Emperors of the Phantom Coast


To Jerry Kooyman, the blockbuster movie “March of the Penguins” was a fine documentary. But it didn’t tell the whole story of emperor penguins and their life of survival in the brutal Antarctic wilderness. Not by a long shot.

After spending his career at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego studying emperor penguins and other marine animals, research physiologist Kooyman knows all too well that the movie left out a big part of the story of the rotund flightless birds.

Now Kooyman is working to fill in the gap. Calling it the Holy Grail of emperor penguin studies, Kooyman and three colleagues are currently in Antarctica studying their mysterious “molting” activities, a taxing period in their annual life cycle in which their bodies shed old feathers and prepare for new ones. Because their hunting ability is restricted during this time, molting significantly reduces their body masses. Precious little is known about this process— Kooyman indicated there is virtually no scientific data available on the subject—mostly because it has remained largely hidden from human observation and Hollywood cameras.

In a project sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and supported by the UC San Diego Academic Senate, Kooyman and his colleagues have embarked on a two-month expedition aboard the NSF icebreaking vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer. Most of the journey has focused on Antarctic science unrelated to Kooyman’s research, but a week was dedicated to penguins in a largely inaccessible area of the eastern Ross Sea that has earned the nickname, the “Phantom Coast.”

(Read more at: http://scrippsblogs.ucsd.edu/antarctica/)

As a professor with emeritus status, Kooyman believed his career was beyond such long-term field expeditions, but jumped “back in the game” when the Phantom Coast opportunity emerged and with it a rare opportunity to conduct science during the penguin molting cycle.

“It’s a very energetic process and they have to have enough body mass to get through it and still be in a condition to forage right afterwards,” said Kooyman. “If they don’t have an abundant food resource they could conceivably starve during this time so it’s vitally important for the penguin population.”

After being deployed on the Antarctic ice from the ship, Kooyman and his team is seeking to capture 21 emperor penguins and attach satellite transmitters to their backs. If the devices stay attached, even after a vigorous copulation period, Kooyman believes they may deliver crucial information for several months about the penguin’s movements and activities.

Because the iconic birds are considered sentinels of the extreme south, Kooyman says the transmitter data will go a long way in piecing together a missing period of their lives and help scientists understand how they are grappling with threats such as declining sea ice in the face of global climate change.

“They are biological indicators of what’s happening in the region,” said Kooyman. “What goes on in the Antarctic Ocean ultimately goes on to impact the world’s oceans.”


-- Mario C. Aguilera

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