Celebrating Penguin Awareness with Dr. Michelle LaRue


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.

Starry, Starry Nights at Lake Tekapo

mt-johnOn the shores of Lake Tekapo about 8 km from the village is the Mount John Observatory, New Zealand’s premier observatory run by the University of Canterbury. To visit this observatory and to see stars through one of their telescopes, you only need make a reservation with Earth and Sky tours and keep your fingers crossed for clear skies.

There are nine tours to choose from depending on the time of year and time of day. Some are designed especially for families. We made reservations for 2 adults ($148 NZ per person) for the 9:30 p.m. tour. When we arrived at the Earth and Sky office and shop in the village we were informed that there was 100% cloud cover. We had the offer to go on the tour with just the behind the scenes observatory and the slide presentation, or to reschedule, or to get a full refund. Since I had just been to the California Science Museum planetarium and we were very tired and the forecast was rubbish, we opted for the refund.


Late the next night the clouds broke up and Sarah set the alarm to check the stars at midnight (very good) and at 4:00 a.m. (very, very good–full on Milky Way). I had not seen the stars so glorious in such a long time. I only wish it had not been so cold and damp or I would have spread a blanket and stared longer. It is a healthy reminder that these stars are there all the time, we just can’t see them because of light and air pollution.

The Mackenzie Basin, where the Mt John Observatory is located, is especially good for stargazing. On the Bortle Dark-Sky Scale—which measures how dark the night sky is—the Mackenzie Basin scores number 1, the highest (best) darkness rating. Astronomers disagree about how many stars it is possible to see with the naked eye (a lot), although Professor Brian Cox calculated the number as anywhere between 6,000 and 10,000. Compared to 200 in most parts of Europe. And the center of the Milky Way is in the Southern Hemisphere in the constellation Sagittarius.(Gerard Hutching, Why Can’t Kiwis Fly?)

southern-lightsWhen we caught up with my friend Ole in Christchurch he told us he was taking a group of photographers to Lake Elsinore to learn to photograph the southern lights also known as the Aurora australis. He works for the Canon company and gets to do lots of fun stuff like this.

So whether you set your clock to go out on the lawn by your hotel room, or you book a tour with Earth and Sky, don’t sleep through the most awesome natural show in New Zealand.

All photos for this blog post are from Google Images search. My photography skills do not extend this far–no fault of my trusty Canon camera.