UW News

April 9, 2009

Celebrating 25 years of penguin research with new Center for Penguins as Ocean Sentinels

News and Information

In 1982 Dee Boersma began making friends with the Magellanic penguins who hang out at Punta Tombo on Argentina’s southern Atlantic Coast, and data from that first research season was compiled in her UW lab the following spring.

The biology professor celebrated 25 years of data from the colony on Saturday with an open house in her Kincaid Hall laboratory followed by special presentations at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.

The numbers from the Penguin Project include:

  • 56,289 penguins banded.
  • 25,472 eggs measured.
  • 174,019 measurements taken on 56,568 individual chicks.
  • 443 satellite tags deployed.
  • 1,838 books of data compiled.
  • Nearly 2.34 million individual records.

Boersma has found the research gratifying, as she learned about the intricacies of Magellanic penguin behavior. But it also has been heartbreaking, as she identified threats to penguin survival and watched the Punta Tombo population decline by 20 percent. She recently found that, just in the last decade, the penguins have had to swim an average of 25 miles farther from the nesting grounds to find food during the crucial time of egg incubation.

In the last year her work has drawn substantial publicity as she examined mounting perils the flightless birds confront, including changing climate that has moved schools of the fish they feed on farther away from their nesting grounds, and an increasing number of oil slicks that makes it more likely that foraging birds will be fouled and perhaps die.

Now the Penguin Project is set to expand its reach as part of a new UW Center for Ocean Sentinels. The center’s four components include the Penguin Project, Conservation Magazine, a volunteer and student research program and the start of the International Penguin Society.

The International Penguin Society will be largely funded by a Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation awarded to Pablo “Popi” García Borboroglu, an Argentine scientist who has accepted a UW visiting faculty position.

The $150,000 Pew award will be used for a three-year conservation project designed to address critical challenges to healthy oceans. Borboroglu will use his fellowship to form a coalition aimed at protecting all penguins, assessing penguin populations’ status, promote integrating the new research into science-based conservation, advise governments on better management policies and develop media campaigns to educate communities about how to improve the quality of life for both penguins and people.

Borboroglu has conducted research and conservation work in Argentina for a number of years but one of the drawbacks, he said, is that his research has been published almost exclusively in English-language journals. That makes it harder for the Spanish-speaking people who live closest to the Punta Tombo penguins and those in the Argentine government to understand the scope of the problems the penguins face.