Penguins Mysteriously Losing Their Feathers (Photos)


A Magellanic penguin chick with feather-loss disorder at San Lorenzo, Argentina. Photo credit: Nola Parsons

The recent discovery of an all-black emperor penguin was called a "one in a zillion kind of mutation," by biologists, but a more alarming trend makes this unique "under dressed" penguin look fortunate indeed.

Across the South Atlantic, Discovery News reports, featherless penguins have been appearing with increasing frequency and, so far, scientists are baffled as to why.READ MORE: Why Are Penguins Losing Their Feathers?

Feather-loss disorder has also been observed in African penguins, which inhabit the coast and offshore islands of South Africa. Photo credit: Nola Parsons

The condition is much more than a novelty: Featherless penguins struggle to maintain their body temperatures. Scientists have observed featherless penguin chicks basking in the warm—but harmful—midday sun while their feathered cohorts sought protection in the shade.

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"The recent emergence of feather-loss disorder in wild bird populations suggests that the disorder is something new," Mariana Varese, acting director of World Conservation Society's Latin America and Caribbean program, explained. Unfortunately, the cause of the disorder remains a mystery.


A "naked" Magellanic penguin chick at Punta Tombo, site of the most important penguin colony for the species. Photo credit: Jeffrey Smith

So far, researchers believe the disorder could be caused by pathogens, thyroid problems, nutrient imbalances, or genetic disorders. "Feather-loss disorders are uncommon in most bird species," said Dee Boersma, who has studied Magellanic penguins for more than three decades."

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"We need to learn how to stop the spread of feather-loss disorder, as penguins already have problems with oil pollution and climate variation," said Boersma, "it's important to keep disease from being added to the list of threats they face."

Read more about penguins:
Flipper Bands May Harm Penguins, Skew Scientific Results
Fraser's Penguins Offers a 'Blue Marble' View of Climate Change (Book Review)
Penguins Hop on the Scale for Climate Research (Video)

Tags: Animals | Birds | Conservation | Endangered Species