other methods for determining chemical composition usually require a bit of bone to be vaporized, which many museums don’t want to see happen.

So what does this have to do with penguin diet?  Well, there is an old saying: You are what you eat!  It is true at the finest scales. Different species of penguins like to eat fish, squid, or krill.  These prey have different concentrations of elements in their bodies due to the different ways the metabolize food and pull oxygen from the water.  Krill are very rich in the element fluoride, which they tend to concentrate in their hard carapace.  You may be familiar with fluoride as a key ingredient in toothpaste!  It is actually toxic, which is why it helps fight the bacteria that cause cavities.  However, it is not dangerous at very low concentrations.  Our toothpaste has only a tiny, tiny fraction of fluoride, enough to zap a microbe but not enough to hurt us.  Fluoride in toothpaste also alters the mineralogy of our tooth enamel, making it harder and  less susceptible to dissolving when contacted by acids (like those in soda). Penguins digest their prey in such a way that most of the fluoride stays in the bones or carapaces and gets passed away harmlessly.  They do keep some though – think of it like shrimp flavored toothpaste for animals without teeth.

In the new study, the Raman data showed a big difference in the bones of krill-loving penguins compared to fish-loving penguins. Two species that eat large quantities of krill, the Emperor Penguin and the Adélie Penguin, showed higher spectra bands than the other four species included in the study (Humboldt, Little Blue, Yellow-eyed, and Fiordland Penguins), which eat almost no krill. This proves the method works, and it give penguin scientists a new tool to look at how feeding patterns have changed in penguins over time. Actually, there are other ways to reveal diet from long-passed penguins too, including isotopes in eggs and guano (penguin poop).

With all these techniques, it is possible to look at old museum specimens from one hundred years ago or more to see if the diet of penguins has changed along with the growth of fisheries or changes in climate.  Indeed, some of this work is already going on.  We will return to the topic later.

Effects of krill consumption on bone composition. The white and grey box plots show the amount of krill eaten relative to other food items, and the black circles show Raman values. Species that eat more krill show higher Raman values. From: Thomas et al. (2013).

Effects of krill consumption on bone composition. The white and grey box plots show the amount of krill eaten relative to other food items, and the black circles show Raman values. Species that eat more krill show higher Raman values. From: Thomas et al. (2013).

Reference:  Thomas, D.T., R.E. Fordyce and K.C. Gordon. In Press 2013. Evidence for a krill-rich diet from non-destructive analyses of penguin bone. Journal of Avian Biology 44.

Written by Dan Ksepka

February 4, 2013 at 12:00 pm

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