Carol Vleck
  Environmental Physiologist

Carol Vleck from Iowa State, who studies penguins, will be seen on camera during program 2, when she'll take us on a tour of the Adelie colonies on Torgersen Island.

My project involves examining the physiological and hormonal bases of the "decisions" that individual penguins have to make during the reproductive season. Like all penguins, Adelie penguins must come to land to nest, forming monogamous pairs (for the most part). Since they forage only at sea, the birds must fast while they are in the nesting colonies, sometimes for many weeks at a time. The eggs and young chicks must be guarded continuously by one or the other parent because predators, particularly skuas, prey on unattended eggs and chicks. The parents must take turns foraging at sea and returning with food to feed the chicks since there's nothing for the chicks to eat on land. Consequently the proper coordination of behavior between the two parents is crucial to successful reproduction. I want to understand why some birds manage to be very successful parents and others are not. Many will come to the breeding colony and then either fail to find a mate and start a nest, or will abandon the eggs or chicks at some point.

Some personal background:

My background for this project stems from my combined interest in physiology and in behavior. I have a Master's degree from UCLA for which I concentrated on animal behavior and a Ph. D degree from UCLA for which I concentrated on environmental physiology. Environmental physiologists are interested in how animals manage to survive and reproduce in the "real world". Often environmental physiologists look at plants or animals living under extreme conditions (like penguins fasting in the harsh climate of Antarctica). If we can begin to understand the adaptations that these animals have for dealing with their environment, then we can see clearly how organisms in more moderate conditions do the same.

Much of my research on bird behavior and physiology prior to this trip was actually carried out in the deserts near Tucson, Arizona -- another harsh environment to live in. The problems faced by animals in Antarctica and deserts are more similar than one might guess. In both cases animal have to solve the same problems of living in an environment with limited access to food and water, finding a mate, defending a territory, laying the eggs, and taking care of the offspring.

My parents were both in "business" and yet five of their six children went into biology. I don't know why I'm fascinated by biology and can't be bothered balancing my check book. I think people should strive to find a career in which they do well and more importantly what they like. I did well in all my science classes when I was in middle and high school, but I didn't really discover that I loved field work until I was in college. Then experiences in ecology and marine biology field trips convinced me that there is so much diversity in how and where animals work that I didn't want to just study white rats or chickens living in a lab for a living. I wanted to get out and see the world. With work, luck, and persistence I've gotten to do field work everywhere from Australia to Central America and now to Antarctica. I like to stay home with my family, too, but I make room in my life for my career and my family. It's sometime tough and I count on my family and friends a lot for support.

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