Dr Jonathan Green, from the University of Liverpool’s School of Environmental Sciences, has been working in South Africa with the University of Cape Town in investigating ways to protect African penguins from high temperatures on land.
A solution to the difficulties faced by this endangered species is to install artificial burrows to keep penguins cool when they nest on land. Dr Green worked in the laboratory to define the air temperature at which penguins start to feel physiological heat stress, indicated by a rise in body temperature.
They found that penguins are more sensitive to temperature than previously thought. The data will be used to interpret temperatures that the team have recorded in natural burrows, exposed locations and different types of artificial burrows.
New nesting habitat
Findings have already led to the removal of one type of artificial burrow which was consistently getting hotter. Researchers are now working on an optimal design for a new nesting habitat.
Dr Green said: “Penguins may not be the most obvious inhabitants of hot places such as South Africa, Peru and Australia, but the cool upwelling currents in the waters surrounding these countries creates a rich food resource for them to exploit.
“However, when not foraging at sea, penguins have to contend with high temperatures on land. In Southern Africa and South America they have adapted to this by digging climate-controlled burrows in mounds of their own accumulated guano, but this guano was nearly all extracted for fertilizer in the 19th Century.
“As a result burrowing species such as African penguins are now frequently exposed to uncomfortably hot temperatures which cause them to abandon their nests, leaving their eggs and small chicks exposed to the same high temperatures and predators.
“In the face of this and pressure from fisheries, the African Penguin is now listed as an endangered species by the IUCN and a multi-pronged action plan is in place to help them.”