Here Comes the Neighborhood

Donna Fraser remembers the day in 1993 when her team found the first gentoo penguin nests ever recorded at Biscoe Point. Fourteen pairs had set up a tiny colony on the rocky headland, which lies just 8 miles from Palmer Station. Gentoos are Fraser’s favorite penguin, and her response was, “Awesome, we’ve got gentoos in our study area!” But as much as she likes them personally—“I think gentoos just make everything right with the world,” she told me—it’s been a shock to see how drastically Adelie penguins have declined while gentoos have increased in the last 20 years.

Fraser and other penguin scientists are still researching the details of this switch, but the root cause is clear. The climate around Palmer Station has become more suitable for gentoos and less suitable for Adelies—and in geological terms it’s happened quickly. Click through the slideshow to explore the gentoo arrival in more detail:

Enter the GentooStreaming Into BiscoeUneasy NeighborsSimilar and DifferentThey Make a Gentoo SoundA Unique Sense of Home DecoratingFamily LifeKrill SmoothieThe Gentoos’ Next Frontier

My descriptions of penguin sounds weren’t so good, but fortunately I also have recordings from a couple of the nearby colonies. Listen to them below—and then if you can think of a good way to describe the sounds, write it in the comments. We’d love to hear your descriptions.

Here’s the gentle sound of a gentoo penguin colony from Biscoe Point, recorded on Jan. 12:

And here’s the harsher sound of an Adelie penguin colony from Torgersen Island, recorded on Jan. 10:

***Mt. Shackleton was named for the great British explorer Ernest Shackleton, who nearly reached the South Pole in 1908 and who sailed into the Weddell Sea in 1914 on a ship called the Endurance. The penguin team’s Shawn Farry reminded us that today was the 100th anniversary of the day that the Endurance became trapped in sea ice, forcing Shackleton and his men to camp out on the sea ice for the winter—and that’s just the beginning of one of the greatest survival stories in Antarctic history.

This entry was posted in Mission Blog and tagged , , .


  1. Arlene Lennox January 20, 2015 at 11:00 am #

    Sounds sort of like walking into a chicken coop.

  2. Ms. Dunbar January 20, 2015 at 3:27 pm #

    They sort of sound like the Canadian Geese that flock on the shore of our local pond.

    Chris Linder ~ we were wondering how you capture the moments that pass so quickly, like the glider slipping beneath the waves and the red “R” standing out or the picture of the penguin from the blog on Jan 18th as it dives off the iceberg.

    • Hugh Powell January 22, 2015 at 1:52 am #

      Hi Ms. Dunbar, I asked Chris this question—it’s one he gets a lot. The main way he does it is by practicing, practicing, practicing, until he knows ahead of time what kinds of settings he needs for each type of shot, and until he can operate all the buttons on his camera without looking. This means that when something is happening quickly, he has a head start and can get the camera prepared in almost no time, and still have time to get a great shot. He also takes a lot of photographs, he told me, which also increases his chances of catching one at just the right moment. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  3. Robert Reed January 20, 2015 at 4:28 pm #

    Thanks for keeping us posted on the happenings at Palmer. I have a special interest in what is happenig down there, my baby sister is Donna Fraser. The images and stories are captivating, and we have been following Donna and the activites at Palmer for many years.

    Please give the squirt a hug from her “bestest brother” and keep up the good work!

  4. Claudia Willson January 20, 2015 at 6:24 pm #

    lovely sounds, both of them, I would like to play them before sleep at night. Some of the sounds sound similar to chickens while the purring sounds are hard to relate to anything else.

  5. Basia Lubicz January 20, 2015 at 8:26 pm #

    sounds like stepping into my son’s room at night when he was a toddler
    Or the playpen ramblings

  6. Keisey January 20, 2015 at 9:37 pm #

    The sounds that were recorded of the gentoo penguins and adelie penguins are very clear to hear and it sounds as if they were communicating with each other.

  7. sue duffy January 20, 2015 at 9:56 pm #

    I agree that the first one sounds like my chicken coop in the evening, the second sounds a little like theybare wheezing. I did like them both

  8. Sherrie Neilson January 20, 2015 at 10:03 pm #

    Miss traveling with Lindblad and Donna. Always eager for penguin counting news.

  9. Gary Paxton January 20, 2015 at 10:58 pm #

    My students participated in a penguin program at Jenksinson’s Aquarium in Point Pleasant, N.J.. As the penguin walked though the classroom, students loved his personality and learned a lot about his behaviors. Unfortunately, our penguin did not talk, but we heard them in the display. My students were more interested in the sounds, then your great pictures.

