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PE student researches penguin population


Posted : 13 August 2012

By Nicky Willemse

A PORT Elizabeth zoology student has embarked on a remarkable research project in the Falkland Islands to investigate why the world’s sea birds are declining in such great numbers.

Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) masters student Jonathan Handley, 25, is conducting a study on penguins, working closely with local NGO Falklands Conservation.

The project aims to determine the birds’ foraging behaviour and if there is an overlap with the fishing industry in terms of the prey species they consume and where they go at sea. 

Seabirds across the globe are declining in numbers – with climate change, human disturbance, pollution and competition with fisheries among the known contributing factors.

On the Falkland Islands, situated about 450km off the southernmost tip of South America, there are an estimated 130 000 breeding pairs of gentoo penguins, arguably the world’s largest population of this near-threatened species.

“I want to know what the penguins are eating and where they’re eating. Understanding their diet helps with the conservation of the marine species, as one can then identify which prey items and foraging areas need protection,” Handley said.

“I’m trying to determine the extent to which the penguin may be competing with fisheries. If there is serious competition, the results of this study could impact government policy, as the government is advised on biodiversity issues by Falklands Conservation.”

Handley, who started his research last year, is collecting data at three different areas on the islands, and then comparing this with previously-collected data from between 1986 and 2004.

He spent nearly six months on the islands gathering data during the penguins’ last breeding season [October 2011 to January] and then processing it in the lab, and will spend a further six months there at the end of the year.

Handley is conducting stomach content analysis to identify prey species and, through his comparison with previous data, aims to determine whether their feeding habits have changed over the years.

This is a shortened version of an article that appeared in the print edition of the Weekend Post on Saturday August 11, 2012.



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