Flipper Bands May Harm Penguins, Skew Scientific Results

gentoo penguin flipper tags photo

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Flipper bands, the kind that wrap around the vestigial wings of penguins, are commonly used by scientists to track the birds as they migrate from colony to colony and travel across the ocean. This data is essential to understanding the impact of warming oceans, melting ice, and changing prey populations.

According to new research, however, the bands themselves may hinder the penguins' ability to find food, mate, and escape predators. These impacts could be responsible for penguin fatalities and skewed research data.DISCOVERY NEWS: Penguins Harmed by Research Bands

The study, conducted by French researchers and published in the journal Nature, found that the survival rate of king penguins with flipper bands dropped by 16% and the birds produced 39% fewer chicks. A study conducted by Swansea University Professor Rory Wilson in 1994 showed that drag caused by the bands required tagged birds to use 24% more energy to swim.

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Claire Saraux, one of the study's coauthors, commented:

As we show in our paper there is a drop in breeding success and it is known in sea birds that when this fails it induces immigration to other colonies so then there is a problem if you use flipper banding to study immigration. It will skew the numbers.

The most recent data, collected in 2000, shows that between 1988 and 1996, 36,000 penguins received the flipper bands. Scientists use the bands because they can be seen from a distance, making the location of tagged birds in a crowded rookery a much simpler proposition.

The alternative is to use tiny electronic chips that transmit radio signals. These tags eliminate the problems caused by the bands, but require researchers to track down the bird using a receiver antenna. In recent years, the bands have become less popular.

"The big question is does what you get from the study justify the cost," Wilson says, "and the costs are increased mortality without a shadow of a doubt and decreased reproductive success." In light of this, he says, it would be difficult for any researcher to defend the use of flipper bands.

Read more about penguins:
Fraser's Penguins Offers a 'Blue Marble' View of Climate Change (Book Review)
All-Black Penguin Discovered, Seems Underdressed
Penguins Hop on the Scale for Climate Research (Video)

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