Penguins & Other Seabirds in Patagonia

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About 34,000 dead seabirds washed up on the shores of Patagonia in 2000. Two years later, tens of thousands of seabirds—including penguins and albatrosses—began dying around the Malvinas/Falkland Islands off the coast of Argentina. Thankfully, prior years of research into the region’s seabird populations have been helping scientists pinpoint the likely causes of these die-offs.

Challenges

The coastlines and islands at the southern tip of South America host the world’s largest breeding colonies for species such as the black-browed albatross and the Magellanic penguin. Unfortunately, a number of human activities impact this fragile environment and threaten seabird survival. Interactions with fishing gear, oil spills, ingestion of marine debris, toxins produced by harmful algae, and infectious disease all affect seabirds. Identifying which of these factors, or others, are at play in a particular area or population can help prevent significant population declines. Similarly, finding the root cause of a die-off—not just what it is but how it got there and where it might go—is essential to deciphering how best to protect Patagonia’s sea life.

Goals

  • Monitor toxin levels and disease exposure rates in several species of seabirds
  • Collaborate with government agencies to define preventive and mitigation actions to ensure seabird population health

What WCS is Doing

WCS field vets have been monitoring the health of seabird colonies along Argentina’s Patagonian coastline since 1993. This research has shown that during the past ten years the main mortality events recorded in the area have affected penguins. Being on site collecting data has enabled us to identify harmful algal blooms, food scarcity, oiling, and opportunistic infections as responsible for these events.

WCS surveys have shown that while Magellanic penguins are exposed to a wide variety of infectious diseases, they are one of the most robust seabird species. On the other hand, black-browed albatrosses, gentoo penguins, southern giant petrels, and terns have less contact with infectious agents. This could put them at higher risk for unexpected disease epidemics. In addition to the direct threats pathogens pose, environmental stressors--pollution, low availability of prey caused by competition with fisheries, and changes in climate—could reduce the seabirds’ overall fitness and contribute to a greater vulnerability to disease.

Increasing human presence in the area is adding pressure to the Patagonia Sea ecosystem. WCS is working closely with government agencies to prevent undesirable consequences of human activities, such as unregulated tourism, urban and industrial settlement near critical areas for seabird reproduction, expanding fisheries, and the accidental or intentional introduction of invasive species. By continuing to monitor the health of a wide range of seabird species at various locations throughout this massive area, WCS plays a vital role in identifying problems early, before they further threaten seabird survival.

From the Newsroom

The Mystery of the Naked PenguinsApril 7, 2011

Featherless penguin chicks have been popping up on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean in the last few years. WCS researchers and their partners are unraveling the clues to this strange disorder.

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