How to Follow a Penguin Out to Sea and Back

A lot of science involves thinking of questions you want the answers to, and then figuring out how to get them. Many times, it requires finding a way to see something the naked eye can’t see—things that are too big, too small, too fast, too far away, or otherwise hidden from view.

That’s the problem with understanding how penguins feed their chicks. The bustling colonies around Palmer hold thousands of penguins. They’re nearly identical, and they disappear underwater when they go out to feed. To solve the problem, the CONVERGE penguin team attaches satellite transmitters to a couple of dozen penguins each season. The data that comes back tells them how far the penguins have swum and how deeply and how often they’ve dived. It’s a glimpse of the answer to the question, and every transmitter helps expand that glimpse.

In the last few days we’ve gone along with the penguin team to see how they put transmitters on penguins and how they retrieve them. Click through the slideshow to see what we learned:

A Busy Season for EveryoneCatching SnowflakesThe Long ArmThe Flipper GripFifty Grams of Electronics and Nine Pieces of TapeSweet FreedomReunited and It Feels So GoodCalling All PenguinsNext Stop, Gentoos

The satellite transmitters send data to a satellite frequently whenever a penguin is not diving. The scientists can access the location data each day, even before they have retrieved the tags from the birds. So far this year, they’re finding that the penguins are making short trips and foraging within a few miles of their colonies, Fraser told me. Adelie penguins are capable of swimming much farther than that, so this perhaps indicates that they’re finding plenty of krill in the region near Palmer Station. The penguin team shares their detailed results with the other CONVERGE scientists so that they can decide the best places to sample for krill and to have their gliders investigate. We’ll check back in with those teams tomorrow to see what they’ve found.

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  1. Ms. Edmonds January 13, 2015 at 1:20 pm #

    I have a few questions from my students who are part of the project CONVERGE.

    Kevin from hr. 26 asks: How does the team attach the satellite transmitters to the penguins and how do they work?

    David N. from hr. 26 ask: How did the penguin react to the placing of the transmitter on them and does it effect their ability to swim?

    Stephany from hr.27 asks: Do the other penguins try to remove the device or have any penguins (or other animals) ever destroy a transmitter while it was attached to a penguin?

    • Hugh Powell January 26, 2015 at 10:08 pm #

      Hi Ms. Edmonds – apologies for the delay in writing back to you. I tracked down Shawn Farry of the penguin research team and he answered these questions for me. For Kevin’s question: the team uses a special kind of tape, cut into 9 strips, to fasten the transmitters securely to the birds’ feathers. Then they fasten a couple of zip ties over the tape as a safety measure to keep the transmitter tightly on. The tags work by receiving a GPS signal that tells the location of the tag, and then reporting that location through satellite back to the researchers, so they can see where the penguins are going almost in real time. To answer David’s and Stephany’s questions: the penguins don’t seem to react at all to the transmitter during the three days they wear the devices. The transmitters probably affect how well the penguins swim slightly, which is another reason why the team only puts them on for three days so as not to burden the penguins too much. They’ve never seen a penguin try to destroy or remove a satellite tag, either while it was on them or on another penguin. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  2. brian francisco January 13, 2015 at 2:34 pm #

    how do you put the chips on the penguins without them trying to take it off.

    • Hugh Powell January 15, 2015 at 2:15 pm #

      Hi Brian – One person carefully holds the penguin by the feet, with the bird’s head tucked under their arm. That’s what Kirstie Yeager is doing in photo #5 in this post. Then another person uses a special kind of tape to attach the transmitter to the feathers on the bird’s back. They use pre-measured strips of tape in a particular pattern that holds the transmitter securely on. The transmitter is in a place that’s hard for the penguin to reach with its bill, and it’s only on the bird for about three days, so they don’t have the chance to take it off. Thanks – Hugh

  3. Linda Librizzi January 13, 2015 at 2:56 pm #

    My class was thrilled to learn about the penguins and how you are tagging them.
    We were excited to see the male return to the female with such joy.
    Your work is inspirational to us all!
    Thank you for your blogs.
    We are trying to check them and read them everyday.
    Best wishes for a great day…

    • Hugh Powell January 14, 2015 at 2:45 pm #

      Hi Linda – thanks to you and your class for following our blog and sending in such good questions. Hope we can give you much more to talk about over the next few weeks! – Hugh

  4. Danielle January 13, 2015 at 3:01 pm #

    Do the penguins feel any discomfort with the tracker?

