Studying Humboldt Penguins in the Wild

Studying Humboldt penguins in the wild is a challenging, often wet and messy job. The researchers who brave slippery rocks and potential storms are truly dedicated. Yet the supporters of that research are just as dedicated, says Dr. Roberta Wallace, senior veterinarian at the Milwaukee County Zoo. Between 1994 and 2010, the Zoological Society of Milwaukee (ZSM) has provided as much as $185,000 in support for Humboldt penguin research in Chile. Dr. Wallace has coordinated the studies along with Chilean researchers. The ZSM’s long-term support of the research—which includes penguin censuses from 2001 through 2010 (except in 2009)-- is remarkable, she says. “This is a very long-term study on a long-lived seabird. They can live 20 to 25 years in the wild and 30 or more in captivity. To adequately study animals that have long lives, you need a reliable, steady source of money. You cannot get an accurate idea of their natural ecology with grants that last only two or three years,” says Dr. Wallace. “It takes a long-term commitment just to get the basic data. Without the Society’s continuous support of various aspects of this study, there is no way this research could have spanned so many years.”

Humboldt penguin research

Ultimately, the goal of the research is to find ways to help these penguins survive. “Through the research, we know that chick survivability at the sites we’ve studied in Chile is low,” says Dr. Wallace. “So the population is fragile. The research also has given us a better understanding of what predators and the rains do, what other seabirds sharing breeding grounds do, and what parasites do. This understanding can lead to conservation measures, such as artificial burrows.”

Zoological Society penguin funding in 2009 went partly to the installation of 35 artificial burrows on an island off the coast of Algorrobo in central Chile. “Penguins aren’t very discriminating,” says Dr. Wallace. “They’ll nest almost anywhere.” Because penguin nests, especially dirt burrows, are fairly impermanent, they are easily washed away by rain and waves. Solution: Researchers gave penguins nest burrows made of more permanent materials, namely plastic barrels cut to penguin size. Already in the fall 2009 nesting season, penguins used four of these nests. As they get used to the new burrows, penguins probably will use more during the 2010 nesting seasons, says Dr. Wallace.

Text by Paula Brookmire
This article originally appeared in spring 2010 Alive.