Program 2: The Secrets of Survival

Think of Antarctica, and the most likely image will be a penguin. In this program "you are there" with the most abundant penguin species to be found in and around Palmer, the Adelie. Torgersen Island, within NSF's 2-mile safety limit for boat trips via Zodiac inflatable, is home to some 8,000 breeding pairs, and this is the time of year when it's make or break for the next generation. Most baby Adelies will be born in mid-December. By January, we see which will live and die, whose parents are the most successful in foraging for food, with both parents taking turns at home, and away from the nests, searching for sustenance. We'll follow researchers Carol Vleck and Theresa Bucher as they visit Torgersen when the penguin chicks are molting, and watch them as they try to understand the physiological and behavioral bases for Adelie survival. Bucher has been studying specific individuals in this rookery since 1990, and has some insights into the "secrets of survival."

Since LFA 2 will have cameras at Palmer from mid-December 1996, until mid-February 1997, we'll be able to follow the chick-rearing cycle of a typical Adelie family during the height of their breeding season. This sequence will be full of solid science, but will also take viewers on a unique "up close and personal" visit to a large penguin rookery, where the sounds (and smells) are overwhelming, where cute chicks abound, but where the nursery scenes are interrupted from time to time by lethal dive-bomb attacks from on high.

Bill Fraser studies threats to the Adelies, both natural and human. A terrestrially-based member of the LTER group we met in program 1, he studies skuas, petrels and penguins on the outlying islands near Palmer. Skuas are one of most important flying threats to baby Adelies. Fraser is also looking at how the size and seasonal onset of the sea ice has different consequences for different key species. The simplified marine food web in the Antarctic oceans and the extreme variability of seasonal climate provides a high-contrast story of survival or death, dramatically highlighting the interaction of environment and life, with implications for the rest of the planet and all its creatures.

Fraser also plans to divide Torgersen Island into two sections this research season. Visitors will be allowed in one area, but banned from the other. Then he and his research team will compare penguin breeding behavior and success in the two sections. The results are intended to help tour operators establish procedures to better protect and preserve the very creatures the tourists have paid substantial fees to see.

This program will originate live from Torgersen Island, with scenes and sounds (but none of the distinctive smells!) of the Adelies on their nests. A second live camera will show the laboratories back at Palmer Station, where the researchers bring blood samples and evidence of the penguins' diet for analysis. Videotape sequences will compare "A Day in the Life of a Penguin Colony" with the life and work of the researchers who study them. We'll check out the safety features of the Zodiac inflatables, and commute to work across waters so cold they could kill in minutes. We'll see life at Palmer Station, where days of devotion to science amid extreme and sometimes dangerous conditions are enlivened by nights of pizza parties and an occasional "Palmer Pentathlon"!

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