Several bioacoustics studies are currently taking place at SANCCOB, Cape Town. SANCCOB is collaborating with several international researchers to understand African penguin communication, both on land when partners greet each other at nest sites as well as at sea, when birds communicate for improved foraging as it has been shown that birds are more successful when foraging in groups. Researchers are looking at the development of African penguin chick calls relating to age, testing whether this can be used to assess chick condition in the wild and if recording penguin calls in the colonies can be a method to estimate the number of penguins present. The beauty is that his acoustic study can be performed without any disturbance to the penguins undergoing rehabilitation. It is envisaged in the future that we can obtain further information, including numbers of birds and body condition of adults and chicks from purely recording calls remotely in the colonies.
The study examining communication of penguins at sea is crucial to assess if noise pollution produced by increasing vessel traffic could be one of the reasons for the recent dramatic decline in penguin numbers on St Croix Island in Algoa Bay. Understanding this link will also be important for the assessment of future harbour developments and other marine industrial activities such as seismic surveys, oil and gas exploration and drilling.
Climate change may affect or is already affecting all life stages of seabirds; heat waves and extreme weather events such as heat waves or storms cause breeding failures as eggs and chicks are abandoned and exposed to the elements. Changes in sea temperature and currents can lead to changes in food availability and distribution of prey, resulting in poor body condition of seabirds and in the long-term increased mortality. Storms and increased wave action can also lead to reduced breeding habitat caused by flooding or coastal erosion and become unviable habitat for breeding penguins.
SANCCOB is collaborating with the South African Nationals Parks (SANParks) at the Boulders Beach Penguin Colony (Table Mountain National Park) in a study assessing the impacts of climate change on breeding African penguins. Due to generous funding provided by WWF International’s Wildlife Adaptation Innovation Fund, a weather station has been installed and temperature and humidity sensors have been placed in several different nest types and different breeding habitats. By analysing breeding success, monitored by SANCCOB’s Penguin and Seabird Rangers in Simon’s Town in collaboration with City of Cape Town and SANParks, and linking breeding success/failure to recorded temperatures, the aim is to predict the conditions that cause penguins to abandon their eggs and chicks. This information will assist with improved management interventions, focussing on successful nest and habitat types (i.e., vegetation, natural nest or artificial nest boxes) as well as the development of an early warning system that can be adjusted to other seabird colonies.
Seabirds are known to ingest plastics whilst at sea, mistaking them for prey items and often leading to the birds’ death. Less visible than fishing gear entanglement or ingestion of larger pieces of plastic, microplastic ingestion has been shown to be a problem for many organisms however it is often not well documented nor understood. SANCCOB is working closely with the University of the Western Cape on a study assessing the prevalence of microplastics in coastal seabirds, such as gulls and terns. The presence of microplastics in fish is included in this study, including commercially purchased sardine fed to SANCCOB’s seabird patients.
A multi-partner research project, SANCCOB collaborates with the University of Pretoria (UP), the University of the Western Cape (UWC), University of Namibia (UNAM) and the Freie Universitaet Berlin (FU Berlin) on a Penguin Health project, funded by the MeerWissen Initiative, African-German Knowledge for Ocean Knowledge. MeerWissen was initiated in 2018 by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and seeks to provide policymakers with the scientific information needed to take profound decisions for the effective management and conservation of Africa’s ocean and coasts.
The Penguin Health project consists of different work areas, and SANCCOB is directly involved in several of these. One key aspect of the project is the Avian Influenza project, linked to SANCCOB’s disease surveillance work. Both SANCCOB’s veterinary and research teams have been extensively involved in sampling for the study, including seabird colonies in South Africa and Namibia, in addition to the SANCCOB seabird hospitals. Led by a team of researchers at the University of the Western Cape, SANCCOB has collected samples for a study on the prevalence of toxins in penguins from various colonies to understand the different exposure, depending on the vicinity to human activities, such as cities and ports.
In order to be able to monitor African penguins and get more accurate numbers of breeding pairs but at the same time reducing the human disturbance caused by frequent or intense colony visits, SANCCOB is working together with a team from UP on a project to use drones to count African penguins. The MeerWissen project builds on the experience of colleagues from CapeNature, BirdLife South Africa and SANParks.
As part of the MeerWissen project, a stakeholder survey on African penguin conservation has been conducted by a student from the University of Pretoria; SANCCOB is co-supervising this study. Different groups, ranging from researchers who are directly working with African penguins to local residents and fisherman have been interviewed to gain an understanding of their current knowledge and their vision for African penguin conservation.