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Interview with author Lloyd Spencer Davis

Interview with Lloyd Spencer Davis Author of Discovery And Adventure with Penguins

04 March 2015

Liam Butler

Part memoir, partly the research of a field biologist, Professor Penguin could be called ‘How Penguins Shaped My Life'. Based on journals kept during Davis's years of working with penguins in the wild, the story takes readers to remote locations: Antarctica, the Galapagos, the deserts of Chile and Peru, the Falkland Islands, the wild coasts of Argentina and South Africa, and New Zealand.

Lloyd, you have spent a good chunk of your professional career pondering all things Penguin. What still perplexes you about them?

Liam, that is a really good question; one that I have never been asked before. It would be easy to name the research areas where I have been able to only scratch the surface: how penguins time their periods away from the nest, for example, or why crested penguins should insist on laying two eggs when they show every intention of rearing only one. But those are really just indications of the inadequacies of our research to date. What really perplexes me is how evolution handled that transition from flying bird to swimming bird and yet all the while maintained each species in tune with its environment. Had I been a soothsayer who was around when penguins first evolved, I would never have predicted that one day there would be a penguin that bred in the midst of an Antarctic winter. When you think about it, all the things that make it possible for an Emperor penguin to breed in such horrendous conditions seem almost too marvellous, too perfect, be they the products of Natural Selection or a god. Hence, the very things that most perplex me about penguins are the same things that make them so wondrous to me.

Penguins, are a ‘popular’ bird and are often showcased in the world of film and television, yet state that it was not much more than a century ago that penguins were boiled for their oil on their breeding ground of Macquarie Island. Is the perceived cuteness of the penguin enough to safeguard their wellbeing or do we need to do more to protect the penguin?

Unfortunately “cuteness” has never got in the way of some people viewing penguins as a meal, a source of oil, or as bait. And just as many people really like penguins, there are a significant number that really like their eggs in the form of an omelette. While the wilful persecution of penguins is thankfully on the wane, there are many sources of mortality inflicted on penguins indirectly by humans: these include the consequences of oil pollution, overfishing, guano extraction, disturbance, habitat destruction and global warming. The majority of penguin species are in some way threatened or endangered. If “cuteness” were the solution then penguin populations would not be in such bad shape. The best hope penguins have for a future is that we will set up protected areas for them, both on land and in their marine environment – and for some, like the Galapagos penguin, even that may be too late.

You celebrate the work of Lance Richdale whose work “showed that these were long-lived birds that established monogamous pair-bonds that were remarkably persistent from year to year, with divorce occurring in only seven percent of the pairs” What observations have you made about the how older Penguins fair in the game of life?

Most of the observations about older penguins have come from long-term banding studies, such as those by John Darby on Yellow-eyed penguins, Dee Boersma’s on Magellanic penguins, and David Ainley’s on Adelie penguins. If there is one consistent observation to emerge from such studies it is that experience counts (i.e. it improves the chances of breeding successfully), but only up to a certain point. One rather exciting thing to emerge from these studies is the phenomenon of “super birds” or super breeders: a few long-lived penguins can be spectacularly successful, fledging chicks consistently year after year, so that they have lifetime reproductive successes that are much higher than the norm. Of course, this is just the stuff of Natural Selection, as the genes from those highly successful breeders will be disproportionately represented in the next generation.

A leopard seal leaps onto an ice floe with fledging Adelie penguins, of which there are the quickImage copyright – Llyod Spencer Davis

Professor Penguin by Lloyd Spencer Davis

Discovery and adventure with penguins

Random House NZ $39.99

To Win a copy of Professor Penguin, Discovery and Adventure with Penguins CLICK HERE

Competition open to New Zealand Residents only.


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