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Tagging Adorable, Nasty Little Penguins: #bestjobever

The world has had a love affair with penguins for some time now. Their tuxedo-colored feathers, waddling walk, and awkward mannerisms make them easy to adore. But get too close to penguins—chinstrap penguins in particular—and your endearing perception of these birds may be tested, given their penchant for projectile pooping and beating each other up.

Douglas Krause, a National Geographic grantee and a wildlife biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), knows all too well the mischievous behavior of chinstrap penguins. Krause is with a team of NOAA researchers in Cape Shirreff, Antarctica, collecting data to help protect chinstrap penguins and other Antarctic species, which means he often finds himself squarely in the center a chinstrap penguin colony.

“Every time you touch them or get near them, the very first thing that they do is projectile poop. They, and everything around them, are constantly covered in feces,” Krause says of the penguins. “We’ll have a whole separate set of field gear that’s only for the purpose of working with penguins, because you are covered in poop to such a degree that you can’t clean it.”

Chinstrap penguins are undoubtedly adorable, but not always polite.
Chinstrap penguins are undoubtedly adorable, but they’re not known for their manners.

Chinstrap penguins are also known for being a little rough around the edges for reasons beyond their bathroom etiquette. “They’re cantankerous; they tend to be very aggressive. They’ll regularly beat smaller chinstrap penguins for seemingly no reason at all,” says Krause. Nonetheless, he and the NOAA team are committed to protecting the sometimes crabby critters.

As NOAA seabird research leader Dr. Jefferson Hinke explains, “Penguins are an ideal animal for assessing the status of the Antarctic ecosystem. They’re approachable, return to predictable areas every year, and are large enough to carry an array of instruments that give us a direct window into their world.”

“We’re putting radio tags on the penguins to track when they go out to find food and when they come back. So if it’s taking them a very long time to go out and find food, it means the conditions out there are not very good. We can pass that data onto agencies that set commercial fishing regulations to protect the entire ecosystem,” says Krause. “To attach the radio tags, we’ll insert a common plastic zip tie through the feathers on the penguin’s back to give the attachment a stable base, and then we’ll add little bit of nontoxic epoxy glue to ensure the tag doesn’t get loose during the deployment. When it comes time to recover the radio tag a few weeks later, we’ll simply catch the bird, clip that plastic zip tie and the instrument just comes off. And if there’s any residue left over it will come off in a few weeks when the penguins naturally molt all their feathers.”

Tagging the penguins is part of a much bigger picture to protect Antarctica’s environment and the animals that call it home. “Commercial fishing is taking place all around the Antarctic and it can impact the ecosystem that these animals are a part of,” Krause explains. “I am often asked, ‘Why is the federal government, or this or that program, down in the Antarctic, anyway? It’s so far from the United States.'”

But the United States is the major consumer of commercially fished resources like Chilean sea bass and Antarctic krill. Therefore, it’s very important for us to be contributing the best possible science to organizations that regulate fishing, so that the fishing can continue into the future responsibly and sustainably. And because of that, despite chinstrap penguins’ oft unruly demeanor, Krause says, “I’m extraordinarily privileged to be able to work with these animals in this environment and do everything we can to make sure they’re healthy.”

Watch Krause and the NOAA team’s encounters with another Antarctic species in the Expedition Raw episode, Fur Seal Pups: Ferociously Cute and Worth Protecting. And be sure to check out the entire Best Job Ever series.

(All research conducted pursuant to Antarctic Conservation Act. ACA Permit # 2012-005)