Emperor penguins fitted with GPS to track feeding grounds

Emperor penguins are being kitted out with the latest GPS technology, using trackers that scientists say are "a lot like a Fitbit".

It's part of a New Zealand-backed study to monitor their feeding grounds in the Ross Sea as climate change continues to close in.

The field team from San Jose State University must physically capture each bird to attach the instruments.

It's a hands-on operation: footage from Antarctica New Zealand videographer Anthony Powell shows researchers slowly surrounding each bird, before jumping in to wrap them up in "a big hug". They then cover the animal's eyes with a hood to help them calm down and attach the GPS.

The joint NZ-US project could prove crucial to the international effort to uphold a special Marine Protected Area in the Ross Sea.

"We're hoping to learn where they are going, how deep they are diving, how hard they have to work to get their food," Birgitte McDonald, an associate professor at San Jose State University who is on the ground at Cape Crozier, in Antarctica, said.

"This work will help us to understand how the Marine Protected Area's functioning and if changes need to be made in order to protect the species here."

The scientists have been camping on the ice for weeks and are aiming to "instrument" 32 birds for this leg of the study. It can be a long process, taking up to eight hours a day in freezing conditions.

"We have to recapture these devices from the backs of the penguins, and at that point we download the data, and that's when all our work begins," Parker Forman, a graduate student at San Jose State University who is also taking part in the project, said.

"The technology is not that dissimilar from what everyone carries on them on the daily, such as technology that's found on your phone, or technology that's on your smart watch."

Astonishing detail

The data can be broken down to a very fine scale thanks to the attached GPS, pressure sensor, temperature sensor and accelerometer. Combined, those tools allow researchers to track the depths of each penguin's dives in astonishing detail.

"We know when they were standing by the orientation of the tag, we can actually calculate how many steps they took, how long they were actually just resting - and then during a dive, we know whether or not they were in the decent phase of their dive," Forman said.

The multi-year project will help researchers to assess whether the Ross Sea Marine Protected area is proving effective. It was set up by 25 countries, including New Zealand, to restrict fishing in the hope it would save the feeding grounds of multiple species.

Scientists can learn a lot about the entire Ross Sea system by studying the emperors, as they are a key predator.

"Penguins, especially these penguins, are sentinels of change. They're sort of the canaries in the coal mine," Caitlin Kroeger, a postdoctoral researcher who is part of the team on the ground, said.

"When something's wrong, especially with climate change, things are going to be changing really rapidly in a polar place, and this is the last area for them. They're dependent on the ice and if the ice is not something that is sustainable for them, then we need to be monitoring that closely."

Some of the colonies are already beginning to fail as some of the ice they breed on disappears.

"If the sea ice breaks out too soon, there can be complete reproductive failure," McDonald added.

While there's still a while to wait before the results of the study come back, all of us can help in the meantime.

"One of the things that anyone can do – Kiwis, Americans, everyone around the world – is to cut their carbon footprint and you can do this by doing small things like carpooling, riding your bike more, turning off the power when you leave a room," McDonald said.

It's hoped that together, we can stop these colonies from disappearing.