  10. Alexandra P January 21, 2015 at 9:52 am #

    Hi I am one of Mrs.Hester- Fearon’s eighth grade students and I was wondering is there were polar bears living near where you are researching? I was wondering that because I was always told that there were polar bares in Antarctia but on your blog I do not see any. Thank you!

    • Hugh Powell January 22, 2015 at 1:42 am #

      Hi Alexandra – Polar bears do not live in Antarctica. They only live in the arctic. That means that you are many thousand miles nearer to a polar bear than we are! Thanks for asking – Hugh

  11. Gary Paxton January 21, 2015 at 8:14 pm #

    I saw Gentoos in the Shedd Aquarium in November. They were very fast swimmers and very fun to watch. I liked them more than the Rockhoppers.

  12. Jack Christoff January 22, 2015 at 3:04 pm #

    Are the bird’s feathers waterproof?

    • Hugh Powell January 22, 2015 at 7:03 pm #

      Hi Jack! Most of the birds’ feathers are waterproof as long as the birds keep them neatly preened and oiled. They have an oily gland on their tail and they wipe protective oil onto their feathers with their bill. If you watch a bird at home while it’s preening, you’ll see it do this, too. Cormorants are an exception – they don’t waterproof their feathers as much, and this may help the birds dive more efficiently by keeping them from being too buoyant. Great question! Thanks for writing and take care until I see you again! – Uncle Hugh

  13. Mahia January 22, 2015 at 4:27 pm #

    amazing photography. I would guess that Chris uses zoom. Would penguins gets startled if you were too close to them? How far from them is he when he takes the pictures?

    • Hugh Powell January 22, 2015 at 7:00 pm #

      Hi Mahia, Chris uses a lot of different lenses, but yes, he’s most often using an 80-400 mm zoom lens when photographing penguins. He’s usually anywhere from about 6 feet to hundreds of yards from the penguins when he photographs them. Sometimes he’s closer – but that’s usually when he’s sitting still and a curious penguin walks up to him. Penguins do get startled if you accidentally walk too close to them – we try to be aware of our surroundings at all times so that we don’t do this. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  14. Natalie January 22, 2015 at 4:27 pm #

    Are gentoos usually this nice to other penguins, and just naturally to other animals in their environment.

    • Hugh Powell January 22, 2015 at 6:58 pm #

      Hi Natalie, Gentoos seem to be more mellow, or at least less high-strung, than Adelies. But they are still wild animals and they are all trying their hardest to raise their own chicks and get food for their own family. So they still threaten other animals when they come too close and peck at each other when a strange penguin walks too close to their nest. Thanks for your question – Hugh

  15. Nahshon January 22, 2015 at 4:54 pm #

    I wonder if the reason that the penguins stick together is because they are all protecting each other as a group.

    • Hugh Powell January 26, 2015 at 9:48 pm #

      Hi Nahshon – good question. Penguins do get some protection from living as a group. For example, the edges of a breeding colony often have single birds or pairs with empty nests. These birds often charge at skuas to chase them away, even though they have no chicks of their own to protect. But on the other hand, the penguins are basically all trying to keep themselves and their own young alive, so there are limits to how much they will protect others. You can see this when a skua is harassing one nest and the penguins next door have to try to protect their own nests rather than help the one being attacked. Thanks for sending in this interesting question – Hugh

  16. Samantha M. January 22, 2015 at 7:05 pm #

    Hi, I’m one of Mrs. Hester-Fearon’s 8th grade students’. I just wanted to inform you that what you are doing and the information you are providing is amazing. Especially with the penguins! But I was reading one of the other blogs about the change in shape and color of the icebergs and such and I just wanted to know: Do they penguins aware of this and does it affect them in any way shape or form?

    Samantha M.

    • Hugh Powell January 26, 2015 at 9:43 pm #

      Hi Samantha, What an interesting question. Penguins probably have good color vision, like other birds – so they are probably aware of the different colors of icebergs. I don’t think shape or color of ice has a strong effect on the penguins, except that gently sloping or low icebergs can be used as a raft or resting platform. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  17. Marcy Isherwood January 22, 2015 at 11:41 pm #

    Thank you so much for audio of the Penguins. they have always been my favorite wild animal since I was a child. And was told “no” I could not get a pet Penguin! What a disappointment for me.
    The audio of the Gentoo penguins started out almost of a soft purring and trilling sound with some honks almost, like geese!
    The Adelies have a throatier sound with a rougher tone. again they sound sound like deeper geese!
    Either of them would make a nice” white” background music for sleep!
    But then again, I am partial to the penguins!

  18. Tysef Foster January 23, 2015 at 1:20 pm #

    will the adelie penguins be able to adapt to the less suitable climate.

