Celebrating Penguin Awareness with Dr. Michelle LaRue

 

penguins
Estimating populations of penguins is a challenge given the ice even in summer. Can you tell the difference between Adelie and Emperor penguins? Photo from https://emperorpenguinchange.blogspot.com/

Dr. Michelle LaRue is an ecologist and science communicator who specializes in using Geographic Information Systems, satellite imaging and other tools to count penguin, seal and mountain lion populations. I follow @drmichellelarue on Twitter—I especially enjoy her #Cougarornot game. She recently moved from the University of Minnesota to the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, NZ. This new adventure includes research opportunities in Antarctica.

The USA and New Zealand have a history of collaboration in Antarctica. The McMurdo research station is just down the road from the Kiwi Scott base, and both are supported from Christchurch. Dr. LaRue agreed to answer questions about this new opportunity.

Q: You’ve done research in Antarctica whilst maintaining your University home base at University of Minnesota. What prompted the move to New Zealand?

A: A faculty position with Gateway Antarctica at the University of Canterbury! Here I will continue my research on the ecology of Southern Ocean predators and look forward to building a lab in the next few years.

Q: From your new position, what do you hope you’ll be able to contribute to our understanding of penguins and the endangered polar habitats?

A: My goal is to effectively fill in the pieces of the puzzle that are missing – we’ve got several baseline population estimates now for Adélie and emperor penguins and we’re doing the same for Weddell seals and crabeater seals. Once those pieces are filled in, we get to start asking: why? Why are these populations in certain spots and not others? How do these species interact with each other across space and time? How might climate change impact their populations and habitats? To ask these questions we first need to know how many animals there are and where they live, so that’s my focus at the moment.

Q: Have you experienced an earthquake yet in Christchurch? And what is your favorite discovery about living in New Zealand?

A: For the first time, I felt a 3.2 earthquake back in December, though I will say the people around me didn’t even notice! I think my favorite discovery or realization is just how unbelievably beautiful it is – I mean this is something I knew before but now that I live here it’s remarkable to me how much diversity there is in the landscape in just a short distance. It’s an incredibly beautiful place to be an outdoor enthusiast!

Recall that it is currently summer in Antarctica, so she was in the field this past November. You can follow her team’s current research at https://emperorpenguinchange.blogspot.com/. Dr. LaRue also has links to a number of her video presentations and written papers on her website.

Dr. LaRue works on teams gauging the status of Adélie and Emperor penguin populations in Antarctica. There are things we can do to reduce human impacts on penguins and their habitat. First, more efficient fishing vessels are harvesting the krill that makes up the food supply of penguins and whales. It is important that we stop using krill oil (I didn’t realize this was a thing; however, a quick Google search and apparently lots of people are taking it as supplements). Second, the ice is shrinking in both polar regions due to rising ocean temperatures from rising CO2. We can all reduce our use of fossil fuels by riding a bike, walking, or carpooling.

Imagining Life at the South Pole

South Pole thumbnailLoving most movies, books and blogs about Antarctica, I was strongly attracted to South Pole Station on a best books of summer reading list. I read about 4 nonfiction books in a row and needed something fictional to absorb my attention. Picking up the book yesterday I found myself reading it obsessively until I finished it a few minutes ago.

The NPR book review recommended reading South Pole Station a debut novel by Ashley Shelby on July 4, 2017. As Heller McAlpin writes:

“In this unusual, entertaining first novel, Ashley Shelby combines science with literature to make a clever case for scientists’ and artists’ shared conviction that “the world could become known if only you looked hard enough.”

I enjoyed the vivid detail of the life inside the small community of 105 beakers (scientists), nailheads (construction and maintenance) and artists. The world and the oddballs who inhabit it was so precise that I thought perhaps the author overwintered herself on an NSF fellowship. Apparently her creativity was supplemented by a sister who worked as a cook and a lot of research. Emails with her sister may have been the inspiration for the heroine’s emails with her sister Billie. I especially liked how she provided the backstory for main characters and still moved the plot forward–the mark of a good storyteller.

The story is driven not by the extreme environment as much as the people and their passion for science and for the strange community they create at one end of the world. It resolved a couple of things for me. I really want to go to Antarctica. I don’t want to go to the South Pole or work overwinter for pay or fellowship. Though I do admire the people who have.