Magellanic Penguin Research on Isla Martillo

When I decided to study abroad at the southern tip of South America, I actually wasn’t aware that there were penguin colonies on the subantarctic islands off the coast of Argentina and Chile. I honestly did not know that the habitat range of most penguin species extended much farther north than the Antarctic peninsula. So when I found out that I had the opportunity to conduct field research on a Magellanic penguin colony on an island about 2 hours away from my homestay city of Ushuaia, I knew I had to hop on it!

A gentoo penguin colony on Isla Martillo
More gentoos!

A key component of every SIT study abroad program is the Independent Study Project, or ISP. After classes ended in mid-October about halfway through our program, we had 6 weeks left: 4 weeks for independent research, and 2 weeks for our Antarctic excursion. When our program directors presented our group with a ‘menu’ of ISP options, they really should have known that sampling bird shit and cleaning centolla (king spider crab) cages would not even come close to the popularity of doing field research on penguins! After classes ended one day, we had about an hour to decide who would get which project, and almost half of our 15-person program wanted to research penguins. However, we really had to narrow that down, because only 2 penguin research topics were actually available. After much deliberation, only 3 people were left contending for the penguins: my friends Eni, Emma, and me. I was not about to back down and clean centolla cages for a month, and neither were they, so our director decided to have us each write a cover letter–in spanish–outlining why we should be chosen for the research. This was on a Wednesday morning when we had 3 essays due over the next 2 days, so we were definitely not thrilled about this latest development. I literally locked myself in a room in the casa de SIT, cranked out the cover letter in an hour, and sent that baby in. We then became so swept up in the end of classes and field trips and tarea that I didn’t think much more about ISP for a while. That is, until about a week later. I was running on the treadmill at SportClub when I received a call from Eni–one of my best friends in my program–screaming that we had both gotten the penguin research opportunities! I literally almost slipped off the treadmill in my excitement, and the Argentinians at the gym gave me weird looks. Totally worth it though!

After a hellish end of classes in mid-October, juggling 10 page single-space ISP proposals, 25 page single-space climate change research group projects, a 4 hour spanish final, field notebook write-ups, excursions to Puerto Almanza and Estancia Harberton, a 5 hour overarching final written exam, course evaluations, ensayos, readings, all in SPANISH, the entire program welcomed the beginning of ISP period and FREEDOM with open arms. SIT really does not mess around with their experiential learning workload, I can tell you that.

Isla Martillo – the gorgeous site of our field research
See all the little holes? Penguins nests

Eni and I got to kick off our first day of ISP with field research! This was a treat, because some of my friends never even got to work in the field. We met at el Centro Austral de Investigaciones Científicas (CADIC) at 6:45am, which was a PUSH when I eat dinner with my host family at midnight. But I made it, then drove 2 hours to Estancia Harberton, a small ranch community founded by European conquistadores 200 years ago, sipping mate and chatting about Buenos Aires with our advisor, Gaby, and a few volunteers helping out with the penguin census. When we arrived at Estancia, we hopped on a small boat full of tourists looking to see the penguins and motored through the Beagle Channel to a small island, Isla Martillo, where the penguins live during their reproductive seasons. Then began 5 full days of field research!

Un pingüino de Magallanes bopping his head back and forth to look at us
Eni and I chilling with a Magellanic penguin
love these little dudes

On day 1, I worked for the first part of the day with Eni and other volunteers, helping to collect information about the size of the penguin populations. Every year, CADIC conducts a census in October and January to determine the total penguin population in different regions of Isla Martillo. To do this, they recruit about 25 volunteers from the city of Ushuaia to help out for 3 days. Pretty cool opportunity for the locals to engage in citizen science and help with the conservation of endangered species! There are about 50 estacas (stakes) dispersed evenly throughout the island. To conduct the census, volunteers use measuring tape to measure a circle with a 20m radius around the estaca, then count every single nido (nest), shouting whether or not it was empty or active (vacío o activo)! It was actually more difficult than I thought, because we had to crawl underneath dense underbrush, climb up hills, and skid down steep slopes to access some of the nests and mark them with flour once we’d counted them. It was also super important to be extremely careful when walking around the nests, because the island was so eroded that we could easily step through the roof of a nest we didn’t see and destroy it, harming the penguin and eggs inside. Once or twice, a volunteer stepped on a nest, and Eni and I had to do damage control, making sure the eggs weren’t harmed and patching up the roof with rogue branches and leaves.

just a pingüino hanging in his nido

After helping out with the penguin census, I helped my project advisor, Gaby, conduct research on éxito reproductivo (reproductive success) of pingüinos in nests marked with estacas. To do this, we had to use a long pole with a gentle hook on the end to levantar (lift) the penguin and count the number of eggs underneath. Weirdly, the penguins weren’t too bothered by this, as they would just stare at us as we carefully lifted them up. They would bob their heads back and forth as they looked at us with both eyes to complete a full image, which made for some really cute videos. Some of them tried to snap their beaks at the poles, but for the most part, they were pretty docile. I also had to use an antenna to check if the penguins had microchips embedded in their necks from previous years, because Gaby tracks population size, phenological events, fishing data, and nest location from year to year based on these data. Rogue penguins outside their nests would get a little freaked out by the antennas, and some would immediately waddle away as soon as I came near, while others just looked at the antenna curiously. I will never get tired of these cute little dudes.

