Aussies head south to track Antarctic seabirds

By Anna O'Brien 22 October 2010
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Scientists have set sail for Antarctica to study snow petrels and their link with climate change.

AUSTRALIAN SCIENTISTS HAVE HEADED off for a summer in Antarctica, where they plan to uncover secrets about climate change by studying snow petrels.

The research will provide valuable information on changes in the Southern Ocean ecosystem and will feed into the Integrated Marine Observing System, a collective Australian database on climate change.  

Australian Antarctic Division ecologist Dr Colin Southwell and colleagues will attach tracking devices to snow petrels (Pagodroma nivea), one of few bird species exclusively found in the Antarctic.  

Marine processes

“We are trying to see where and what they forage in the sea in order to gain a better understanding of marine processes in the ocean,” Colin says. “This can give us a basis to understand how the sea is changing [with climate change]. These birds live in such a remote and hostile place and it is interesting to discover how they will survive further environmental change.”

Alterations in the snow petrel’s behaviour and population may reflect the effects of a chaging climate, he told Australian Geographic.

The tracking devices, which are smaller than a five cent coin, are specially designed to have minimal impacts on the birds.  “We will attach the trackers around the petrels’ legs while they are at their breeding colonies. These trackers will enable us to log the birds’ positions over the next ten months,” Colin says.

Camera tracking

The work will be based at Australia’s Casey, Davis and Mawson stations. Cameras will also be used to monitor breeding colonies in East Antarctica.

“We will be deploying new cameras at several locations on the Antarctic coast. What’s fantastic about this initiative is that it allows us to monitor breeding populations without needing to visit the sites each year,” says Colin.

There are already cameras stationed at breeding colonies on three islands near Mawson station and two islands near Davis station, he says. “These extra cameras will be presenting a new side to the Antarctic snow petrels.”

The project is part of a wider long term collaborative study of Antarctic predators, including Adélie and emperor penguins.