Currently, there are numerous serious threats to marine predators in the Southern Ocean: namely climate change, fisheries, and direct human disturbance.However, these threats overlap in much of the Scotia Arc (the region from South America, sub-Antarctic islands and the Antarctic Peninsula). As we move away from scientific bases, less data is available on populations of predators and, consequently, huge gaps remain in our understanding of the Antarctic ecosystem.
Camera technology affords us the ability to deploy ‘virtual ecologists’ in hard-to-reach areas, or in places where human presence might disturb wildlife and therefore disrupt their behaviour. Since 2009, we have been deploying time-lapse cameras to monitor penguins year-round all around the Scotia Arc in order to better understand how threats to the ecosystem disrupt the dynamics of resident wildlife.
Our camera-monitoring program currently consists of 72 cameras throughout the Southern Ocean and along the Antarctic Peninsula, overlooking colonies of gentoo, chinstrap, Adélie, rockhopper, macaroni, and king penguins. The cameras take images of the penguins year-round and are able to determine the health of the colony by obtaining nest survival rates while also observing novel behaviours, such as why and where penguins spend their winter months. We now have millions of images that we are working our way through. You can help! Visit Penguin Watch to help us count penguins.
For more information see Caitlin Blacks’ personal page here.
Penguin Population Structure and Demography
Due to the remoteness of penguin colonies in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic, relatively little is known about large-scale movements between colonies or between island archipelagos. Even less is known about population responses to periods of climate change in the past, up to and including the Last Glacial Maximum. Using genetic and genomic techniques, we are able to estimate how often penguins disperse around Antarctica, identify barriers to gene flow, detect signatures of local adaptation and estimate when populations have expanded or contracted. We can use this information to inform conservation policies that will protect the genetic diversity of penguin populations, to identify the environmental conditions necessary for population growth and to determine whether population size changes that we see today are due to recruitment from other populations or changes in local breeding success.
For more information see Gemma Clucas’s personal page here.
Monitoring Penguin Population Health
One of the most poorly understood elements affecting penguin populations under environmental stress from climate change and competition for prey is the role of disease. Our group is working to uncover the present state of parasite and pathogen diversity and prevalence in sub-Antarctic and Antarctic penguins. Using the latest genetic techniques, we are attempting to map host-pathogen population structure across the region to inform conservation policy.
More information can be found on Hila Levy’s personal page here.