King Penguins Stressed Out By Scientists And Tourists

The king penguins appear to be habituated to the presence of humans, but a new study finds that even limited human contact may be negatively affecting them

King penguins are the second largest species of penguin
King penguins are the second largest species of penguin V.Viblanc/IPEV

In 1961, a group of scientists set up a permanent camp on Possession Island, a bit of land located in the Crozet Archipelago, about halfway between Madagascar and Antarctica in the Indian Ocean. Their goal was a long-term study of king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus), and scientists have continued that study for more than 50 years, sometimes accompanied by a small number of tourists. The penguins appear to be habituated to the presence of humans, but a new study in BMC Ecology finds that even this limited human contact may be negatively affecting them.

A team of researchers from France and Switzerland compared 15 king penguins from the areas regularly disturbed by scientists and tourists with 18 birds that bred in an undisturbed area, recording the penguins’ heart rates (an indicator of stress) in response to three potential human stressors–loud noise, approaches by humans (similar to what would happen when a scientist or tourist would observe the birds) and capture (a rare but necessary technique used when studying the penguins).

With both loud noise and human approach, the penguins from the disturbed area were far less stressed than their counterparts from the undisturbed area. All the birds, however, found capture to be a stressful experience.

Is this evidence that the penguins from the regularly disturbed are habituated to humans? Maybe, say the researchers, but maybe not. While it’s possible that these penguins have grown used to the presence of humans in their breeding area–though not capture, since that is a rare occurrence–the regular disturbance may be contributing to the selection of specific phenotypes, those that are most suited to handle this kind of stress. Over time, the population would evolve to handle this disturbance better and better. That may seem like a good thing, but the resulting population, the scientists say, may be less able to cope with environmental change.

This is hardly the first time that researchers have found that their methods have had unintended consequences for the animals they study. A penguin study published last year, for example, found that the use of flipper bands resulted in lower survival rates for the birds; it was just the latest in four decades of research that had been hinting that banding penguins was bad for the birds. But this latest study is another reminder to the science community that they can easily become one of the anthropogenic disturbances that affect the animals they are studying.

“A central question for ecologists is the extent to which anthropogenic disturbances might impact wildlife and affect the systems under study,” lead author Vincent Viblanc of the Université de Strasbourg said in a statement. “One of the major pitfalls of such research is in forgetting that, from the perspective of the wildlife studied, tourism and scientific research are not two worlds apart.”