The sound of penguins in the Antarctic. Penguins are already under threat from global warming, but scientists are now warning about new dangers from diseases spread by migratory birds. A new strain of bird flu has been found in some penguin species. I’ve been talking to our science reporter.
Of course bird flu has been around for a very very long time. Different strains circulate in wild birds and domestic poultry until relatively recently the Antarctic seemed to be very fragile. Of course you don’t know the virus down there. A couple of years ago, they found traces of flu in penguins. It doesn’t seem to be causing any illness. I mean they did look at it under the microscope and look at the actual genetics of it, the strain of it. It was a very ancient strain. And then the latest result suggests that there’s another strain of bird flu that’s been found. This is a more modern one. And it seems to be coming maybe from birds in North America or South America. So they are somehow picking it up from migratory birds that can spread virus at long distances around the world and then take it down into the Antarctic which is a very precious environment for animals.
But if the bird flu doesn’t seem to be harming the penguins, why does it matter?
Well, this one, it seems to be OK as far as they know, but if another strain got in, a more deadly strain then it could be very serious for penguins. So really they need to know more, why it’s there, how it gets in, do some monitoring and also it’s another reminder of the protection needed for penguins, things like their habitat, their breeding grounds, their fishing grounds, to keep an eye on these viruses and check that there isn’t something more serious that could do harm.
Containing bird flu is almost impossible in any environment. In an environment like the Antarctic, is there any point even trying?
Well, obviously conservationists say you must try in terms of sea birds. Penguins are the second most endangered sea bird. 45 species of bird in the Antarctic including about 6 or 7 different types of penguins--so we’ve got a huge richness there of penguins of bird life. So conservationists are saying we do need to monitor this and keep an eye on it.
It’s an archeological find that’s been described as phenomenal, two skeletons, thought to be of Chinese people from between the 2nd and 4th centuries A.D. discovered in a graveyard here in London. The bones were found in a Roman burial place.
It’s always crush hour in the creche for these chilly emperor penguin chicks.
But when it’s -60C and the wind is 100mph, huddling together makes p-p-p-perfect sense. Having a tight protective circle of grown-ups also helps.
This astonishing shot of parental devotion, printed in the Sunday People today, was filmed by a crew who spent eight months with the Antarctica penguins.
It is one of the amazing scenes in a three-part BBC TV documentary, Penguins – Spy in the Huddle, narrated by former Doctor Who star David Tennant.
The spy in the title refers to 50 robot cameras that were sent in to film the colony without ruffling feathers.
Disguised as eggs, animated penguins, chicks and snow and ice, the cameras captured previously unseen behaviour.
John Downer, who built the robots, said: “In 35 years of making wildlife films I have never seen or captured so much new behaviour of any animal as I have with penguins.”
The team filmed 1,000 hours of intimate behaviour over 300 consecutive days, the longest ever shoot of emperors. The crew filmed females without mates trying to break up couples.
John said: “Later, alone and without young of their own, they would resort to chick-napping. Some adults who lost their chicks even ‘adopted’ eggcams.
“We also recorded extraordinary close-ups showing emperor mothers flicking their tail feathers to catch the newly laid egg and stop it touching the snow.”
The list of species potentially imperiled by climate change is long, from polar bears to certain types of pine trees.
But there are also those species that will benefit from the changed climate conditions. And a new study that uses data collection stretching back more than 50 years finds that the Adelie penguins of Beaufort Island near Antarctica may be one of the fortunate climate cases.
Aerial photographs and satellite images reveal that this colony nearly doubled in size between 1958 and 2010, swelling from 35,000 breeding pairs to 64,000 families.
The reason is an increase in the kind of nesting habitat Adelie penguins love: rocky beaches revealed by the melting back of snow and ice. Such a melt back is considered likely for many other locations in the Antarctic suggesting the penguins may find even more homeland soon.
The expansion may also be because other critters, like the krill and silverfish the penguins eat have been increasing, although census data is lacking. And more Adelies might prove good news for leopard seals, who dine on them. Of course, that"s only if the seals can stand the warmer waters.
With their waddling gait and lack of flight, penguins have long been an oddity in the bird kingdom.
Now zoologists have discovered they"re unusual too in their sense of taste.
Most birds can"t detect sweet things.
But penguins have also lost the taste for bitter and umami, or meaty flavours.
Scientists think fish would taste of little but salt to a penguin.
And because they swallow fish whole they may not be able to discern flavours at all.
They say the puzzle could be explained by the penguins" evolution in the extreme cold of Antarctica.