    • Hugh Powell January 24, 2015 at 10:48 am #

      Hi Tysef,

      It takes a long time for animals to adapt evolutionarily to a change. The main response of Adelies will most likely be to move to a place where the climate is more suitable. That’s what we’re seeing at Palmer Station – Adelies are having a harder time raising young around here, so they’re disappearing. Farther south in Antarctica, where the climate is still suitable, their numbers are increasing. This is similar to the problem humans are facing with climate change. There’s not much we can do to change the climate we live in, so we will have to figure out ways of moving or otherwise dealing with the climate we find ourselves in. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  19. Ashley O January 25, 2015 at 7:09 pm #

    hello! I am one of mrs. hesterfearons 8th grade students. I would like to know, how the penguins stay warm in such cold weather? Also, why did the amount of adelie penguins decrease? Thanks for reading my comment! Stay warm!

    • Hugh Powell January 26, 2015 at 8:48 pm #

      Hi Ashley – Most birds stay warm because of their fluffy down feathers, but adult penguins don’t have down feathers. They stay warm from a thick layer of fat or blubber beneath their skin. Your question about why Adelie penguins is one of the most important questions that the penguin team is working to understand. The general answer seems to be that the climate here has warmed so much in the last 50 years that sea ice conditions have changed. Adelie penguins are much more reliant on sea ice than the other two penguins (chinstraps and gentoos), so they have started to disappear from the region. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  20. cristian January 26, 2015 at 11:23 am #

    How do the penguins keep the chicks warm?
    Thanks for looking at our blogs LMS.

    • Hugh Powell January 26, 2015 at 8:40 pm #

      Hi Cristian – when the penguin chicks are small the adults stand over them and let the chicks snuggle under their belly feathers. Underneath, there’s a patch of skin with no feathers on it called a brood patch. This lets the parents’ warmth transfer over to the chicks more efficently. After a couple of weeks the chicks get too big to fit under the parents, and soon they are standing on their own, kept warm by their down coats. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  21. Scooter January 29, 2015 at 8:23 pm #

    I wasn’t aware there was a Gentoo until I watched a PBS special on them. It was about a British Post Office, that became a tourist attraction. Most informative.
    Packed with Penguin facts about a rather fascinating bird.

  22. Kathy McDonough January 31, 2015 at 2:22 pm #

    I thoroughly enjoyed your live webcast this morning. It is the first time I have seen, watched and read about your work.

    A couple of questions: since the Adelie penguins return to the same colony location each year, do you have evidence of any kind that suggests that the diminishing numbers in the last 20 years reflect those who did not survive, or are they, in fact, seeking out new colony and nesting locations farther south the following winter? Are Adelie penguin colonies in other Anarctic locations growing with any “transient” penguins as a result, even though the net population of all Adelies has dramatically declined?

    How do you capture and tag them? Are they wearing radio transmitters or embedded with chips? I understand you removed the flipper bands, but does that mean you cannot track individual birds any other way?

    Continue your good work; it is a pleasure to see “science in action”. You may add me to your fan base!

    • Hugh Powell February 2, 2015 at 11:21 am #

      Dear Kathy – Thanks for tuning in and I’m glad you found the webcast interesting. You have some great questions about Adelie population numbers. As you can imagine, it’s quite difficult to be sure about the population changes in a species that nests in such remote locations. But all evidence indicates that Adelies are not moving from Palmer Station to areas south of here. Lots of studies have shown that on the whole, Adelies are very tied to the colony or island where they grew up. A few young birds do end up switching colonies or moving far afield, but mostly they come right back to the place where they were hatched. The slow decline of Adelies probably is a result of birds trying to nest here faithfully year after year. As they age and eventually die, they are not producing enough offspring to keep their numbers stable, and so the overall population drops. Farther south, some Adelie penguin colonies are growing. This is probably also an effect of survival—except there, Adelies are doing better with more of their chicks are surviving to adulthood. When those chicks come back to their colony as adults, the population grows. For more about how Adelie penguins are captured and tagged, see this post: How to Follow a Penguin Out to Sea and Back The tags are a combination of satellite and radio transmitters. They are attached with tape to the feathers and are not embedded int he penguins. They allow the scientists to track a penguin usually for three days at a time; at the end of the season the scientists sometimes put on transmitters that last for a few months. After that, the transmitter comes off and there’s no way to know where individual birds are going. Thanks again for your interest and great questions – Hugh

One Trackback

  1. By Test Your Memory With “What in the World?” on January 31, 2015 at 12:26 am

    […] Brush Strokes: Big and Bad, or Just Misunderstood? Meet the Southern Giant-Petrel Drawn by a Ruler? Here Comes the Neighborhood Black and White and Slightly Pink: Sights and Smells of Summer in an Adelie Penguin Colony […]