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 »

Toothed conflict

1 11 2012

Left: An Anatolian shepherd (a Turkish breed improved in the USA) guiding a herd of boer goats whose flesh is much appreciated by people in Namibia and South Africa. Right: A cheetah carrying a radio-transmitter, within a project assessing range movements of this feline for the Cheetah Conservation Fund. Cheetahs refrain from moving close to the herds when the latter are looked after by the guardian dogs. Photos courtesy of Laurie Marker.

Another corker from Salva. He’s chosen a topic this week that’s near and dear to my brain – the conservation of higher-order predators. As ConBytes readers will know, we’ve talked a lot about human-predator conflict and the inevitable losers in that battle – the (non-human) predators. From dingos to sharks, predator xenophobia is just another way we weaken ecosystems and ultimately harm ourselves.

Rural areas devoted to livestock are part of the natural landscape, so it is inevitable (as well as natural) that predators, livestock and humans interact in such a mosaic of bordering habitats. However, their coexistence remains an unresolved conservation problem. 

When two species, people, political parties, enterprises… want the same thing, they either share it (if possible) or one side eliminates the competitor. The fact that proteins are part of the diet of humans and other carnivore species has resulted in a trophic drama that goes back millennia. Nowadays, predators like eagles, coyotes, lions, wolves and raccoons are credited for attacks on cattle and poultry (and people!) in all continents. This global problem is not only economic, but interlaces culture, emotion, policy and sanitation (1-4). For instance, some carnivores are reservoirs of cattle diseases and contribute to pathogen dispersal (5, 6).

Management options

Managers of natural resources have implemented three strategies to handle these sorts of issues for livestock breeders in general (7). Those strategies can be complementary or exclusive on a case-by-case basis, and are chosen following cost-benefit assessments and depending on the conservation status of the predator species involved. (i) ‘Eradication’ aims to eliminate the predator, which is regarded as noxious and worthless. (ii) ‘Regulation’ allows controlled takes under quota schemes, normally for pre-defined locations, dates and killing methods. ‘Preservation’ is applied in protected areas and/or for rare or endangered species, and often requires monitoring and measures set to prevent illegal harvest or trade. Additionally, many livestock breeders receive money to compensate losses to predators (8).

Many experts now advocate non-lethal (preventive) measures that modify the behaviour of people, livestock or predators (2, 7). The use of livestock-guarding dogs is one of those preventive measures (9). As an example, Laurie Marker (director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund) et al. (10) studied the use of 117 Anatolian shepherds adopted by Namibian rangers between 1995 and 2002 (Fig. 1). In this African country, cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) selectively forage on small-sized cattle and juveniles. Despite this feline being protected nationally, Namibian laws authorise rangers to shoot cheetahs in situations of risk to people and their properties, with more than 6,000 cheetahs having been killed in the 1980s alone (11). Through face-to-face interviews, Marker found that since the arrival of the Anatolian shepherds, > 70 % of the rangers perceived a pronounced reduction in cattle mortality (10). Although, the use of livestock-guarding dogs has worked out fine in many places worldwide, it is no panacea. In many other instances, the dogs dissuade some predator species and not others from harassing the livestock, or are only effective in combination with other measures (7, 9). Read the rest of this entry »