Zavodovski Expedition

Evidence-based conservation of key biodiversity in the South Sandwich Islands

Start date
1 April, 2023
End date
31 March, 2025

 

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The South Sandwich Islands are the most remote and inhospitable part of the UK Overseas Territories, which means they’re also the most data-deficient. Zavodovski Island is the northernmost of the archipelago and is home to the largest penguins colony in the world and unique terrestrial fauna and flora, none of which have been surveyed accurately before owing to difficulties in accessing this active volcano with its sheer coastline that is exposed to rough seas.

Contact: Principal Investigator: Dr Norman Ratcliffe, BAS 

Funded by: Darwin Plus 

Zavodovski Island? Where is that?

This frontier-science expedition will charter a yacht that will take the six-person science team from the Falklands to Zavodovski: a voyage lasting seven days. They will land and set up a field camp for three weeks. The science team will survey the huge penguin colonies (chinstrap and macaroni) using ground counts and aerial surveys from drones and map the locations of patches of terrestrial biodiversity (mosses, lichens and associated invertebrates) relative to volcanic features (notably fumaroles, whose heat allows plants to persist in colder climates than they would otherwise tolerate). These will be used to ground-truth aerial surveys from a long-range RAF aircraft operating out of the Falklands and satellite imagery, which will facilitate future monitoring without the need for expeditions.

Chinstrap and Macaroni penguins in front of Mount Curry (Nicole Richter)
Chinstrap and Macaroni penguins in front of Mount Curry (Nicole Richter)

We will also study how penguins utilise the surrounding South Georgia South Sandwich Island Marine Protected Area throughout their annual cycle using telemetry devices to track their movements. Tracks from birds equipped with satellite tags will be updated daily on the map below from early December onwards. Distributions will be compared to boundaries of no-take zones for krill fisheries to assess how well these encompass the penguins’ core foraging areas. We will also collect penguin poo which will be analysed using DNA fingerprinting to reveal what they are eating.

The results of this study will support the development of the South Sandwich Island Terrestrial Action Plan and the SGSSI Marine Protected Area Management Plan. It will also improve our ability to produce risk assessments for any future eruptions of the island and for krill fisheries, should they start to operate in South Sandwich, waters by comparing spatial and dietary overlaps.

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This project is funded by DEFRA via a Darwin Plus grant. Collaborators are British Antarctic Survey, Oxford Brookes, Edinburgh and Cornell Universities, the Government of South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands and the Antarctic Research Trust. The Darwin Team will be accompanied by a volcanologist from RWTH Aachen university who will study the volcanology of the island and manage the risks of working on an active volcano.

In December 2023, Platform Terminal Transmitters (PTTs) were attached to chinstrap and macaroni penguins from Zavodovski Island. The birds are tracked in near real-time using the Argos system, and their locations shown on the following map.

Click on a track to find out how far the bird has gone from the release location.

Further reading

Belchier et al. 2022. From sealing to the MPA – A history of the exploitation, conservation and management of marine living resources around the South Sandwich Islands. Deep Sea Research II 199: 105056.

Clucas et al. 2022. Using habitat models for chinstrap penguins Pygoscelis antarctica to inform marine spatial management around the South Sandwich Islands during the breeding season. Deep Sea Research II 199: 105093. [

Convey et al. 1999. Survey of marine birds and mammals in the South Sandwich Islands. Polar Record 35: 107-194.

Convey et al. 2000. The terrestrial mico-arthropod fauna of the South Sandwich Islands. Journal of Natural History 34: 597-609.

Convey et al. 2000. The flora of the South Sandwich Islands, with particular reference to the influence of geothermal heating. Journal of Biogeography 27: 1279-1295

Lynch et al. 2016. In stark contrast to widespread declines along the Scotia Arc, a survey of the South Sandwich Islands finds a robust seabird community. Polar Biology 39: 1615-1625.

Ratcliffe et al. 2015. Do krill fisheries compete with macaroni penguins? Spatial overlap in prey consumption and catches during winter. Diversity and Distributions 21: 1139-1348.

Related projects 

New South Sandwich Islands research – British Antarctic Survey (bas.ac.uk) 

Chinstrap Penguin Tracking – British Antarctic Survey (bas.ac.uk) 

Gentoo Penguin Tracking – British Antarctic Survey (bas.ac.uk) 

Higher Predators – Long-Term Science – British Antarctic Survey (bas.ac.uk) 

Our project aims establish a robust baseline and build capacity for low-cost monitoring of penguins and terrestrial biodiversity on Zavodovski Island, South Sandwich Islands: a data deficient yet important biodiversity area. Validated methods will subsequently be expanded to the whole archipelago. We will also track penguin seasonal movements and diets to determine potential overlaps with krill fisheries. Evidence will support the update of the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands Government’s Marine Protected Area Action Plan and development of proposed South Sandwich Islands Terrestrial Protected Area Action Plan.