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Final trip of the 2012 season
Posted on March 13, 2012
MSc Student Gemma Clucas joins Tom to conduct her thesis project, which will evaluate long-term changes in genetic diversity of Adélie penguins.
Tom and I reached the Antarctic Peninsula amidst a howling gale which had blown throughout the night. It was touch and go as to whether we would get ashore to visit a gentoo colony on Pléneau Island but the wind dropped just in time for us to get into a zodiac and get a lift to the colony. This was a colony that we’d never visited before so it was great to get a full set of shed feathers for our DNA ‘feather-printing’. We also visited Petermann Island which was previously a stronghold for Adélie penguins, but is now becoming dominated by gentoos, so it is an interesting place to study.
Tom and Ben had previously set-up two camera traps here so we went to check that they were working and to download the images. One camera overlooked a penguin highway and so we got some great photos of the adults coming and going, busily feeding their hungry chicks. This will give us important information about the rate at which the adults are able to feed their young and how environmental conditions affect this each year. The other camera looked over the nest sites, and so this will tell us when breeding commences after the Antarctic winter, and how fast the adults are able to rear their chicks. We hope that by pairing the cameras we will be able to understand what affects the breeding success of the penguins and how gentoos are able to out-compete the Adéles at this site.
Over the next two days we visited two more colonies and got some more feathers for feather-printing. We also set-up two new camera traps, bringing the total number of cameras out in the field to 15. The new ones we put out were at Neko Harbour, a large (and particularly smelly) gentoo colony. It’s tough work setting up the camera traps, as you have to weight them down with large rocks to stop them blowing away over the fierce Antarctic winter. Somehow I ended up being the one carrying all the rocks, which meant I was particularly covered in guano by the end of the day. A quick hose down and a wash of all the kit with an antibacterial agent will prevent us spreading any infections, but it doesn’t get rid of the smell… my cabin mate wasn’t too impressed that night!
The ever-changing Antarctic weather prevented us from reaching any colonies on our fourth day in the field, but it gave us the chance to look over the photos from the camera traps that have been out for the last year. We’ve got lots of great images and I’m really confident that we’ll learn a lot from them now and in the years to come. It also gave me the chance to reflect on how incredible this place is. The density of wildlife is just astounding. You can be sitting next to a huge colony of penguins watching humpback or minke whales surfacing in the distance whilst seals are hauled out on ice floes or twisting and turning in the shallows. And all this is accompanied by the creeks and groans of the myriad of glaciers which surround each bay.
The climate has warmed by a staggering 2.5 degrees C in this region over the last 60 years, and changes to the fauna are already being seen. I just hope that the beautiful animals and spectacular scenery is resilient, so that people can be as amazed by it as I have been, on my first (and hopefully not my last) trip to Antarctica.