Our home away from home – ‘La guanera’ – the field house where we stay

Day 5

Today was another beautiful day at PSJ. There’s always a strong wind coming off the ocean in the morning that keeps things cool, but by mid-morning, the full sun makes it a perfect temperature. We stay in a building on the reserve that was originally built to house the guano harvesting workers. There’s no electricity, but as far as accommodations for fieldwork, any roof over your head is a ‘luxury’! One of the best things about the building is the breath-taking view overlooking the ocean. Every morning I look forward to waking up and seeing fur seals and pelicans splashing in the water.

I thought I would take the chance today to share with what is involved with examining one of the penguins. We spent part of today working on a bluff above a south beach at a site we call “Penguin Town”. The “ideal” nest sites occupied by Humboldt penguins tend to be ‘burrow’ type nests, which are essentially little caves dug deep into the guano. Some penguins also use ‘crevice’ nests, which are formed between rocks along the coastline.

When approached slowly, penguins stay on their nest to protect their eggs or chicks. If eggs are present, we use a long scoop to gently remove the eggs so they are not damaged. One of our team members then becomes a human incubator and keeps the eggs warm. On a crevice nest, the penguin can be fairly easily grabbed. In a burrow nest, one of us usually has to crawl part way into the nest to get the bird. Of course that is easier said than done, particularly if you consider how hard penguins can bite. Marco is an expert at this and has taught numerous people over the years (myself included!!) the fine art of safely getting a penguin out of nest.

Once the penguin is in hand, we work very quickly in order to minimize our impact to the birds and keep things as stress-free as possible. We have always had 2 veterinarians on these trips in order to keep things moving swiftly. This year, we are lucky enough to have 3 US vets and 1 Peruvian vet. The first thing we check for is any identification tags so we can tell if it is a penguin we have examined before. Every penguin gets a pair of small tags (sort of like tiny earrings with a number) on their feet and a microchip under their skin (the same kind of microchip your pet dog or cat may have). We do a complete physical examination to look for any signs of illness or injury and keep careful records of any findings. We collect a series of samples (swabs, blood, feathers, etc.) that can be used to test for diseases and environmental contamination/toxicant exposure. Blood is also used for a variety of tests to check for routine health parameters. The biologists collect measurements of the beak, flippers, head, and feet. We also collect parasites and feces if the penguin decides to provide any. If any chicks are present, we check them over as well for injuries or illness. With a single drop of blood we can use the DNA to determine the sex of the chicks and assess paternity. At the end, the penguin is lifted on a scale for a weight and then safely returned back to the nest. All of this happens in a matter of a few minutes.

This year we have also added in a new project to study the eyes of the penguins. A lot of data has been gathered at CZS and elsewhere about normal ocular health for penguins in zoos, but no one has really investigated “what’s normal” for the eyes of wild penguins. This year we brought some specialized equipment to test the pressure inside the eye. If you’ve been to the ophthalmologist before and had that machine blow a puff of air at your eye, it was checking the same thing. We are using a smaller, more portable device, but collecting the same data. This machine doesn’t use the puff of air and is basically unperceivable (yes, I tried it on myself) when it takes the measurement. We are also testing tear production in the penguins. Penguins secrete a lot of salt from their body (from their diet and seawater) and the tears are just one of many routes.

By late morning, that strong ocean wind I mentioned at the beginning of the day had almost increased into what Peruvians call a ‘Paracas’ wind – a very strong wind that kicks up lots of dust and dirt. After examining about 20 penguins, we were all ready to get out of the ‘sandstorm’!

More tomorrow….

Michael Adkesson, DVM, DACZM
Veterinarian - Chicago Zoological Society

June 11, 2010

Mike and Marco collect ocular pressure measurements from one of the penguins

Marco and the Peruvian biologists collect measurements on an adult penguin

A penguin is lifted in the air to collect a weight

Dr. Adkesson examines a week old penguin chick

Day 1-June 7, 2010
Day 2-June 8, 2010
Day 3-June 9, 2010
Day 4-June 10 , 2010
Day 5-June 11 , 2010
Day 6-June 12, 2010
Day 7-June 13, 2010
Day 8-June 14, 2010