Saturday, February 14, 2009

Darwin vs. the Penguins

For all the faunal observations he made in The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin was strangely silent on penguins. Only off the shores of Uruguay and on the Falkland Islands did he bother to mention the birds that, for so many people, are on the main reasons they visit the Southern Cone countries (though penguins are found as far north as Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands, almost all of them breed in sub-Antarctic and Antarctic shores).

Darwin’s primary penguin sightings came in the Falklands, where he described a confrontation with one of the birds:

“Another day, having placed myself between a penguin and the water, I was much amused by watching its habits. It was a brave bird; and til reaching the sea, it regularly fought and drove me backwards. Nothing less than heavy blows would have stopped him; every inch he gained he firmly kept, standing close before me erect and determined. When thus opposed he continually rolled his head from side to side, in a very odd manner, as if the power of distinct vision lay only in the anterior and basal part of each eye. This bird is commonly called the jackass penguin, from its habit, while on shore, of throwing its head backwards, and making a loud strange noise, very like the braying of an ass; but while at sea, and undisturbed, its note is very deep and solemn, and is often heard in the night-time In diving, its little wings are used as fins; but on the land, as front legs. When crawling, it may be said on four legs through the tussocks or on the side of a grassy cliff, it move so very quickly that it might easily be mistaken for a quadruped. When at sea and fishing, it comes to the surface for the purpose of breathing with such a spring, and dives again so instantaneously, that I defy any one at first sight to be sure that it was not a fish leaping for sport.”

As Darwin noted, penguins are far from passive, as my daughter Clio learned in the process of banding them this summer at Argentina’s Reserva Provincial Punta Tombo (pictured above), where upwards of 200,000 Magellanics - as the jackasses are properly known - breed in burrows on the arid Atlantic shore. When my wife saw her after she left Punta Tombo, she exclaimed “Darling, you’re disfigured!” because of the bites she had suffered, mostly on her hands. In Clio’s words, “I've got a few pretty good ones that I hope will stick around until I get back to the states. Yes, those chicks were very bitey. I also have an adult penguin bite on my shin that I still have a mark from, so that'll tell you how much worse the adults bites are than the chick ones.”

Clio’s internship was part of a long-term research project by University of Washington biologist Dee Boersma, who has UW grad students and a handful of Argentine interns at Punta Tombo every summer. An article on Boersma’s research, and the occasional obstacles to working in a country such as Argentina, appears in the current issue of Wildlife Conservation magazine.

Meanwhile, I have not yet had a correct answer on Thursday’s quiz, which I thought should have been simple enough, at least to anyone who read the piece at all closely. So I’ll leave another clue - go to the Cruceros Australis website and follow the boat’s itinerary to find the name of the archipelago whose waters Darwin described as resembling “a miniature likeness of the Polar Sea.” Please send your answer to me at southerncone (at) mac.com, and you will win a copy of the new edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia.

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