Friday, March 31, 2023

The mystery of the world’s loneliest penguins

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A few years earlier, researchers from Ushuaia, Argentina’s southernmost city, observed unexpected winter visitors. Martillo Island, a patch of land in the Beagle Channel, regularly attracts tourist boats due to its photogenic colonies of Magellanic and Gentoo penguins. Visit today, however, and you might be lucky enough to spot an alien: a king penguin, peering across the channel from the island’s pebble beach, head and shoulders taller than gentoos and about twice the size of magellanics.

A handful of king penguins have been captured by camera traps on the islands, often hanging out in the Gentoo nesting areas. King penguins can be found elsewhere in Patagonia, but had not been spotted on this island before. How they got there, where they came from, or even how many there are, is a mystery. “We don’t know anything about king penguins on Martillo Island,” says Sami Dodino, a penguin scientist at the Argentine scientific institute CADIC.

Ushuaia, just at the southern tip of Argentina, is known as “End of the World”. Travel about 1000 km south and the next place you reach is Antarctica (but not before passing through another settlement on the Chilean side of the Beagle Channel, Puerto Williams – “Beyond the World’s End”). Martillo Island is home to Magellanic penguins, small birds that have the peculiarity of digging burrows to nest, since the 1970s, and has welcomed gentoos, a larger species that collects rocks to build nests on the ground, in the 1990s. King penguins are more like the ones you probably first imagine when you imagine a penguin. The second largest species after the emperor penguin, they have distinctive orange “cheeks” and yellow-orange plumage at the top of their breasts. The adults are elegant in stature, the chicks are endearing in their round brown fuzziness.

It is not known whether these few king penguins arrived on Martillo Island by accident or by design. “It’s probably an accident,” says Andrea Raya Rey, researcher at CADIC. “They wandered around the ocean in search of food.” When it’s time to moult, king penguins return to land – usually back to their original colony – before returning to the ocean. But in this case, they might have looked around, seen the other penguin species on Martillo Island, and landed there to change their feathers instead. “King penguins are very distant foragers, so they are expanding their range,” says Raya Rey.

Researchers know from genetic tests that the gentoo colony on Martillo Island came from individuals who came from the Falkland Islands; there are now about 30 pairs. The same could be true for visitors to the king penguin. Alternatively, they can come from Inútil Bay, a few hundred kilometers north of Chile; Staten Island to the east; or South Georgia Island, which has a large colony of king penguins, in the Atlantic.

When king penguins were first sighted on Martillo Island, researchers believe they may have been juveniles, as they didn’t appear to be trying to breed. But in recent years, a couple have managed to lay an egg. Last year, for the first time, they managed to hatch a chick.

Unfortunately, the excitement did not last long, as the chick died a few weeks later. “We think maybe it’s because we had a hot summer for Ushuaia,” said Dodino. Raya Rey adds that the chick would probably have died in the winter anyway, as the parents were likely inexperienced and at a disadvantage due to their small group. Usually, king penguin chicks congregate in winter to warm up while their parents hunt for food; it doesn’t work with just one chick. “They’re trying to start a new colony, but it’s very difficult for only a few individuals,” she says.


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