Experiencing penguins in the Antipodes

Department of Conservation —  18/08/2020

This Conservation Week, you can experience a virtual walk in a DOC scientists’ footsteps to get up close with native penguins. DOC Technical Advisor Dave Houston take us behind-the-scenes of what it’s like working with penguins on the Antipodes.

A skua keeping an eye out for lunch in an mixed colony of erect-crested and rockhopper penguins. Photo: Dave Houston

In September 1988 I joined two Otago University researchers on an expedition to the Antipodes Islands to study the breeding biology of the erect-crested penguin. Crested penguins lay two eggs, but one is larger than the other and usually only one chick is raised. 

Erect-crested penguins have the largest egg-size difference, with the second being 85% larger by volume. They also seem to lose the first egg from the nest before they start incubation.  We hoped to find out how the first egg was lost, and why crested penguins lay different-sized eggs.

Erect-crested penguins take egg dimorphism to the extreme. Photo: Dave Houston

The 3-day yacht voyage from Dunedin was my first sub-antarctic trip, and I spent most of the time strapped into my bunk not feeling the best. Landing on the island involved scrambling ashore in wetsuits, carrying the gear for our six-week stay ashore, then up a cliff and across a swampy area to the hut – it took 3 days.  Once settled, we found a suitable penguin colony to work at and we started work mapping nests, marking individuals and taking blood samples for hormonal analysis. We then started our 12 hrs of daily observations with the aim of documenting the gain or loss of eggs in each nest every 3-hour shift.

Painting penguins is unsual, but we hoped that it would help us keep tabs of who was on the nest. Photo: Dave Houston

There was plenty to look at in our shifts, penguins loudly arguing over territory and nesting material, skua on the lookout for an egg dinner, giant petrels bathing in the shelter of the bay, elephant seals fighting on the beach and albatross soaring overhead.

Sitting on a rock staring at penguins for 3 hours at a time in cold, windy and windy conditions was challenging, especially during the regular hail storms. After a shift we’d retreat to the hut to warm up, although the hut was unheated and rather cold.

Our study site. The rock above provided a great perch to observe penguin behaviour. Photo: Dave Houston

While my two colleagues used their non-observation time to write a book, I kept busy renovating the small hut built for shipwrecked sailors in 1886, fixing the collapsed floor and painting the exterior.

Later in the trip we had time to do other things, banding wandering albatross chicks and counting penguins at several colonies across the island.  These and other counts have shown that the erect-crested penguin population is in decline, possibly due to climate change. Research on where and on what erect-crested penguins feed on is needed to help understand this.

After six weeks on the island I was keen to return home to fresh food and a decent shower, however it wasn’t too long before I was back on a sub-antarctic island studying the breeding and feeding ecology of another crested penguin.

Lloyd Davis catching a penguin for blood sampling in the study site. Photo: Dave Houston

Immerse yourself in a virtual experience this Conservation Week, 15-23 August 2020. Discover hidden kākāpō and hard-to-reach penguin colonies on Codfish and Anchor islands and the Antipodes from home.

2 responses to Experiencing penguins in the Antipodes


    Nice story Dave. Did you ever find out how the first egg is lost?


      Egg loss looked to be accidental to us. Perhaps a function of not being ready for Incubation and the mechanics of manipulating two dissimilar objects. The question of why different sizes is still under debate but may be because of nature of the winter migrations crested penguins make.