Fairfield Now - Spring 2009
Don't Fly for Me Argentina
Do tourists stress out penguins? Fairfield students went to South America to find out.
By Carolyn Arnold
Fairfield students Jon Haskins '10 and Frank Spizzoucco '10 spent their January break in Argentina studying
Magellanic Penguins with Dr. Brian Walker.
Home Sweet Home. A female adult penguin watches over her chick.
It's early in the morning on the Patagonia coasts of Argentina. The summer sun is shining (in January!) and Jonathan Haskins '10 and Frank Spizzoucco '10 are about to spend the morning with penguins. Hundreds and hundreds of penguins.
Haskins and Spizzoucco traveled to Argentina for two weeks during their winter break to assist biology professor Dr. Brian Walker in his study of Magellanic penguins.
The students - who earlier worked with Dr. Walker conducting bird studies in Nicaragua - assisted their professor in examining how tourism disturbance affects the physiology and behavior in adult penguins and their chicks. Much of the work involved collecting blood samples from penguins to quantify physiological stress levels from those seen on the tourist's paths and those that have less human interference.
People come to Argentina for a variety of reasons; one of them is to view the penguins on the beaches. Dr. Walker's research will help determine whether or not tourist's admiration of the birds causes them ill effects. Their work in Argentina is associated with conservation biology, which is the study of nature and the status of Earth's biodiversity with the aim of protecting species, their habitats, and their ecosystems.
Dr. Walker and students are studying the
effect of tourism on the birds.
The Magellanic penguins are migratory sea birds that spend the winter at sea off the coast of Brazil, then travel (up to 3,000 km) to breed on land in large colonies in Argentina. The colony where the Fairfield team worked - San Lorenzo - has an estimated 90,000 active nests. These "nests" are actually holes dug directly into the sandy ground or under bushes near the coast.
While Magellanic penguins are not classified as "endangered," these long-lived birds (adults can live upwards of 25 years in the wild) are affected by humans in negative ways, most notably being caught and drowned in fishing nets and being killed by oil spills and oil dumping. Dr. Walker's work is focused on a human behavior that is not intended to harm: tourism. But even best intentions have the potential to cause ill effects.
Along with Dr. Walker and Cecilia Villanueva, an Argentine graduate student from the Centro Nacional Patagonico whom Dr. Walker supervises, Spizzoucco and Haskins would wake up before 6 a.m. every morning. They usually worked until 11 a.m. when it became too hot to continue.
"When it gets that warm the blood doesn't clot well and the penguins won't be out in the sun anyway. They'll most likely be in their nests, or in the sea," said Haskins, whose study is funded in part by an E. Gerald Corrigan '63 Fellowship. Once it got cooler they'd resume their work from 5 to 9 p.m. "It's not good for penguin or researcher to be out in the midday sun of Patagonia," said Dr. Walker.
Dr. Walker's Argentine grad student Cecilia Villanueva measures the beak of a penguin chick as Jon Haskins waits to weigh it.
The students did a complete morphological study on the penguins, taking notes of the bird's weight and the size of the beak, flipper, and foot. Blood samples were taken from the adults and the chicks when Haskins and Spizzoucco were there. The timing of the birds mating and fledgling schedules ended up coinciding perfectly with their visit. "In the wild you can't map everything and the penguins don't follow our schedules," said Spizzoucco.
To test the stress levels of the birds, they had to skillfully pull each bird out of its nest, grab it by the scruff of the neck (like a cat carrying kittens), and carefully restrain the bird between their legs. The penguins don't take this lying down, of course. "They scratch, struggle, and try to bite us," said Haskins. Dr. Walker has scars to prove it.
If the birds, which weigh up to 13 pounds, sense hesitation, they take advantage of the situation and bite. So, getting the blood sample is a two-person job - with one person needed to 'wrangle' the bird to keep it from biting the second person, who is holding the bird's foot to extract the blood samples. Once the blood sample is taken, the penguins are released and they go back to their nests, with little harm except perhaps to their egos.
The blood samples were spun down in the field each evening, to separate the plasma from the red blood cells. The plasma was then frozen and has subsequently been brought back by Dr. Walker to his laboratory at Fairfield, where he, Haskins, Spizzoucco, and Villanueva will measure the levels of a hormone called corticosterone. This hormone is used as an indicator of stress for these birds. The more corticosterone, the more stressed the bird is.
Will Haskins and Spizzoucco ever get tired of looking at birds? Probably not. At the beginning of their trip when they saw their first penguin, they naturally wanted to take a lot of pictures of it, only to be told by Dr. Walker that they should hold back a little - they would be seeing a lot more penguins in their two-week study.
Now back at Fairfield, the students are conducting a study of their own on stress in birds, this time on cardinals. As with the penguins, they will take a blood sample and test the levels of corticosterone and 3-methylhisitide (in order to determine levels of muscle breakdown) in the plasma. For this project, they hypothesize that when stress hormones are high (during the winter when food is scarce for instance), muscle breakdown will also be high in order to compensate for additional physiological demands.
"The guys have shown great initiative on this independent project," said Dr. Walker. "I'm very proud to have two great young biologists working with me who were also excellent ambassadors."
Over 400 Fairfield University students participate annually in global learning activities, primarily summer or semester study abroad.
The students' expenses for this trip were funded through a grant awarded by Fairfield's University College and monies from Dr. Walker's research funds.