Penguin/Catalogs/Reaction of penguins to aircraft

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This king penguin at Fortuna Bay on South Georgia, UK, is probably not searching the skies for aircraft.

As millions of penguins live alongside humans in Antarctica and around the Antarctic Circle, research has been necessary to ascertain the existence of a negative reaction to aircraft amongst these flightless birds. In turn, this has led to an often-resurrected urban legend, or false story, that penguins fall over when disturbed by human activity, particularly aeroplanes.

Penguin-toppling: origin of the urban legend

The earliest supposed accounts of penguins being frightened by aeroplanes can be traced to the Falklands War between the United Kingdom and Argentina in 1982. During that time, warplanes of the Royal Air Force were flying regular missions into enemy-occupied territory on the Falkland Islands. At the close of hostilities, servicemen returned to the UK with tales of how penguins would watch the aircraft overhead, falling onto their backs as they strained to see.[1] Since that time, with the RAF now operating from Falklands airfields, two further embellishments have been added: that penguins would actually gather in fascination at the head of a runway to watch the aircraft ascend, and that after toppling over, the birds were unable to rise unassisted. The story claims that during the war, airmen occasionally acted as "penguin picker-uppers" and were sent to rescue the animals.[2]

Research by the British Antarctic Survey Group

The story has played on and off in the media since at least the early 1990s, and represents a fine example of how a claim with elements of plausibility, combined with an apparently authoritative source, can grow in the telling. However, another reason that penguins' supposed inability to reliably stand occasionally surfaces is through reference to entirely legitimate research carried out by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), particularly the work of Dr Richard Stone and his team on the British island of South Georgia.[3] This research came in response to fears raised at the 1999 Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Peru that increased aerial activity towards the South Pole could be disturbing wildlife.[4]

Background and aims of the research

In November 2000, Stone set out on a five-week study to establish the extent to which human activity around the Antarctic negatively affected penguins' habits. With the help of the British Royal Navy's ice patrol vessel HMS Endurance and its pair of Lynx helicopters, Stone's team investigated the reactions of king penguins to the helicopters as they flew over a colony at varying heights. The intention was to ultimately set minimum flying altitudes for aircraft that would cause least disturbance to the native species of the region; additionally, the team would test the claim that, in these circumstances, penguins are likely to fall over.[5]

Methodology

The helicopters flew over a colony of about 1000 penguin pairs inhabiting Antarctic Bay; a control group of about 700 undisturbed pairs at Possession Bay was also investigated for comparison. The Navy made 17 flyovers at heights ranging from 2000 to 500 metres (about 6500 to 1650 feet), from different directions, over four days in a total of nine. As well as taking recordings of the aircraft noise and counting the animals to determine effects on breeding, the penguins' activities were recorded before, during and after each flyover using four video cameras. The footage was analysed in the BAS's Cambridge, England headquarters in January 2001.[6]

Results

The research did indeed find unusual behaviour amongst the colony; some birds became rather quiet, while some others that were not protecting nests walked away from the direction of the noise. However, normal activity resumed within a few minutes, and it was decided that flights above 1000 feet (about 300 metres) probably had a negligible impact on the penguins' behaviour.[7] There was also some evidence that the birds became habituated to the flights, though flying higher did not seem to significantly reduce stress.[8] Furthermore, there was no difference in incubation rates for nested eggs in the Antarctic Bay group, as compared to the Possession Bay control colony. Finally, not a single penguin was observed falling over before, during or after each flyover.[9]

Recommendations

Aircraft are banned from flying below 1000 metres over South Georgia, and from overflying penguin colonies at all; the team recommended that this prohibition be maintained, despite the lack of conclusive evidence for a serious negative effect. In addition, authorities have been issuing pilots with maps pointing out the colonies, so that they may be better-avoided.[10]

The jocular manner in which this research has been reported in the media disguises a serious point: according to the British Antarctic Survey, penguins may experience considerable distress when subjected to the noise of low-flying aircraft. This may cause them to panic and abandon their eggs and nestlings, leaving them vulnerable to predators and exposure.[11] At present, no further research has been undertaken.

Footnotes

  1. Snopes.com Urban Legends Reference Pages: 'Air Bowling for Penguins.'
  2. No reputable source backs this up, but anecdotal storytelling exists on-line; see also the Urban Legends Reference Pages.
  3. BBC News: 'Navy probes penguin puzzle.' 2nd November 2000. This article mistakenly claims that the primary purpose of Dr Stone's exhibition was to investigate the penguin-toppling claim.
  4. British Antarctic Survey: 'Ecological Effects of Helicopter Overflights on King Penguins'.
  5. See the BAS's report, Ecological Effects of Helicopter Overflights on King Penguins.
  6. As well as the BAS's Ecological Effects of Helicopter Overflights on King Penguins, see also the Associated Press: 'Penguins don't topple over watching planes.' 1st February 2001.
  7. British Antarctic Survey: 'Penguins do not fall over!' 14th February 2002.
  8. Committee for Environmental Protection working paper: 'Proposed Guidelines for the operation of aircraft near concentrations of birds.' Submitted by the United Kingdom.
  9. See the Associated Press story for information on incubation and lack of falling.
  10. See the UK working paper, Proposed Guidelines for the operation of aircraft near concentrations of birds, p.6.
  11. See the group's press release, Penguins do not fall over!