For ecologist Heather Lynch, high-stakes Antarctic expeditions to see penguins are a part of her job description. Around once a year, she leads a group of student scientists to the Antarctic Peninsula, where she spends hours manually counting penguins.
Lynch, an associate professor and endowed chair for ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University, is one of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ six 2022 marine fellows, who are all pioneers of conservation research. The coveted fellowship will give Lynch a three-year, $150,000 grant to study penguin populations in Antarctica using quantitative finance methods.
“We’re applying tools of risk management from finance to ecology,” Lynch said. “The Pew Fellowship is a chance to really dive into it.”
Colleagues for nearly 10 years, Tom Hart, a penguin researcher at Oxford University, and Lynch once found a previously undiscovered penguin colony together. Together, they study whether parental success or “gifts of reproduction” affect their populations.
“Heather is innovative and exciting,” Hart said.
Lynch works with her research team in the Lynch Lab to study how penguin populations move as the climate shifts, via satellite images and expeditions to the Antarctic. Lynch Lab pioneers in quantitative ecology, or mathematical studies of wildlife. The team’s work in conservation biology has landed them the attention of National Geographic, Time Magazine and The Economist.
“We support researchers who show they are capable of work that engages stakeholders and decision makers,” Rebecca Goldburg, the director of environmental research and science at Pew Charitable Trusts, said. “They provide research that’s likely to inform conservation work. Heather will be a wonderful addition to this community of fellows.”
This research landed Lynch a National Geographic Explorer grant. With Pew’s backing, Lynch Lab will now use quantitative finance tools to study penguin populations.
“We know these things happen on geological timescales,” Lynch said. “Over tens of thousands of years, penguins have been shifting their ranges north and south as the climate has changed. It’s just rare to actually catch that in action.”
In an expedition planned for 2023, Lynch Lab plans to study two penguin species whose movements are now affected by climate change.
“Macaroni penguins and king penguins are considered sub-Antarctic species,” Lynch said. “But as climate change happens, they’re moving into the Antarctic.”
Climate change is rapidly occurring in the Antarctic Peninsula. Last week, researchers found that warm air from the Pacific is melting two major ice shelves. Penguins affected by climate change have migrated on an unprecedented scale.
“In order for a king penguin to get to the Antarctic, it has to leap over the entire Southern Ocean,” Lynch explained. “That’s a once-in-a-century kind of event we’re seeing play out from one year to the next.”
Similarly to emperor penguins, king penguins huddle for warmth.
“When we talk about climate change, it’s rarely the case that the air is just getting warmer,” Lynch said. “But with king penguins, it’s literally a function of air temperature. Either the chicks will freeze to death over the winter or they won’t.
The birds are unsuccessfully trying to breed in the Antarctic. A Concordian weather station reports that Antarctica is 70 degrees warmer than average. According to Lynch, seabirds are migrating to colder places.
“It’s not trivial to have a seabird suddenly leap 500 miles further south and be successful,” Lynch said. “There will be a time when they’re not as small and the Antarctic is no longer that cold. Then they will be able to breed successfully.”
According to Lynch, some penguin species, like the king penguin and Gentoo penguin, have a better shot of surviving climate change because of their adaptability. Other groups, like the Adélie penguin, stubbornly root themselves in a single spot.
“Adélies are very site-faithful,” Lynch — who in 2019 won a $250,000 prize for discovering a super colony of 1.5 million Adélie penguins — explained. “An individual Adélie penguin wants to breed on the same pile of rocks that it used last year.”
The trends of Adélie population growth are difficult to track, as the Antarctic Peninsula’s roughly 280 Adélie colonies fluctuate wildly.
“Populations on the same island are sensitive to the details of the sea ice environment,” Lynch said. “It appears that what they’re responding to is specific to their own tiny little neighborhood.”
Typically, Lynch Lab surveys these populations by satellite, but they are always planning an Antarctic expedition. In the past, they’ve worked with the world-famous environmental NGO Greenpeace. Over three to four months, Lynch Lab travels to Ushuaia, Argentina, where Lynch and student researchers take 12-to-14 day Antarctic trips.
On the Antarctic Peninsula, Lynch and her students bundle up to spend hours counting penguins in below-freezing temperatures.
“Ninety percent of what we do is just counting penguins,” Lynch said. “It’s as low-tech as you can imagine. We literally have a hand-held clicker that we click for each penguin.”
Like most animal researchers, Lynch’s team prefers not to interact with the penguins by keeping a five-meter distance from them. However, there are times where they have to get in the colony to count them.
“We have one project that involves drawing blood from penguins. Sometimes we collect eggshells or guano [bird dung],” Lynch said.
Interacting with the penguins can be dangerous, Lynch explained, as physical contact can plunge a human being or a penguin into death’s sudden embrace.
“Penguins are extremely strong,” Lynch said. “A penguin is like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s thigh. It’s a tube of muscle that’s attached to these wings with very sharp edges. It’s like getting beaten to death by an oar.”
Lynch also has environmental concerns about her expeditions.
“The three big factors of penguin decline are climate change, krill fishing and tourism,” she said. “One of my colleagues estimates that the carbon cost of one Antarctic cruise is like switching from a hybrid to a Ford Highlander.”
Satellites and measuring data are just half of the work.
“Just for Adélie penguins, there are about 280 colonies,” Lynch said. “Some are going up in one year, some are going down.”
She hopes to measure the trends soon. “Hopefully we’ll have a full field season next year.”
For Lynch, Antarctic research is a duty.
“We have a responsibility to come back from Antarctica and used the knowledge we learned,” Lynch said. “If you’ve discovered Antarctica is a place worth saving, you have to come back and do something with that knowledge. You now know what’s at risk with things like climate change.”