Studying Arctic penguins to understand global change

Studying Arctic penguins to understand global change

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SBU assistant professor Heather Lynch uses high tech tracking to study avian populations

While Heather Lynch has seen close-up some of the incredible tales of survival, loyalty and determination that documentaries like “March of the Penguins” highlight, she also has firsthand experience with some other penguin realities. For one thing, these birds are incredibly loud, with noise levels that would easily top the decibels reached by a town pool packed with screaming children.

They also stink something fierce.

“You can smell them a mile out to sea,” laughs the assistant professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University. After spending six weeks living among the penguins in the Antarctic, researchers themselves develop such a foul odor that those who bring them back from their stations “step back in horror. The clothes we wear can’t be worn in public. They can only be worn again in Antarctica.”

Lynch, however, said the scientists don’t notice the smell after a while. Instead, they focus on some of the more incredible and inspiring moments from birds that are as awkward on the land as they are graceful in the water. She has seen some of them fall 20 feet off a cliff onto their heads and bounce up like nothing happens.

And while she enjoys taking a step back to appreciate these flocks of water fowl, she journeys to their homes primarily to count their shifting populations. A Princeton-trained physicist, with a PhD from Harvard, Lynch uses her background with numbers to understand bigger picture ecological questions.

For over five years, Lynch has studied the populations of three species of penguins to document how they have been changing and to pinpoint what might be causing those changes.

Global warming, she concluded, is the biggest reason two out of three penguin species populations have declined. The chinstrap and adelies penguins have had a harder time finding food amid warming in the region. The chinstrap has declined at the rate of 1.1 percent per year, while the adelie has lost 3.4 percent of its numbers each year.

The gentoo, however, has come out ahead.

It “can take advantage of environmental conditions to breed at the right time,” Lynch observed. “They also have a more varied diet and are more flexible about where they nest. Its whole life history strategy is focused on flexibility.”
Unlike the other two species, the gentoo does not migrate long distances away from the colony in non-breeding months. Indeed, the gentoo population has risen 2.4 percent per year.

Lynch has been counting penguins not only from her annual visits to their southern home, but also from the comfort of her home and her one-year old laboratory at SBU, where she can track and monitor these birds through satellite images that allow her to see birds with a resolution of 50 centimeters.

Satellites are a “complete game changer,” she declared.

When scientists are in the Antarctic, they often spend considerable time observing and tracking individual penguin populations.

“There are so many populations of penguins that we can’t get to because of the logistical difficulty,” she noted. With satellite images, she can observe and track more groups in the region.

Through her research, Lynch has also concluded that tourists, who numbered over 33,000 from 2010 to 2011, have not had an effect on the birds they so eagerly travel to see.

“We now have strong evidence that tourism is not driving these changes,” Lynch stated.

She has found that reproductive success does not decline in heavily visited colonies and there is no relationship between visitation and populations.

In addition to her population research, Lynch and Ron Naveen, the president of Oceanites, lead a team of about a dozen biologists who conduct fieldwork in the Antarctic. She helped coordinate other scientific studies, including studying moss and lichen biodiversity on the Antarctic Peninsula, and genetic sampling to look at patterns of genetic diversity.

The mother of a daughter who will soon turn three, Lynch, who is a resident of Port Jefferson, has found penguin parenting and dedication inspiring. Lynch met her husband, Brookhaven National Laboratory scientist Matthew Eisaman, in a quantum mechanics class at Princeton.

A proud fifth-generation Red Sox fan, Lynch made a sign on Petermann Island that declared the site the “southernmost point of Red Sox nation.”

Despite the smells and the noise from visiting the Antarctic, Lynch plans to stick with penguins for the long haul.

The Antarctic Peninsula is “one of the most rapidly warming places on our entire planet, so I think it can teach us a lot about how ecosystems respond to climate change,” she said.