    • Hugh Powell January 26, 2015 at 10:03 pm #

      Hi Danielle – I asked Shawn Farry, the leader of the penguin field team, and he said that as far as he can tell, the penguins do not feel any discomfort with the satellite tags. They typically don’t behave like they even know it’s on their back, once they’ve been released back into the colony, and he’s never seen a penguin try to take the tracker off. Thanks for your question – Hugh

  5. Maria Stoupakis January 14, 2015 at 3:36 pm #

    do parent penguins follow the penguin chicks out to sea? or do they let them be on their own to learn how to train themselves for when the parent isnt there anymore?

    • Hugh Powell January 15, 2015 at 2:05 pm #

      Hi Maria, Parent penguins usually leave the colony well before their chicks do. They feed the chicks so that they’re good and fat, and then they leave the chicks on the beach to complete their molt from fluffy down to crisp black and white feathers. When the chicks finally swim off into the ocean to start their lives at sea, they do it without their parents. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  6. Kelly January 14, 2015 at 3:40 pm #

    How does the climate changes like the difference in the temperature affect the Adelie penguins?

    • Hugh Powell January 17, 2015 at 5:20 pm #

      Hi Kelly, Climate change is having a strong effect on Adelie penguin populations on the Antarctic peninsula. The average temperature here has risen by about 1 degree Fahrenheit per decade. Though that sounds fairly slow, it is causing big changes to the glaciers and ice sheets, and it is forcing Adelie penguins to stop breeding in the Palmer Station region. In the last 35 years, Adelie penguin numbers have fallen by about 90 percent. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  7. Donna Berry January 15, 2015 at 1:39 pm #

    My name is Donna Berry. I am the Library Media Specialist working with Mrs. Weintraub at I.S. 2, the George L. Egbert School in Staten Island, New York. I have so many questions about the work you are doing. Learning along with the students is great. I wanted to know how you extract some of the blubber from the whales? What is the device used to do this? Last, how do the whales react when some of the blubber is sampled?

    • Hugh Powell January 15, 2015 at 2:40 pm #

      Hi Donna – Thanks for asking! We’re actually planning a post in the next few days to look at the whale sampling in a little more detail, so stay tuned. Briefly, the whale team shoots a dart from a crossbow at the whale. The dart has a hollow tip that goes about 3/4 of an inch into the whale and then bounces out, taking a small amount of skin and blubber with it. The dart floats, so after the whale dives, the team motors over, picks up the dart, and saves the sample into a small plastic bag for analysis later. Thanks for reading along and for sending in your questions! – Hugh

  8. Andrew January 15, 2015 at 6:02 pm #

    Hi. I’m one of Mrs. Hester-Fearon’s eighth grade students. I’m fascinated about the research so far! Apparently attaching transmitters on animals, such as these penguins, are useful in collecting data. I read one other previous comment that stated that the equipment is secured by a special tape. However, if there were circumstances when the transmitter somehow unfastened, how would you tell the difference between the false data from the transmitter drifting in the currents compared to the ones still attached on the penguins?

    • Hugh Powell January 16, 2015 at 7:34 pm #

      Hi Andrew – that’s a really good question. I asked Shawn Farry, the penguin field team leader. He said that the main thing that would happen is the transmitter would sink, and it wouldn’t be able to transmit any data back at all. However, even if the transmitter did keep sending back its location, the researchers would be pretty sure it wasn’t on a penguin because of its behavior. A floating transmitter wouldn’t dive at all, and it would just move slowly along with the surface currents. A penguin, on the other hand, would swim quickly, change direction a lot, and dive often. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  9. Danielleschool28 January 16, 2015 at 2:27 pm #

    I was wondering if the process of putting the chips in the penguins hurts them in any way?

    • Hugh Powell January 16, 2015 at 7:24 pm #

      Hi Danielle – These researchers don’t put chips into penguins—they just attach tags to their feathers using tape. It doesn’t hurt the penguins. There are other researchers who put small identification chips in penguins using the same method people use with their pets. It’s done with a small needle and it doesn’t hurt the penguins (or the pets) either. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  10. Philip school 28 January 16, 2015 at 2:28 pm #

    Do the other penguins that haven’t been tagged act as if the penguin with the tag is an outcast/do they reject him because of this?

