Studying Penguins…One Teacher Living Her Dream

Studying Penguins…One Teacher Living Her Dream
Written by Betty Trummel

Where is this little Adelie penguin off to? He’s part of the Adelie penguin rookery at Cape Royds. Situated about 22 miles from McMurdo Station, this rookery is a prime nesting spot for a large Adelie penguin colony. My friend Jean Pennycook is living her dream, assisting scientist David Ainley out at Cape Royds.



Jean graduated from the University of California at Davis (U.C. Davis) back in the early 1970’s with a degree in wildlife, fisheries, and biology. As she applied for jobs in the field, she was sent rejection letters saying that there were no facilities for women in the field. Times have certainly changed, and many women scientists are part of research all over the world. Jean taught high school chemistry as well as middle school environmental and physical science for 25 years. Now she’s getting the chance of a lifetime.

Her first experience in Antarctica was in the program called Teachers Experiencing Antarctica and the Arctic (TEA) the same program that gave me my first opportunity to work with researchers here in Antarctica. She was assigned to a geology project studying Mt. Erebus (our local landmark and the southernmost active volcano in the world). Jean returned to McMurdo Station for three seasons as the education and outreach contact for the polar contractor, which was Raytheon at the time. That’s how she met David and got interested in working with him on penguin research. She’s now been working with him for 7 years, living her dream and loving every minute of it.

Jean’s website is listed on my blogroll:

There is SO much information on this interactive site. Jean loads a photo of the day with a short journal entry. She has PowerPoint presentations, videos, and class activities. Some of the projects students and teachers can be involved with include a flag program (see the photo below of an awesome flag hanging in Crary Lab), a nest check, and she also has students sending her self-decorated postcards that are stamped here in Antarctica and mailed back to classrooms all over the United States.



Jean says: “This work is a pinnacle of my career as a science educator. Real life has surpassed by dreams!” Her message to students: “Go someplace interesting and different. Don’t give up; if something doesn’t work out, keep at it. You CAN reach your goal.”

A bit of review (from my earlier blog): Adelie and Emperor Penguins, are the two penguin species found in the Ross Sea region near McMurdo Station. These flightless birds waddle on land/ice and also toboggan along on their belly. When tobogganing they use their feet and stiffened wings to push themselves forward on the ice and snow. They are agile swimmers and very at home diving into the water and rocketing through the ocean in search of krill or fish to eat. Their streamlined bodies and stiff flipper-like wings make them perfectly adapted for their marine environment. Predators can include orcas (killer whales), leopard seals and skuas. Penguins use their superior swimming skills to out maneuver their predators in the ocean and make it back to the ice/land.

Jean has seen both species of penguins at Cape Royds, although her focus is primarily the Adelie penguin rookery. She mentioned that the emperors have wandered into this area recently and I have some photos to share with you later in this blog. First, let’s spend some time in the Adelie rookery.


David and Jean are studying the habits and behavior of the penguins. They are also interested in how the penguins here are adjusting or not adjusting to changes in their habitat brought about by a warming climate. Not only do they record the behavior of penguins during the summer science season, they have installed a penguin cam…an automated camera placed at Cape Royds. This camera records the comings and goings of the penguins after the scientists leave in February. It’s very important for the team to learn which penguins come back to this area to molt (for birds molting is replacement of feathers by shedding old feathers while they are producing new ones). Throughout the time Jean and David are at Cape Royds (and even when they leave), they are continually documenting these penguins.

Jean talked about how she keeps detailed notes in her journal: how many eggs each nesting pair has, who goes where in the rookery, how many chicks hatch successfully, which penguins have bands on their wings, etc. By banding the birds, they can track their movements and behavior year after year, as these penguins return to the rookery. What a wealth of scientific knowledge they have from years of continual research.

Right now it’s the nesting season. Adelie penguins can be spotted nesting throughout the rookery. They form small nesting colonies within the area around Cape Royds. The photo below shows one of these sub-groups in the rookery.


Here is an Adelie with an egg; Adelies can lay two eggs each season, with a rare three eggs for some.



Here are some awesome facts that I got from Jean’s website: (for more exciting facts and photos/videos, visit her website… it is really FULL of incredible resources!)

It takes 23-36 kg of food to raise an Adelie Penguin chick to fledging weight.

Adelie Penguins can dive 150 m deep.

Adelie Penguins can hold their breath for 6 minutes.

Adelie Penguins eat the most readily available and high-energy food they can find. Most of the year this is fish; where fish are not available or require extra effort to find, they eat krill and squid.

Chicks weigh 86 g when they hatch and gain 100 g a day until they are about 50 days old when they are ready to take care of itself.

Adelie Penguins can walk 2 km/hr over the sea ice.

On foraging trips Adelie Penguins can go up to 250 km away and be gone for 6 days but such long trips normally will result in the death of their chicks if done more than once. Typically, trips are 1-2 days long or less, and only reach about 50 km from the colony.

Adelie Penguins go to where there is pack ice and daylight in the wintertime, and do not stay with their mates.

Adelie Penguins live to be about 15-20 years.

Adelie Penguins capture about 200 g of food on a foraging trip for themselves but, they capture more if they are feeding chicks. They bring back as much as 1000 g in their stomachs when tending to an older chick.

This mating pair will raise the chick (s) together. Adelie penguins mate for life, or at least try to find the same mate every year.


Unfortunately, 80% of the chicks that fledge in a given year will not make it past 2 years of age. Look at how fragile this little chick is. Parents must try to protect it from predators.

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Skuas are also nesting in this area. Skuas are scavengers and will take something right out of your hand if you’re not careful. They’ll hover above, squawking and are always on the lookout for their next meal. Their diet consists mainly of fish, scraps, carrion (dead and decaying animals) and they often look for unguarded penguin eggs and weak or isolated penguin chicks.


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A newborn skua chick…they are cute when small, but such scavengers when they reach adulthood.

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Look how the adult skuas protect their young and keep them warm under their wing. That’s very different than the Adelie penguins who protect their chicks under the main part of their bodies.

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In the photo below, the skuas have bits of fish in their beaks.

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But, they will steal a penguin egg or snatch a chick from the parents. It’s a tough world out there for penguins!


Jean has also been able to see the emperors in the Cape Royds area and she was SUPER lucky to fly to Cape Crozier and see the emperor and Adelie penguins there. The photos below are all emperor penguins. Notice how large they are. Emperors can be up to 4 feet tall and weigh between 49-99 pounds. They are the tallest and heaviest penguins in Antarctica. They can dive for18 minutes to a depth of 1,755 feet. They eat fish, krill, and squid. Their lifespan is 20 years, but they have been documented to live much longer. They are perhaps best known for the journeys they make each year to mate and feed their chicks. Breeding colonies may include thousands of individuals. Emperor penguins rely on vocal calls to find their partner or chick. They are an incredible creature! Enjoy the photos below and I’ll be back with you again tomorrow with more interesting news from the ice.


Thanks so much to Jean for the photos and interview! You are living that dream, friend. Lucky you!


The photo below looks like they are all singing!

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