What’s in a penguin’s tail?

Do you love penguins? Yes? Great. For those of you who said no, look at these pictures and think again.

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Now that we are all on the same page, let’s continue.

Penguins are cute waddling marine birds especially abundant in the Antarctic Peninsula. Like most marine animals, they migrate out in the ocean during winter and return to their cozy breeding places in summer. Conservationists are interested to know the exact location and travel routes of penguins during migration. This has become increasingly important to ensure their safety in the face of ever-changing climate and increasing pollution levels over the years.

How Do Researchers Track Penguins?

Till date, battery-operated tracking devices have been the best bet to locate these animals. In a recent study, a marine biologist, Michael Polito, and his team reported a  non-invasive and cheap alternative that scientists have been looking for. This secret weapon is the penguin’s tail (I also wrote an article about this fascinating research here).

Polito tested tail feathers from two types of penguins: Chinstrap and Adélie penguins. He used a special technique to identify essential amino acids (these make up proteins) in their tail feathers. Polito and team noticed unique amino acid patterns in the penguin tails based on their location history (determined using trackers). The reason is simple: penguins get their essential amino acids from phytoplankton, which is the lowest in the marine food chain. As the amino acids patterns in phytoplankton differ depending on their location in the ocean, the amino acids patterns imprinted in tail feathers of penguins feeding in different locations are also different.

This shows that penguin tails could be used as simple biogeochemical markers, as the tails can be sampled in summer when penguins return to their breeding grounds. The analysis will show what the penguin ate, and researchers can infer where they ate it. This could be a great complementary method to GPS tracking, aiding in the conservation of penguins in the future.

Acknowledgment: Special thanks to Vinita Bharat (Fuzzy Synapse) for the wonderful illustration.

Original publication

Polito, Michael J., et al. “Stable isotope analyses of feather amino acids identify penguin migration strategies at ocean basin scales.” Biology Letters 13.8 (2017): 20170241.



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