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Penguins in Peril

Fraser's Penguins: A Journey to the Future in Antarctica

Fen Montaigne

Henry Holt, 288 pp., $26

In the vast wilderness of the Antarctic Peninsula, Palmer Station is a tiny outpost of civilization and science. Researchers arrive there after a harrowing ship’s journey through the rough, ice-strewn waters of the Drake Passage south of Chile. One of the rewards: an opportunity to encounter the Adélie penguin -- a chubby, tuxedo-patterned creature that proves to be as resilient and feisty as it is adorable.

During the austral summer of 2005-06, journalist Fen Montaigne worked with a crew of biologists studying the dwindling population of Adélies that breed on the islands dotting the Southern Ocean. Recounting that experience in his new book Fraser’s Penguins: A Journey to the Future in Antarctica, Montaigne vividly describes both the joys and the hardships of working at Palmer Station. To reach their labs and dormitories, for instance, researchers sometimes had to ski from ship to shore over sea ice as predatory leopard seals tracked their every move from the icy water below. The land and seascape Montaigne experiences are unique, and readers will envy his time there all the more as he lays out evidence that the ecosystem that has existed there for thousands of years is now rapidly melting away.

In his book, Montaigne interweaves his own experiences with the story of Bill Fraser, a biologist who has tracked the lives of penguins and other seabirds in the area for more than thirty years and who supervises ongoing bird research based out of Palmer. Fraser first visited Palmer Station as a graduate student in 1975, collecting data on everything from algae and krill to seabirds and seals.

He had arrived just as man-made climate change began to cause the mass melting of Antarctica’s glaciers and a rapid decline in winter sea ice. By the late 1980s, numbers of chinstrap penguins and fur seals were unexpectedly booming. Conventional wisdom held that this new abundance was a side effect of the destruction of baleen whale populations in the Southern Ocean by commercial whalers, which left an unusual bounty of krill, the tiny crustaceans that feed many of the large animals of the Antarctic. That theory proved wrong, however, and Fraser was among the first to piece together the real story: Adélie penguins are disappearing as the sea ice where they spend the winter dwindles. Meanwhile, Antarctic creatures that prefer open water -- including gentoo penguins and fur seals -- are increasing and spreading farther south.

Montaigne paints a compelling portrait of the Adélie penguin. Fraser describes them as the toughest animal he’s ever encountered. "To see Adélie penguins that have almost been cut in half by leopard seals still coming back every day with a stomach full of krill for their chicks," he notes, "sets the standard for toughness." The members of Fraser’s field crew all admire Adélies, but after a visit to a breeding colony to band birds, they come away slashed and bleeding, referring to their study subjects as "the little bastards." It’s the kind of insult reserved for those we hold dear. For these researchers, watching the complex skein that knits the Adélie to the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula unravel is heartbreaking.

As the Antarctic warms, snowfall along the coast increases, with deadly results for Adélie penguins. The Adélies evolved in a polar desert and need snow-free, open beaches for nesting. The birds return faithfully to breed in their birthplaces every year, but snowed-in colonies are rapidly dying out. Often eggs laid before the snow melts end up submerged in melt water and never hatch, despite the adults’ frantic efforts to raise them above water on platforms of pebbles. Penguins in some colonies have begun to delay breeding and egg-laying to avoid the increased spring snow, but their chicks are often doomed anyway.

In the best of times, survival rates for Adélie chicks that fledge and head out to sea can be as low as 10 to 15 percent. A delay in the tempo of hatching and fledging puts the youngsters out of sync with peak summer blooms of algae and the resulting boom in krill stocks. Parents feeding their chicks later in the season must work harder to find enough food, and the young go out on their own without enough fat reserves to sustain them. This kind of climate-driven mismatch in timing between the birth of young and the blossoming of food sources is affecting wildlife worldwide, from Arctic caribou to butterflies in the Sierra Nevada. But the case of the Adélie penguin is one of the best-documented and most dramatic examples.

A good part of the book is a tale of wilderness adventure, of exploration at its most extreme. Interesting as this story is, I found myself paging ahead to find out just why the Adélies are so hard hit -- and how Fraser figured it out.

In the end, Montaigne offers a convincing argument that we should all care about the fate of the Adélie penguin, though most of us will never lay eyes on one. In recent years massive Antarctic ice shelves have melted and collapsed into the sea, increasing the already rapid retreat of glaciers. Warming at the bottom of the world will have major impacts on the rest of the planet, raising global sea levels and perhaps altering the flow of the Humboldt Current, a submarine river of cold, nutrient-rich water that flows north out of Antarctica, fueling the life of animals scattered throughout the Pacific Ocean.

The Adélie’s dire trouble is a harbinger of things to come, not just for romantic beasts in distant Antarctica, but for us all.

image of Sharon Levy
Sharon Levy spent a decade working as a field biologist in the woods of Northern California before taking up science writing full time. She is a regular contributor to National Wildlife and BioScience, as well as the author of the 2011 book Once and ... READ MORE >