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 »

Potential conservation nightmare unfolding in South Africa

31 10 2016

fees-must-fallLike most local tragedies, it seems to take some time before the news really grabs the overseas audience by the proverbial goolies. That said, I’m gobsmacked that the education tragedy unfolding in South Africa since late 2015 is only now starting to be appreciated by the rest of the academic world.

You might have seen the recent Nature post on the issue, and I do invite you to read that if all this comes as news to you. I suppose I had the ‘advantage’ of getting to know a little bit more about what is happening after talking to many South African academics in the Kruger in September. In a word, the situation is dire.

We’re probably witnessing a second Zimbabwe in action, with the near-complete meltdown of science capacity in South Africa as a now very real possibility. Whatever your take on the causes, justification, politics, racism, or other motivation underlying it all, the world’s conservation biologists should be very, very worried indeed.

Read the rest of this entry »

Valuing what we have to prevent it from disappearing

30 09 2016
29 year-old 'Tembo' shows us his grinders © CJA Bradshaw

29 year-old ‘Tembo’ shows us his grinders. Groom Anton is making sure Tembo remains well-rewarded for his good behaviour © CJA Bradshaw

I acknowledge that I’ve been banging on a bit about southern Africa over the last few weeks, but I defend my enthusiasm on the grounds that my first trip to the Kruger National Park profoundly changed the way I view extinction theory and conservation biology.

Today’s post rounds off this mini-series with something I only alluded to in my last: interacting with tame elephants.

I have always been in two minds about the role of animals in captivity, with my opinion that most zoos edge toward the negative because most people who attend them appear to view the animals as a freak-show rather than appreciate their beauty or be fascinated by their behaviour and ecology; add the near-impossible-to-avoid psychological distress to which most captive animals succumb, many zoos in particular are probably better off not existing at all.

That being the case, I won’t simply write off all captive situations as ‘negative’, because if done well, they can have a wonderful educational role to play. Read the rest of this entry »

Staggering rhino poaching in the Kruger

14 09 2016

rhino-poachingI have the immense honour and pleasure of attending the University of Pretoria’s Mammal Research Institute 50th Anniversary Celebration conference currently being held in the Kruger National Park. To be rubbing shoulders with some of the greats of African ecology is humbling to say the least, but it’s also a huge opportunity to learn about the wonderful wildlife Africa still has.

Stepping back into what the Pleistocene must have been like in Australia, Europe, and North and South America, I’m moved to near tears by the truly awesome1 megafauna that still exists here. This is my first time to Africa, and I cannot begin to capture how I feel by seeing these amazing species in the flesh.

But as you probably already know, this last megafauna is under huge threat, and we seriously risk repeating the extinctions of the other continents within less than a century. While the topics associated with the threats are diverse, complex and challenging, one talk here stood out for me among all others: that by Ken Maggs of SANParks.

Kruger holds about 70% of the white (Ceratotherium simum) and black (Diceros bicornis) rhino in South Africa, and about 30% all rhino in the world (98.8% of all white rhino are found in just four countries: South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya).

So for the ~ 10,000 rhino in Kruger, the following numbers should shock you; Ken showed a slide with the following information: Read the rest of this entry »