April 29, 2008

In the Field - Punta San Juan (4/28/08)

We headed to the beach first thing this morning for our fourth day of field work. The winds are stronger today and I’m glad we’re at the water’s edge instead of at the top of the cliff where we were blasted by wind and sand yesterday. The waves are the largest we’ve seen and there is a lot of surf through which the fur seals and cormorants are swimming. We caught a glimpse of a falcon hunting gulls as we climbed down the sandstone cliff to the beach below.

As on most beaches at PSJ there are many signs of the circle of life and evidence that only the fittest survive. The beach is scattered with bones and animal carcasses of many different species. During years when the fish supply is low (El Niño years) thousands of animals succumb to starvation and their bones are evidence of how strong the evolutionary pressures are. During this time of year many of the seabirds are breeding and a large percentage of their chicks do not survive to adulthood leaving many carcasses littered along the coast. At first, the quantity of animal carcasses is incomprehensible. In no other location have I seen such an accumulation of the remnants of dead animals. It is only after being at PSJ for a few days and observing the millions of animals that call this small reserve home that one can begin to comprehend that death is actually a sign that life is thriving in this unique ecosystem and the animals that survive are the ones that will be able to pass their genes on to the next generation.

Working on the beach known as S5 today, we had many spectators including several large groups of penguins, cormorants, and fur seals who didn’t seem to mind that we were there. We examined 20 penguins, all of which were found on nests in between large boulders and rocks at this location. Our group has become a well oiled machine and although we’ve only been working together for a few days everyone has got the drill down to pat. Someone asks which nest, how many eggs, wing band number? Then if no toe tags are in place, one gets placed on each foot. Next: the microchip under the skin, then a swab of the conjunctiva, the choana, and finally the cloaca for Chlamydophila testing. Five small feathers are collected for toxicological evaluation. A blood sample is drawn from the jugular vein. The syringe is handed to someone else that fills the I-Stat cartridge, the green and red top tubes and one for DNA preservation. A heart rate, respiratory rate and physical exam are completed. The bird is weighed and returned to its nest all in usually under 5-7 minutes. This times 20 in a few hours time. We have a great group of volunteers and wouldn’t be able to undertake such and ambitious project without their help. After sampling the penguins, we take a few minutes to enjoy PSJ and capture some breath taking photos.

Back at the lab the team is just as well coordinated, we finish processing our samples with a little time left over for email to coordinate all the necessary permits and the hopes of making a hot dinner.

Jennifer Langan, DVM, DACZM
Veterinarian – Chicago Zoological Society & University of Illinois


smileyxlvr44 said...

you have to tell more about what the process is of helping them so we researchers can gather more information.

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