To start fieldwork in Antarctica in May, Dr Gary Miller of the Australian Antarctic Division and visiting research fellow at The University of Western Australia has to catch the last ship for the season – and it leaves from Hobart in February.
But an enforced three-month stint on the icy continent is no hardship for Dr Miller, who was the scientific adviser and sound recordist for the animated feature film about Emperor penguins, ‘Happy Feet’ and who will soon be helping with the sequel. The documentary, ‘March of the Penguins’ was also about this species.
With UWA’s Professor Geoff Shellam, Dr Miller will be undertaking research into infectious diseases and the potential impact of global warming on the Emperor penguins of the Auster rookery, which is located on sea ice about 40km from Mawson Station.
A puzzle that scientists would like to solve is why most Emperor chicks have antibodies to a common virus of domestic poultry. They will study whether the chicks acquire the virus from their parents or from the environment.
Given that climate change is already affecting sub-Antarctic islands, the scientists also plan to increase their knowledge of the penguins so they can monitor their well-being as temperatures increase.
Dr Miller will be on the spot in May when the Emperor penguins return to breed after foraging in the Southern Ocean. The penguins, which are about knee-high, will be in peak condition, weighing around 35 kilograms. He will sample the courting adults for signs of viral infection by taking fecal swabs.
The penguins lay one egg, and the males do the incubation under a flap of skin over their feet while the females go off to feed, returning two months later when the chicks hatch. The males, which fast as they care for the eggs, lose about half their body weight.
The scientists will again sample the adults, then wait five or six weeks, by which time the chicks, now in ‘crêches’, can be sampled for the first time, before the arrival of other birds such as the skuas and giant petrels, which may carry diseases.
At the end of December the chicks and parents will be sampled again. Analysis will contribute to a conservation strategy and clarify the role of human visitors in the transmission of disease.
Professor Geoff Shellam 61 8 9346 2050
0448 482 583
Dr Gary Miller 61 8 9341 2806