    • Hugh Powell January 16, 2015 at 7:22 pm #

      Hi Philip – Penguins in a colony typically aren’t too concerned with other penguins unless they’re invading their space. When a tagged penguin is released, it usually scampers right back to its nest and rejoins its mate. I haven’t seen any penguins treating tagged penguins differently. For example, this afternoon we found a tagged penguin on the beach. It was just coming in from the sea and it was with two other penguins that didn’t seem to notice the tag. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  11. Melanie Sosa January 19, 2015 at 1:23 am #

    Hi, I’m one of Mrs. Hester-Fearson’s eighth grade students. I am truly amazed how the team worked hard together to get such things accomplished. It seems very successful so far, which is fantastic! However, since chicks are around their parents don’t the parents get defensive or have some sort of instinct to protect their young? In the photographs, it looks as if they don’t have any worries except for a little hesitance when you grab them to latch on the transmitter.

    • Hugh Powell January 22, 2015 at 5:58 pm #

      Hi Melanie – great question. The penguins do get very defensive over their chicks. They nip at the researchers with their beaks and whack them with their powerful flippers, often giving the researchers bruises. However, the researchers don’t put transmitters on the chicks, they put them on the adults. The only thing the researchers do with the chicks is weigh and measure them. Even so the adults are pretty protective. Thanks for reading and for sending us this question – Hugh

    • Melanie Sosa January 28, 2015 at 7:57 pm #

      Thank you! Your answer is very helpful.

  12. Christopher January 20, 2015 at 11:31 am #

    Hi, Im one of Ms. Fearon’s students. I felt curious and wanted to ask how much does a tracker chip costs. I would appreciate a response thanks.

    • Hugh Powell January 22, 2015 at 11:02 am #

      Hi Christopher – The satellite transmitters used on penguins cost between $2000 and $4000 each, depending on the exact specifications. They get reused many times over the years, so that cost gets spread out and each tag brings back a lot of data. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  13. Claudia January 21, 2015 at 3:03 pm #

    I really like your blog it’s super factual and interesting

  14. Elizabeth school 28 January 21, 2015 at 3:28 pm #

    what is the total numbers of penguins you guys have tagged?

    • Hugh Powell January 22, 2015 at 10:59 am #

      Hi Elizabeth – Donna Fraser told me that over the last several years they have put satellite tags on more than 200 penguins. They only put tags on each penguin for about 3 days, and they reuse the tags for another penguin afterwards. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  15. Girley January 22, 2015 at 4:38 pm #

    I think that’s a very interesting device that the penguins use. I wonder how the trackers manage to stay on the penguins for that long.

  16. Keila January 22, 2015 at 10:44 pm #

    Good evening Hugh, I am one of Mrs. Hester-fearon’s 8th grade students, I’m very interested in penguins. As I’m reading the blog and looking at each photo carefully, I’m was wondering if the satellite transmitters bother any of the penguins? Do any of the penguins rebel against using the satellite transmitter and try to take it off? Also, are the satellite transmitters heavy for them?

    • Hugh Powell January 26, 2015 at 9:36 pm #

      Hi Keila – good question. I asked Shawn Farry, the leader of the penguin team, and he said he has never seen a penguin try to remove its transmitter. In fact, most of the time it seems like they don’t notice it at all, Farry said. The transmitters are not very heavy—they weigh a couple of ounces while the penguins themselves weigh 8 to 10 pounds. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  17. Jennifer Chen January 26, 2015 at 12:36 pm #

    How do you get the chips onto the Adelie Pengyins without them noticing? What if the penguins with chips are attacked while foraging, what will happen to the chip?

    • Hugh Powell January 26, 2015 at 8:24 pm #

      Hi Jennifer – the penguins definitely notice when the team puts the tags on them. They get grabbed out of their colony and then held carefully while the team attaches the tag with tape. But they don’t seem to mind the tags after they’ve been put on, and the researchers only keep the tags on for about three days. It would be pretty rare for a predator to attack a penguin while it had a transmitter on it. If the predator killed the penguin or knocked the transmitter off, it would most likely sink to the bottom and, because the tag’s signal doesn’t travel through water, the researchers would have no way of finding it. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  18. Caleb January 27, 2015 at 5:19 pm #

    What will you guys do with the data you collect?

    • Hugh Powell February 2, 2015 at 12:01 pm #

      Hi Caleb, The scientists will get together and analyze the data to see whether it supports their hypotheses. Then they’ll write reports about what they found and submit them to scientific journals, so that other scientists can learn from the work they’ve done. Thanks – Hugh