Penguins cheated by ecosystem change

13 03 2018

Jorge Drexler sings “… I was committed not to see what I saw, but sometimes life is more complex than what it looks like …”*. This excerpt by the Oscar-winning Uruguayan singer seems to foretell the theme of this blog: how the ecological complexity of marine ecosystems can elicit false signals to their predators. Indeed, the fidelity of marine predators to certain feeding areas can turn demographically detrimental to themselves when the amount of available food shrinks. A study of jackass penguins illustrates the phenomenon in a context of overfishing and ocean warming.


Adult of jackass penguin (Spheniscus demersus) from Robben Island (South Africa) — in the inset, one of the first juveniles released with a satellite transmitter on its back. The species is ‘Endangered’ under IUCN’s criteria (28), following a recent halving of the total population currently estimated at ~ 80,000 adults. Jackass penguins are the only penguins living in Africa, and owe their common name to their vocalisations (you can hear their braying sounds here); adults are ~ 50 cm tall and weigh ~ 3 kg. Photos courtesy of Richard Sherley.

Surface temperature, dissolved oxygen, acidity and primary productivity are, by and large, the top four environmental factors driving the functionality of marine ecosystems (1). Growing scientific evidence supports the idea that anthropogenic warming of the atmosphere and the oceans correlates with this quartet (2). For instance, marine primary productivity is enhanced by increased temperatures (3), but a warmer sea surface intensifies stratification, i.e., stacked layers of seawater with contrasting physical and chemical properties.

In coastal areas experiencing ‘upwelling’ (where winds displace surface water, allowing deep water laden with nutrients to reach the euphotic zone where plankton communities feast), stratification weakens upwelling currents and, in turn, limits the growth of plankton (4) that fuels the entire trophic web, including our fisheries. The study of these complex trophic cascades is particularly cumbersome from the perspective of large marine predators because of their capacity to move long distances, from hundreds to thousands of kilometres (5), with strong implications for their conservation (6).

With those caveats in mind, Richard Sherley and colleagues satellite-tracked the movement of 54 post-fledged, juvenile jackass penguins (Spheniscus demersus) for 2-3 years (7). All individuals had been hatched in eight colonies (accounting for 80% of the global population), and were equipped with platform terminal transmitters. Jackass penguins currently nest in 28 island and mainland locations between South Africa and Namibia. Juveniles swim up to 2000 km in search of food and, when approaching adulthood, return to their native colonies where they reproduce and reside for the remainder of their lives (watch individuals swimming here).

The natural history of this species is linked to the Southern Hemisphere’s trade winds (‘alisios’ for Spanish speakers), which blow from the southeast to the tropics. In the South Atlantic, trade winds sustain the Benguela Current, the waters of which surface from some 300 m of depth and fertilise the marine ecosystems stretching from the Western coasts of South Africa to Angola (8). Read the rest of this entry »