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Habitat preference and dive behavior of non-breeding emperor penguins in the eastern Ross Sea, Antarctica

TitleHabitat preference and dive behavior of non-breeding emperor penguins in the eastern Ross Sea, Antarctica
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2018
AuthorsGoetz K.T, McDonald B.I, Kooyman G.L
JournalMarine Ecology Progress Series
Date Published2018/04
Type of ArticleArticle
ISBN Number0171-8630
Accession NumberWOS:000431203300011
Keywordsaptenodytes-forsteri; Diving; elephant seals; Emperor penguin; Environmental Sciences & Ecology; euphausia-superba; foraging; Foraging ecology; Habitat suitability; life-history connectivity; light; Marine & Freshwater Biology; molt; oceanography; Pointe Geologie; post-molt diet; rates; ross sea; southern; spatial autocorrelation; species distribution models; stroke; tracking

Emperor penguins Aptenodytes forsteri are important predators in the Ross Sea ecosystem, yet little is known about their movement and foraging behavior outside the breeding season or within different demographic groups. In early March 2013, we instrumented 20 non-breeding emperor penguins in the eastern Ross Sea with satellite-linked recorders and analyzed their habitat preference and dive behavior. Track length ranged from 273 km to nearly 9000 km and dive data were obtained for over 96 000 dives (mean maximum depth: 90.2 +/- 77.8 (SD) m, mean dive duration: 4.6 +/- 2.3 min), 17 of which exceeded the previous duration record of 27.6 min. Overall, emperor penguins preferred areas north of Cape Colbeck that were beyond the shelf break and received more sunlight. In these areas, penguins performed dives that were deeper, longer, faster, and more pelagic than dives located near the colony. Birds exhibited various movement and foraging strategies ('shelf' and 'gyre'; benthic and pelagic). The occurrence of deeper and longer dives during the day (n = 28 318) and at twilight (n = 60 171) than at night (n = 7582), especially at high latitudes, is consistent with emperor penguins being visual predators. Observed differences in both movement and dive behavior as a function of light may indicate a change in prey preference across space and time. Our study offers novel insight into the habitat preferences and dive behavior for a previously unstudied demographic group, at a time when emperor penguins experience the most severe environmental conditions of their annual life cycle.


Prior to this study, habitat associations and diving behavior were known for emperor penguins primarily during the breeding season. Understanding behavior throughout their entire annual life cycle, especially when birds are not restrained by chick-rearing duties, is critical to predict how emperor penguins might respond to environmental variation and perturbations. By documenting the movement, habitat preference, and dive behavior of non-breeding emperor penguins, this study begins to fill a knowledge gap in our understanding of an understudied demographic group, corresponding to the part of their annual life cycle when birds experience the harshest physiological and environmental conditions.

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