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Citadel News Service
16 Feb 2007

Penguin research captures professor's attention

Biology Professor Dr. Paul Nolan and Cadet Holly Maslowski spent part of their December break from school conducting penguin research on the Falkland Islands. Being part of research at The Citadel is one of the many unique educational opportunities available to cadets.

By Dr. Paul Nolan
Department of Biology

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Dr. Paul Nolan, assistant professor of biology, and cadet Holly Maslowski, Class of '09, studied the significance of plumage color in this colony of rockhopper penguins in the British Falkland Islands.

“Yes, no, yes (but they will bite you) and definitely not” were the answers to questions emailed to me by a friend of mine during a recent trip to the Falkland Islands, where I went to study penguin behavior and genetics.

My friend's questions were whether the birds are as cute as they seem in photos (yes), whether they really dance like those in “Happy Feet” (no), whether you can pet them (remember, they bite), and whether I would bring her one as a pet. It’s a definite no on the last question, not just because of the biting but because I’ve never heard of a house-trained penguin and, frankly, they don’t smell so great. Multiply the manure from a single bird by the 100’s or 1000’s typically found in a breeding group and you’ll begin to hope that the ever-present wind on these islands is blowing the smell away from you. 

The colony where I worked on this recent trip, along with Cadet Holly Maslowski, contained roughly 1,500 rockhopper penguins perched at the edge of a cliff on Pebble Island in the British Falklands. The Falklands are off the southern tip of South America. Many of us remember the Falklands as the site of an ill-advised invasion by Argentine forces 25 years ago this spring, and Pebble Island witnessed some of the deadliest combat in that conflict.

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A rockhopper penguin warms its young chick and guards against predators. Future research will explore whether the color signals of adult penguins in an indication of their parental abilities, as has been shown in other species.

In fact, the house where we stayed while doing our research was used by the Argentine military to keep the island’s residents under house arrest for much of the conflict. The grass airstrip nearby - now used by the government-run air service to bring people, mail, and supplies to the outer islands - was also the scene of a daring raid by British Special Air Service Commandos. Eleven Argentine aircraft were destroyed as they sat unguarded on the runway, and several more were shot down as they flew overhead. Fortunately, our welcoming party included mainly a handful of cattle and some geese, which had to be chased off the airstrip before we could land. We were welcomed much more graciously by Alan White and Jacqui Jennings, managers of the Pebble Island Lodge, which served as our base for the 10 days we spent studying rockhopper penguins.

My purpose in this research trip was really two-fold: I wanted to get some data, of course, but I especially wanted to assess this area for its suitability as a long-term study site. In particular, I wanted to see how easy it would be to work with this species of penguin. In my previous research I worked with king penguins, which are larger and stronger than rockhoppers, but which are so easy to approach that you can quickly gather data from a large sample of the colony. Also, their beaks are longer and narrower than the ‘rockies’, so that even when they do bite it’s unlikely to cause much trouble.

The rockhoppers stand only about a foot tall, but it all seems to be muscle and strong beak; even with the thick leather gloves that we wore the bites carried a real sting. Nonetheless, once I had captured a bird and gotten it under control, Cadet Maslowski was able to take a variety of measurements and photos of its body size and, especially, of its color patterns.

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Digital photos - like this one of a juvenile rockhopper penguin - allow for detailed measurements of color after leaving the colony.

Other bird species develop brightly-colored feathers or beaks or even feet in response to their diet or health, and my colleagues and I had shown the same pattern previously in king penguins. In a nutshell, the healthiest, best-fed birds are the brightest and they have the most success at gaining a mate. Cadet Maslowski and I set out to test whether that would hold true in rockhopper penguins as well.

On most of rockhopper penguins’ body they show the typical ‘tuxedo’ pattern that we associate with penguins, but they also have brightly colored feet and a riot of yellowish, silly looking plumes coming from the sides of their heads. Our data from this trip show that there is real variation in the number and length of those plumes from bird to bird, and we will study whether that variation correlates with their age or body condition. Eventually, I hope to do experiments manipulating the plumes, to see if they have a role in mate choice or in competition between males for access to the females.

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 All photos by Dr. Paul Nolan and Cadet Holly Maslowski.

As an additional study, we gathered blood samples from a number of the birds to allow a study of their genetics. Rockhopper penguins are found several remote sub-Antarctic islands stretching from the southern Indian Ocean to the Pacific and south Atlantic. Recent findings have shown that what was historically thought of as a single species is in fact at least two species. The birds found on the Falklands may well represent a third. Cadet Maslowski, who is in Australia on a study abroad program, will begin a study of this possibility using DNA extracted from the blood samples we obtained, and will also use that DNA to locate genes indicating the exact degree to which these penguins can see the various colors we are studying.

While the work we’ve done so far gives us fascinating insights into the biology of these penguins (and lets me answer questions like those posed in my friend’s email), it doesn’t come cheaply. Working in such remote areas requires long flights and some expensive equipment, and the follow-up work requires a variety of laboratory supplies and equipment, so I am extremely grateful to The Citadel Foundation and to the Department of Biology for generous financial support.

 


 

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Dr. Paul Nolan

Dr. Paul Nolan joined the Biology Department in the summer of 2006 as an assistant professor.

He holds a B.S. from Penn State University, an M.S. from the University of California at Davis, and a Ph.D. from Auburn University. Nolan’s principal courses are Animal Behavior, Ornithology, and Vertebrate Natural History, plus Introductory Biology for non-Biology majors.


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Cadet Holly Maslowski

Cadet Holly Maslowski, Class of 2009, is a sophomore Biology major from Cincinnati, Ohio.

She is a Citadel Scholar and has earned Gold Star recognition for academic excellence. A member of Lima Company, she is also working in the laboratory of Citadel professor Dr. Alix Darden and plans to pursue a graduate or medical degree in neuroscience after graduation. Maslowski is on study abroad this semester in Australia.

 

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