Celebrating Penguin Awareness with Dr. Michelle LaRue

 

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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.

Black Penguin: Antarctic Travel Memoir Inspires

Evans bookIf you read my blog you know I have a fascination with penguins. I was looking for books on the Satellite Sisters summer reading list whilst in a Washington DC bookshop and The Black Penguin by Andrew Evans caught my eye. On his first assignment with National Geographic, he fulfills many of his geeky childhood dreams on this grand adventure.

It is a hybrid book–part personal memoir, part travelogue. Evans is an accomplished writer so every chapter kept my attention. I was particularly empathetic to the chapters about his experience growing up Mormon and gay. I have a few friends in my life from a similar background, but anyone who has felt like an outsider–and if you travel then you know this feeling–can relate to his pain of feeling completely misunderstood and alone.

He also decides to travel by bus from Washington, DC to Ushuaia, Argentina to board the National Geographic vessel to Antarctica. I enjoyed living vicariously through him and decided that I’d rather never travel by bus anywhere if I can avoid it. Lesson learned.

Use this link to watch the now famous black penguin video: https://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/b2a_blackpenguin

The first 258 pages are all building to the last couple of chapters of penguins! and stories from his month on National Geographic Explorer. Sheer bliss. I wanted to go to Antarctica before and now I want to go even more!

“Penguin Professor” Must Read on Penguin Awareness Day

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When I was in Auckland in November, my friend Barbara and I dashed down to High Street to the incomparable Unity bookstore. I really didn’t have room in my luggage for more books–but when has that stopped me from browsing? I purchased a couple of books including a pocket-sized one called F*ck*ing Apostrophes for a friend. Then Barbara spied the Penguin Professor and knowing my interest pointed it out. Without even reading a paragraph to see if it was dull as toast or not, I purchased it and hauled it home.

I am thrilled to say it is a wonderful book. I learned new things about penguins and Antarctica. Each chapter begins with a brief Adelie penguin snapshot–from a penguins point of view. Then one of Lloyd Spencer Davis’ stories about his accidental penguin research career and then a profile of a colleague or mentor who deserves to share the title of “Penguin Professor.” Most of his adventures are set in Antarctica, so if that locale fascinates, you will find this book hugely satisfying even if you are not crazy for penguins.

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Wait! This post is to celebrate Penguin Awareness Day. Let me share some of the gems from his book. His early research in 1977 and early 80s helped to dispel the idea–at least within the science community–that penguins mate for life. They do not. Although he gives a good explanation of how this misinformation took hold in the popular imagination. Furthermore, the male Adelie penguins are not the initiators in the game of love: “Ultimately it is the females, however,that decide whom to mate with and whether a male can mount them. The fights observed within Adelie penguin colonies at that time of year had traditionally been seen-in the blokey way of science up to the 1960s and the women’s liberation movement–as males fighting with each other for access to females, as if the females were somehow the spoils of war. Our observations showed, to the contrary, that the fights were often female against female.” (p 116)

Spencer Davis is a good raconteur and the chapters fly by. He pays tribute to Bernard Stonehouse as his role model in popularizing science. Storytelling is a skill that seems to come naturally but actually takes practice and Spencer Davis has practiced. He also  introduced me to the Antarctic “classic” The Worst Journey in the World.

I highly recommend Professor Penguin. He has also authored an award-winning children’s book to raise awareness about penguins: The Plight of the Penguin.

Lloyd Spencer Davis: Professor Penguin (Random House New Zealand, 2014. 185 pages paperback, $__NZ) ISBN: 978-1-77553-725-0. This delightful book chronicles Professor Lloyd Spencer Davis’ adventures studying Adelie penguins in Antarctica. His storytelling abilities shine through combined memoir, light scientific information, and tribute to his penguin-expert colleagues. Available in USA as Kindle only for $16.99.

He has also authored a children’s book to raise awareness about climate change and how it is impacting penguins: The Plight of the Penguin.

Happy World Penguin Day!

Meet someone who does not find penguins amusing and I say “Avoid that person if you can!”

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Penguin trash can. Photo by Tevis Spezia

Today is World Penguin Day. Penguins enjoy 2 special days a year–and why not? On this day I bring to your attention the opportunity to participate in penguin science.

Click through to a Science Alert and help scientists count penguins, chicks and eggs in research photos. The headline reads “Scientists need your help looking at photos of adorable penguins, seriously.” After trying it I would compare it to playing Where’s Waldo, except that it actually matters.

You may also want to help Greenpeace protect their Antarctic homes by signing their petition.

 

Happy Penguin Awareness Day!

Fiordland Crested Penguins

It is Penguin AWARENESS Day not Penguin APPRECIATION Day.

Fiordland Crested Penguin

Because man is doing a lot of unhelpful stuff threatening penguins.

Fiordland Crested Penguin

Melting ice and overfishing in Antarctica is crashing the food web the penguins depend upon. For specifics from an eye-witness, read Fraser’s Penguins: A Journey to the Future in Antarctica by Fen Montaigne.

Fiordland Crested Penguin

People are doing a lot of good stuff to protect their habitat and make it to another generation. Like Dr. McSweeney in New Zealand.

Beach without penguin

Be aware. Do good stuff before they are gone.

This post “Happy Penguin Awareness Day!” is featured on blogs associated with On Your Radar Media Company.

Celebrate World Penguin Day!

World Penguin Day

To celebrate World Penguin Day, here is a roundup of penguin related links.

First, World Penguin Day began when the scientists at McMurdo Station in Antarctica noticed that the Adelie penguins return to nest every year on April 25th. They began to celebrate and it grew into World Penguin Day. Check out their webcam.

Now a shout out to my friend Mara V. Connolly’s blog. She guest blogged in this space about African penguins. Follow this link to a leadership lesson that these same penguins taught her.

Earlier I shared Dyan DeNapoli’s Ted Talk about penguins. Here is a link to her website: The Penguin Lady. Check out the links to other penguin organizations on her resources page. Or click on the “yellow sticky” on the home page that says Help Save Penguins.

Here are some basic facts about penguins and the scary future they face. Check out this link to Defenders of Wildlife’s penguin page.

Penguins are awesome. Enjoy!