Everybody loves penguins. Well, everybody except certain species of fish.
Consider the southern rockhopper penguin, a bird whose Wikipedia entry includes an entire section on its place in popular culture. That’s a lot of love for species that lives in harsh sub-Antarctic regions.
We like penguins, too, but our interest is on a more scientific level – especially when customers share intriguing stories about the birds’ survival strategies. In 2010, as part of an Ocean Optics photo contest, University of Antwerp (Belgium) researcher Jeff Van Camp described his work in studying southern rockhoppers at New Island in the Falkland Islands:
“The intense and cold weather conditions in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic region are unique in their kind. Southern rockhopper penguins (Eudyptes chrysocome) have adapted to the harsh conditions that rule in these areas by implementing a set of survival strategies such as long fasting periods during reproduction. Fasting implies intense fat and protein depletion and we suspect that carotenoid intake influences bill color since krill (small crustaceans), the primary food source of rockhopper penguins (Clausen & Pütz 2002), mainly consist of the carotenoid astaxanthin (Yamaguchi et al. 1983).
“Carotenoids, which are responsible for the bright yellow, orange and red coloration in birds, are synthesized only by plants, algae and some bacteria and fungi, so ultimately birds can only obtain them through their diet (Brush 1990). Therefore, we hypothesize a relationship between bill color and nutrient intake. To test this hypothesis we will measure bill and yellow patch color [brightness, hue and chroma following Endler (1990)] of 24 rockhopper couples at three different times during the fasting period.”
For his measurements, Van Camp used a Jaz spectrometer with a visible light source and a 400 µm fiber optic reflectance probe. And as his photos attest, Van Camp’s research team included one very precocious member.