March of the Fossil Penguins

Fossil penguin discoveries and research

Archive for March 2011

Penguin Rescue Work Continues

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Residents and rescue teams from South Africa are continuing efforts to save oiled Northern Rockhopper Penguins.  A major priority is to keep the penguins who have not been oiled safe.  Fortunately, the spill happened at a time when many of the rockhoppers were molting, so some birds remained on land during the days following the spill.  Several hundred such penguins on Nightingale Island have been corralled into pens in order to keep them from entering the oily waters.  Volunteers are feeding the penguins in their enclosures and preparing to ship many of them to a nearby island to release into clean water.

Northern Rockhopper Penguins mill about after being released from carriers into a pen to await rehabilitation.

It is heartwarming to read about the response of Tristan residents to the shipwreck.  Residents have worked tirelessly to clean oiled penguins, catch  fish to feed the hundreds that are now penned and have even given over a large swimming pool to rehabilitating penguins.  My favorite image is one of penguins being set loose from cardboard boxes into the pool (it is the fifth image in the slideshow, the first is an upsetting dead penguin):

Daily updates are posted here: and here:

A special fund to support rescue work has been set up: Nightingale Island Disaster Penguin and Seabird Rescue Fund


Written by Dan Ksepka

March 28, 2011 at 11:08 pm

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Tragedy for Rockhopper Penguins

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One of the most severe crises for penguin conservation in recent memory is occurring right now.  An cargo ship has run aground off the Tristan Da Cunha islands, spilling oil and soybeans into the sea.  Thankfully, the ship was not an oil tanker.  Still, the amount of spilled fuel is massive – about 800 tons have leaked.  This has led to an absolute tragedy for penguins and other seabirds that nest on these islands.  Thousands of birds are expected to die from being oiled, which prevents their feathers from effectively waterproofing them or leads to poisoning as they attempt to clean themselves.  The problem is exacerbated by the remote location of Tristan Da Cunha.  The island group is located about 1500 miles from South Africa, making it logistically difficult to send in equipment and personnel for oil containment and wildlife rehabilitation efforts.

Oiled Northern Rockhopper Penguins. Photo by Trevor Glass, Tristan da Cunha Conservation Department. Click image for original post.

Ironically, the soy beans could be more deadly than the oil in the long term.  If rats have stowed away in the cargo and make it onto the island, they could wreak havoc among the nesting birds.  Currently, their are no rats on the islands and the bird species that breed there would be vulnerable to an unfamiliar threat.  So far, no rat sightings have been confirmed on the islands but naturalists will be setting up traps and keeping a close watch to forestall rodent landfall.

Eudyptes moseleyi, the Northern Rockhopper Penguin, is the primary penguin victim of the spill.  The Northern Rockhopper is an endangered species and has a large population (about 20,000 penguins) in the spill zone. Three species of rockhopper penguins currently inhabit the southern oceans.  The  Northern Rockhopper is easily distinguished from the Eastern Rockhopper and Southern Rockhopper by its  larger size, much longer golden head plumes, and the pattern of coloration on its flippers.  If you have ever visited the New England Aquarium in Boston, you can easily distinguish the big, cranky Northern Rockhopper from its smaller co-geners.  DNA evidence from a study by Jonathan Bank’s team indicates that Northern Rockhoppers are the oldest lineage of rockhopper penguins.


If you would like to support seabird rescue and clean-up activities, The Ocean Foundation has set up a special fund:

Nightingale Island Disaster Penguin and Seabird Rescue Fund

You can read more about the disaster here:


Banks J, van Buren A, Cherel Y, Whitfield JB. 2006. Genetic evidence for three species of rockhopper penguins, Eudyptes chrysocome. Polar Biology 30: 61–67.

Written by Dan Ksepka

March 24, 2011 at 3:36 pm

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Molting Penguin Shows Heart

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Penguins undergoing their second molt enter a scruffy phase, during which they are covered partially in fresh adult plumage and partially in worn juvenile plumage.  This Emperor molted in a very unusual, and pleasant, pattern.  Read the story here.


Photo by Sue Flood. Click for original article.

Written by Dan Ksepka

March 15, 2011 at 2:58 pm

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The Dipper in Action

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Last post, we introduced the Dipper (Cinclus), the smallest wing-propelled diving bird.  This video shows the little guy at work, questing for insect larvae in a fast-moving stream.

Written by Dan Ksepka

March 7, 2011 at 8:00 am

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Meet the Tiniest Wing-Propelled Diver

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Most wing-propelled diving birds are fairly large, ocean-going fellows.  Not so for the smallest species to adapt this strategy.  Cinclidae are a very special group of songbirds that hunt underwater for insect prey in freshwater streams.  These marvelous little birds are capable of both “walking” along the bottom by gripping the substrate and of propelling themselves through the water column with their wings.  Today, five species can be found. As a group these species have spread throughout much of the world including North America, Europe, Asia and Africa.

American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) on Kodiak Island. Photo from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


Dippers look rather unassuming when on land, and it would be easy to mistake them for catbirds or other garden variety songbirds at a glance.  However, detailed studies have revealed many evolutionary novelties associated with more efficient waterproofing of the feathers, modified wing musculature to assist in the underwater “flight” stroke, and physiological properties of blood haemoglobin that make them very efficient at employing their unique feeding strategy.  DNA studies indicate that the closest relatives of the dippers are thrushes and Old World flycatchers, but these groups show no particular affinities for water.

Our team is studying the dipper to learn what it can tell us about the earliest stages of wing-propelled diving.  Since dippers make only shallow dives, are very small, and spend much time on land, they may provide clues about which evolutionary changes happen first during the transitions from a non-diving, volant bird body plan  to a flightless diving bird body plan (like that of penguins).

Written by Dan Ksepka

March 5, 2011 at 8:00 am

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