Penguin foraging in a warming ocean

Understanding how penguins forage in a warming ocean

Start date
1 January, 2018
End date
31 December, 2020

The aim of this project is to learn more about the feeding habits of penguins around the Antarctic Peninsula to understand how their behaviour may be changing as the waters around the Peninsula warm.

Working with collaborators from the National Institute of Polar Research, Japan, and Oxford University, BAS scientists spent seven weeks on the remote Nelson Island studying a colony of chinstrap penguins during their breeding season. Small GPS trackers were put on the penguins to measure their location, dive recorders to measure the time and depths of dives, and tiny video cameras to film their behaviour below the surface. The data gathered will help researchers understand how penguins may be impacted by future changes to their environment.

Colony of chinstrap penguins at Nelson Island. Photo credit: Vicky Warwick-Evans

Why we need to study penguin foraging habits

There is now increasing evidence that Southern Ocean ecosystems are facing a number of globally significant challenges, which may have important impacts on Antarctic predator populations.

Some of the fastest rates of ocean warming have been recorded in the waters to the west of the Antarctic Peninsula, which may impact all levels of the marine ecosystem. For example, krill biomass may be reduced as the climate warms, and penguins may be directly impacted as a result of reduced sea ice.

Chinstrap penguins at Nelson Island. Photo credit: Vicky Warwick-Evans

Different penguin species prefer different habitats; for example, emperors breed on sea ice, whilst all other Antarctic penguins breed on land, though some prefer flat areas, whilst others can nest on steep, rocky terrain.

They all feed at sea, but they all prefer different prey; usually their diets include crustaceans (including Antarctic krill), fish and squid. As penguins spend so much time at sea, they are dependent upon healthy oceans and as such, penguins are thought to be sentinels of ocean status, providing information about a variable and changing world.

What penguins can tell us about Antarctica

The British Antarctic Survey works with many international collaborators to carry out science projects that measure changes in Antarctic ecosystems and seeks to understand the underlying drivers and processes. Marine predators are sensitive to changes in the ecosystem, some of which are natural (such as climate variability), whereas others are caused by humans (e.g. fishing).

Monitoring breeding populations of penguins is therefore an important part of the BAS science programme, providing scientists and conservationists with indicators of wider changes in the Antarctic Peninsula and elsewhere in the south-west Atlantic. These indicators include estimates of population size which we can obtain using different methods to count penguins.