Video of penguin research with antenna

The one downside of researching éxito reproductivo was crawling into the nests to reach the penguins inside. When conducting the censo, I could easily crouch down to see if there was a penguin inside a nido, but to get close enough to lift a penguin up or use the antenna, I had to put half my body into the deep, tunnel-like nests. After a few hours of helping Gaby with this research, my entire body started to get extremely itchy, but I had no idea why! Everyone kept telling me to “cuídate de las pulgas!” (watch out for the pulgas!), but I had no idea what pulgas were. It wasn’t until after the 3rd day of field research, when I was back in Ushuaia, that I had the wifi to look up what “pulga” meant in Spanish…. It meant FLEAS. I had fleas. The penguins gave me fleas. And I didn’t even make the connection when I picked the little black bugs off my body at the end of 8 hours in the field each day. Sooo nasty. But honestly, spending entire days getting covered in penguin shit and fleas was completely worth it to be out there on the Isla, having the time of my life with those pingüinos! It’s a give and take.

me, actively getting covered in fleas (and trying to smile through it)
My advisor, Gaby, proud of the caterpillar on her pencil

In order to avoid driving all the way from Ushuaia to Estancia Harberton and back twice a day, Eni and I stayed overnight at el Museo Acatushún in Estancia Harberton, a local museum of marine biology founded by an American biologist, Natalie Goodall. The museum has collected bone samples and specimens of dolphins, beaked whales, other whales, and all sorts of other marine mammals for decades. Essentially, we spent each night in a bone house, sleeping right next to a room filled with hundreds of zífido skeletons. This brought an extra ~spice~ to our adventure, especially when we came back to Estancia for more field research the next week, staying overnight in the bone museum over Halloween. Eni and I weren’t alone in the museum, as 2 other friends from our program did their entire ISP’s in Estancia and 2 additional interns stayed there with us, but we definitely were a little spooked. After we joined the 30 residents of Estancia to celebrate someone’s birthday at an asado, Eni and I walked back to the museum ALONE on Halloween night and got a little too freaked out by the skeletons. But again, anything is worth it to hang out with penguins!

Lida, our academic coordinator, holding a dolphin skull at el Museo Acatushún!
Zífido skeletons at el Museo Acatushún! See why we were freaked on Halloween?

After 5 days of field research, I spent the rest of the ISP period collecting data from trap camera photos of the pingüinos de Magallanes de Isla Martillo en CADIC. This was a really fun way to look at penguins all day without getting covered in fleas! Not quite as exciting though. I spent about 8 hours every day pouring through penguin photos from 3 consecutive reproductive periods, marking the start and end dates of 3 phenological events. Phenology is the study of events in an organism’s life cycle, and I focused on the initiation of the penguin reproductive season (when the penguins arrived on Isla Martillo), when penguin chicks moulted, and when adult penguins moulted. I spent many long hours counting penguins in endless photos and zooming in to see if I could tell when their feathers started to change color. Then I used local climate data from CADIC to relate changes in climate variables, like temperature and amount of precipitation, to changes in the dates of the phenological events.

Gaby setting up trap camera on Isla Martillo
Trap camera photo of pingüinos

I spent the last week of ISP making comparisons between phenological events and climate variables, trying to draw connections and conclusions, then writing a 26-page single space final scientific research paper in SPANISH! This was definitely my greatest academic feat of my time abroad, and probably the single largest academic challenge I have ever completed in my life. I’m super proud of all my efforts, as this was my first ever independent research project, and I had no idea how much work research can be! At the end of our program in December, everyone completed a final 20 minute presentation in Spanish about all our research projects. It was truly gratifying to see how far everyone came with their language abilities and research projects. We then turned in an official, ring-bound printed copy of our research project write-ups–super fancy. One of the best parts was that after we submitted our final projects, my advisor reached out to me and asked me to help write a scientific paper about our research for publication in an ecological journal! I am so grateful for these incredible opportunities that SIT study abroad has given me. Such crazy experiences that I will remember forever!

Una pareja de pingüinos de Magallanes (aka Eni and me)