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We hope that our cooperative efforts will ultimately lead to the area’s long-term protection.

An International Research Team

Grant Ballard, PhD


Adélie Penguin. Photo by Grant Ballard/PRBO.
Every year when I return to Cape Crozier, Ross Island, Antarctica, I am eager to check that a certain special penguin is still alive. ‘White-cheek’ has been on the same territory for the past ten years, making her at least 13 years old. She is a great parent, spending more than the average amount of time in the colony to attend her eggs or chicks, and I admire her ability to succeed almost every year in spite of the tough environmental conditions that have been common recently. Is it because she is an old penguin that she is successful? Or is she an old penguin because she is successful? Happily, she was in her regular spot when I checked a few weeks ago, barely waking up from her sleepy, seven-day incubation shift as I paid homage.

Individual variability is one of the most fascinating and difficult things to study in ecology. It requires lots of individually marked animals, long time periods so that both natural variability and change for the individual bird can be assessed, and much more. As animal populations confront rapid climate change, understanding how individuals cope with change is more important than ever. It will let us accurately predict the fate of populations, and mitigate if necessary.
David Ainley (left) and Grant Ballard. Photo by Viola Toniolo.

I was originally invited to Antarctica by David Ainley more than 15 years ago, as part of what I now know was a preliminary step in a long-term plan to understand why some penguin populations are disappearing while others are growing rapidly. Together we have regularly confronted the limits of our capabilities as individual scientists, recognizing that we need a lot of help to get the answers we are looking for: help with standardized data collection, invention of the needed marking and tracking devices, and application of appropriate analytical methods. The result is a team that now includes partners from five countries, producing a steady stream of scientific and policy products.

Team members from New Zealand do all the fieldwork at one of the three primary study sites, and they maintain the long-term database on penguin population size for the entire Ross Sea region, setting the context for all we do. Italian collaborators share data from a fourth colony to confirm whether observed patterns are local to Ross Island or more broadly applicable. Partners from Oregon State University and French research groups are expert in different forms of statistical analyses and have extensive experience assessing the role of individual variability in animal population dynamics. British, German, and American colleagues contribute various types of high-tech devices for recording penguin foraging behavior, and they help us modify these devices for use in extreme weather conditions.
The region of Ross Island, in the Ross Sea of southern Antarctica, is circled on the map at left. To see a larger version, click here.

Together, through our extended networks, we form an even larger consortium of international researchers working to ensure that the world hears about our combined results. We hope that our cooperative efforts will ultimately lead to the area’s long-term protection from whaling, over-fishing, and other inappropriate resource extraction.