Scripps Scientists Investigate Climate Change from Penguins' Point of View


In the windswept, hostile environment of Antarctica, Jerry Kooyman and Paul Ponganis of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego and National Geographic biologist Greg Marshall embark on a spectacular adventure of science and survival. Using Crittercam®, they hitch a virtual ride under the ice with the emperor penguin to study the impact of climate change on the penguin's world. Their investigation is the subject of "Emperors of the Ice," a new television special on PBS, premiering nationally on December 27 at 8 p.m.

The emperor penguin is an icon of Antarctica. Superbly adapted to the howling gales and subzero temperatures of this frozen continent, it is a master at surviving the extremes. But in a world threatened by climate change, can it take the heat?

Over the last century, temperatures around the globe have risen by one degree Fahrenheit; on the Antarctic Peninsula, they have risen by nearly nine. In a world where all life is touched by the ice, this is a dramatic shift. Kooyman and Ponganis have been studying emperor penguins for more than 30 years, but climate change has given new urgency to their mission, especially when "B15," the largest iceberg ever recorded, breaks off the Ross shelf and threatens their research colonies.

By plane and snowmobile, Kooyman and Paul Ponganis are racing time-and a Connecticut-sized iceberg-to reveal the mysteries of the emperor penguin and find out if the changing landscape has impacted the way it feeds, breeds and raises its young. At Cape Washington, which houses one of the largest known colonies of emperor penguins, they join penguin life on the sea ice and witness the birds' remarkable efforts to survive and raise a family in one of the most hostile places on Earth.

To understand emperor penguins the scientists must look toward the ocean, where the penguins find their food. To do so, Ponganis has designed a special research camp called "Penguin Ranch," where he studies emperor penguins underwater.

Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation's Polar Programs, Kooyman and Ponganis collaborated with National Geographic's Greg Marshall over four research seasons to solve the mystery of where and how emperor penguins find their food. Together, they conducted 45 Crittercam deployments on penguin recruits like Rodney, Clint and Tank, who showed scientists for the first time where penguins catch their prey beneath the ice.

For National Geographic, Marshall is executive producer of "Emperors of the Ice" and Birgit Buhleier is producer. The program features cutting-edge Crittercam technology and research made possible by funding from National Geographic Mission Programs, the science and education arm of the National Geographic Society. Crittercam technology has allowed researchers, scientists and filmmakers to gather data about underwater behavior and habitats that humans cannot otherwise observe. Discoveries made with Crittercam deployments have contributed to a major rethinking of conservation efforts.

Kooyman is a leading authority on what he calls "the closest thing to an alien an earthly vertebrate can be"-the emperor penguin. His work with penguins and other animals in Antarctica-spanning over 40 years-has brought significant attention to a timely controversy: global climate change. Kooyman is a research professor at the Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine at Scripps Oceanography.

Ponganis is an Antarctic veteran and has studied emperor penguins in the field for 20 years. He is both a medical doctor (anesthesiologist) and marine biologist. He combined these fields to pursue a lifelong fascination-oxygen regulation in mammals. Ponganis believes that by studying emperor penguin physiology, he can help doctors better understand hypoxia in human patients. He has devoted years of extensive research both in Antarctica and at Scripps to defining diving behavior and ecology.

Marshall is a scientist, inventor and filmmaker who has dedicated the last 20 years to studying, exploring and documenting life in the oceans. He invented Crittercam, the revolutionary animal-borne research tool that records images, sound and data from an animal's perspective.

Marshall is a two-time Emmy Award winner for cinematography and sound for the National Geographic Specials "Great White Sharks" (1995) and "Sea Monsters: Search for the Giant Squid" (1999). He is the creator and an executive producer of almost 70 natural-history-themed conservation films. He works with his wife, fellow Crittercam scientist and documentary producer Birgit Buhleier. Since 1991 Buhleier has been a principal force in the technical evolution and field application of Crittercam, living and working in some of the world's most remote places, while launching over 100 deployments and generating almost a thousand hours of Crittercam data and images for documentary film and television production.

About National Geographic Television

National Geographic Television (NGT) is the documentary TV production arm of the National Geographic Society (NGS), known around the world for its remarkable visuals and compelling stories. NGS is one of the largest global scientific and educational organizations, supporting field science on every continent. In 1963 NGT broke ground by broadcasting on American network television the first moving pictures from the summit of Everest. Since then, NGT has continued to push technology to its limits to bring great stories to television audiences worldwide.

With 129 Emmy Awards and nearly 1,000 other industry accolades, NGT programming can be seen globally on the National Geographic Channel, as well as terrestrial and other cable and satellite broadcasters worldwide through international sales by National Geographic Television International, and on U.S. public television stations. National Geographic Channel is received by more than 290 million households in 27 languages in 164 countries.

About PBS

PBS is a media enterprise that serves 354 public noncommercial television stations and reaches almost 90 million people each week through on-air and online content. Bringing diverse viewpoints to television and the Internet, PBS provides high-quality documentary and dramatic entertainment, and consistently dominates the most prestigious award competitions. PBS is a leading provider of educational materials for K-12 teachers and offers a broad array of other educational services. PBS' premier kids' TV programming and Web site, PBS KIDS Online (, continue to be parents' and teachers' most trusted learning environments for children. More information about PBS is available at, one of the leading dot-org Web sites on the Internet.

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