World Penguin Day: Dr. Dee Boersma shares her knowledge (from 50 years of research) and love of penguins with us!

Magellanic penguins in Punta Tombo, Chubut, Argentina. January 2020.

Today is World Penguin Day, an educative initiative that encourages people to learn more about penguins, their environment, and how important they are to the ecosystem. The celebratory day also coincides with the annual northern migration of Adelie penguins. An intrinsic migration pattern that is conserved across generations.

We spoke to Dr. Dee Boersma, Founder of the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels and one of PeerJ’s Academic Editors to find out more about the dapper flightless birds on their special day.


Dr. Dee Boersma, Founder of the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels at the University of Washington and PeerJ Academic Editor

What fun facts can we learn about penguins?

Penguins are remarkable and interesting creatures. They vary in size from the Little Blue penguin that weighs just over 2 lbs and is a shallow diver, to the Emperor penguin that weighs 80 lbs and can dive 500 m and hold its breath for 23 minutes (the record dive for a human is 101 m in 4.13 minutes).
Magellanic penguins migrate more than 2,400 miles from the Straits of Magellan in Argentina to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A Magellanic penguin can travel over 100 miles in a day. A breeding Magellanic penguin may cover up to 10,000 miles a year, which is the average distance a car is driven in the United States.

Another fascinating fact about penguins is that Emperor penguins breed in Antarctica where they keep their egg warm by holding it on their feet while enduring temperatures as cold as -30 to -40oC with the wind blowing 40m/s, which is about 90 miles/hr. They do this while also fasting for up to 4 months. Humans couldn’t survive for long in those conditions.

What do you want people to know about penguins?

Penguins are among the most endangered groups of seabirds. People love penguins but are unaware of their decline. Currently, about 2/3 of penguin species are on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Redlist.

What challenges do penguins face today, and in the future?

Some of the challenges they face are overfishing, being caught up in fishing lines, pollution and not enough protected areas for them. The areas that are set aside for them are often not large enough or are not monitored so they aren’t really protected. At times, protecting penguins conflicts with protecting other species. For example, African Penguins are highly endangered but fur seals, who are also endangered, are eating them, so it comes down to which species should be protected.

April 22 was Earth Day, how are penguins affected by climate change?

Penguins are environmental sentinels. They can tell us about changes occurring in the environment. Overfishing, acidification of our oceans, warming of our oceans – these are all due to climate change.

What does your organization focus on?

CES is dedicated to long term data sets on sentinel species, mostly penguins. There are not that many places devoted to long term, large data sets that focus on climate/environmental change.

Magellanic penguin chicks in Punta Tombo, Chubut, Argentina. January 2020. Chicks hatch covered with down. The down continues to grow and eventually, juvenile plumage pushes out the down before fledging.

What are your thoughts on open access publishing, and being on the Editorial Board at PeerJ?

Open access publishing is particularly important for developing countries, it allows scientific information to get published and reach the public. I think it is a wonderful thing but we need to decide who is going to pay for it. Until that is figured out, there are going to be difficulties.

What projects are you working on currently?

I have been working closely with other members of the IUCN Penguin Specialist Group (PSG), which is devoted to all of the penguin species. We have been assessing each of the penguin species to determine their needs, risks and proper next steps for conservation. It is our goal that all species remain in the wild for perpetuity.

Dr. Boersma, how much time have you spent in the field with penguins over the years? Do you have a favorite penguin?

I have been doing fieldwork for over 50 years. I have probably spent 10 years of my life out in the field. My favorite penguin is the one I am with. I love all of them, their natural charisma makes them the perfect ambassadors of our ocean and coastal health.

Center for Ecosystem Sentinels field crew use scales to noninvasively weigh birds entering and leaving the colony in Punta Tombo. These data can show us foraging trip length, how much they’re feeding their chicks, and whether or not the penguins are finding enough food.

Thank you Dr. Boersma and Sarah Harris, Lab Manager at Center for Ecosystem Sentinels, for sharing your knowledge and love for penguins with us!

Dr. Boersma and Dr. Pablo Borborogluis are co-author’s of the book ‘Penguins: Natural History and Conservation

View Lateralization (handedness) in Magellanic penguins by Stor T, Rebstock GA, García Borboroglu P, Boersma PD in PeerJ.
View related research in these PeerJ sections: Biodiversity and Conservation and Zoological Sciences.

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