The penguins didn’t seem to mind the cold at all, snuggling down on their nests in Cape Royds, Antarctica.
One waddled up to the camera, and half a world away a cheer went up in Amherst.
Wearing a parka and braving -4 degree temperatures, researcher Jean Pennycook’s face filled big screens via video call Thursday as she told Powers Elementary School second-graders all about the Adelie penguins she studies.
A team of scientists has been trying to solve a mystery the Antarctic birds present: Where do they go in the winter?
Right now, the polar continent is bathed in 24-hour-a-day summer sunlight. The penguins are busy warming their eggs and preparing to welcome fledglings into the world.
They gather by the millions in colonies along the coast, and their population is growing. Over the past 20 years, the Adelies have boomed by more than 50 percent.
But when the seasons shift, they’ll disappear into the ocean for months. Pennycook told the Amherst “virtual fieldtrip” students that she simply doesn’t know where they go, and tracking them has proved extremely difficult.
Pennycook started her career as a teacher in Fresno, Calif., and today works on climate change research. The Adelies can’t survive without the natural ice from the region’s icebergs, glaciers, ice sheets, and ice shelves. Pennycook’s team has been studying how those ice shelves are disappearing.
The penguins are an amazingly cute part of that research, but they’re not pets, she warned.
“These are wild animals and they need to stay wild,” she told the young students. The prime rule among the Antarctic researchers is no touching, and Pennycook said she wouldn’t be allowed to step in even to rescue an injured penguin.
Amherst kids, talking to her live from the creative learning center at Steele High School, had a lot of questions.
What do penguins do all day long? “If they’re not not out in the ocean, they’re pretty much sleeping,” said Pennycook.
Why don’t they eat any big fish? “They don’t eat the big fish because they don’t have teeth to chew them up,” she replied. Penguins eat fish about the size of a second-grader’s index finger.
What predators do penguins have? “On the land, none. In the water, it’s the leopard seal,” said Pennycook, expressing remorse at seeing them eaten.
A few other facts we learned along with the students: Penguins aren’t nocturnal, because you can’t be nocturnal when there’s no nighttime for months on end. They don’t feel the need to get three square meals a day, often going two or three days between feedings. And penguins do fly, Pennycook argued — they just do it in the water, where their range of motion exactly matches what other birds do in the air; they don’t paddle like ducks.
Kids were enthralled by the images from Antarctica.
They were also left wondering about all that remains to be learned about the natural world.
“Sometimes we think that scientists know everything, that there are no more questions to be answered,” said teacher Amanda Sears. “But is that true?”
“No!” second-graders answered in unison.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.
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