The African Penguin Nest Project
To truly know the story of the African penguin, we need to understand their struggle in a world dominated by humans.
South Africa appears to have been better suited for penguins in the past than today. Species diversity reduced from four penguin species approximately 5-10 million years ago to one today. Penguins tend to breed in areas land predators can't reach their nests, so small rocky islands are ideal. The sea level has dropped over the past few million years and many islands that existed five million years ago are now connected to the mainland. Those areas may have been lost as valuable nesting sites.
Combinations of human induced threats including egg poaching, over-fishing, environmental pollution, climate change, and especially the guano stripping have had catastrophic impacts on the population.
The African penguin has been an integral part of the ecological web in Africa for an extended time, despite the onslaught of challenges the species has faced due to the actions of humans. Today, the iconic species has been listed as an endangered species and the population continues to decline at an alarming rate.
unique and remarkable
The tiny oval of Bird Island sits off the South African coast, hardscrabble, windswept rock holding fast against the relentless pounding of the Indian Ocean. It’s barely visible from the massive mainland sand dunes of Addo Elephant National Park, more than four miles away.
Just 47 acres of sand, rock and scrub, Bird Island’s fig marigold, duneweed and goosefoot provide scant cover for humans and seabirds alike. The even smaller, rock-strewn Seal Island (1.5 acres) and Stag Island (.25 acres) lie just over 1,000 feet north, reachable only by boat. South Africa has designated all three islands and the waters surrounding them as nature reserves, part of Addo Elephant National Park.
Providing an artificial nest suitable for African penguins to lay eggs and raise their chicks is not as simple as providing a box and hoping they're successful. There are a tremendous number of considerations that must be accounted for, beginning with the most important factor of the environmental micro-climate inside the nest. An area with the incorrect temperature or humidity would lead to the large-scale failure of their nesting attempts and end with the birds learning to avoid the artificial nests.
Extensive research went into the process to develop the various prototypes that would be tested, eventually leading to a single design that meets all the critical needs for a successful nesting cycle. An artificial nest that doesn't meet their specific needs could be more detrimental to the population than no nest at all.
Once the planning process was completed it was time to put our noses to the grindstone and build various prototype nests utilizing multiple materials. This allowed us to compare and contrast numerous design structures and components to determine which features would produce the most desirable final nest design.
During the design and testing phase of the project there were a total of fourteen prototype nests tested alongside several older versions of the nests that had proven to have challenges with either environmental performance or acceptability by the birds. Following the completion of the construction process to ready the nests the next step was to outfit each with precision environmental sensors in order to record the internal conditions of each option.
Months of data collection from the series of prototype nests leads to a mountain of numbers in need of crunching in order to determine which of the designs would best suit the nesting needs of the penguins. While even a quick look at the results seemed to strongly suggest that two of the designs had performed above and beyond any of the other options this information had to be proven.
After more than 270,000 data points were run through statistical analysis it was clear that the two nests that had appeared to excel in the testing process had indeed exceeded the expectations by a significant margin. By proving without a doubt that these two nest designs had the capability to maintain the proper internal environmental conditions that led to the next step in the process, building a large collection of nests for field testing.
It's challenging enough to build one-off nests in more than a dozen designs from a handful of materials. It's an entirely different set of challenges to take the results of that testing and then build the initial two hundred nests for installation in wild colonies.
The nest project team, especially the members of Dyer Island Conservation Trust and Pan-African Association of Zoos and Aquaria, were able to pull together the resources and personnel needed in South Africa to make this work succeed. From manufacturing supplies, to locations, to bringing in the people needed to actually construct the nests everything fell nicely into place in order to allow the preparation for the colony testing.
From the results of the testing stages two nest designs stood out far above the others in terns of their environmental performance. In order to determine which of these two designs would be preferred by the penguins a year long colony testing process was established.
Two hundred nests, one hundred of each design, were installed on Bird Island and Dyer Island. For the next year data was gathered on the environmental performance of the nests and compared to data simultaneously gathered from exposed nests and several of the only remaining guano nests in the wild. Alongside this, extensive biological usage data was gathered. In other words, did the penguins actually utilize the nests and were they successful.
Looking at the rapidly dwindling population of African penguins remaining in the wild colonies it's easy to see that something needs to be done to help the birds recover. And in this need there is no time to waste, the species will likely be extinct from the wild in our lifetimes if nothing changes. Trudi Malan of Dyer Island Conservation Trust and her dedicated team of talented nest fabricators have been working diligently to build the nests that the penguins will eventually call home.
Starting with setting up shop and accepting the delivery of more than 50 tons of raw materials, they have taken the results of the design, testing, re-design, more testing, and finally the finished product into a manufacturing environment.
There's nothing easy about the research, design, testing, or construction of the artificial penguin nests that are being installed in the nesting colonies. This challenge also extends to getting the nests to the locations of the nesting colonies, which are typically miles offshore on uninhabited islands. This means either transport by boat or in some cases slung under a helicopter to move thousands of pounds of nests into place.
While the nest components were specifically designed to stack for ease of transport, they still have bulk to them and weigh in at a healthy 35 pounds per completed nest. This sounds reasonable until it is multiplied out by the many hundreds of nests that will be installed in each colony.
NEWS AND UPDATES
Too Hot to Handle
During recent work in the penguin colonies a testing procedure used was thermal imaging. Penguins nesting in exposed surface nests were measured with temperatures on their backs exceeding 145 degrees, while those in nests just a couple of feet away were measured at about 80 degrees. That is an absolutely massive difference for the birds.
Penguins Get Homes
Hundreds of nests were deployed this spring on Bird Island, off the coast of South Africa in SANParks' Addo Elephant National Park. The penguins took to the nests quickly, moving in as fast as they were installed. One bird laid an egg in a nest just four hours after it was put out! And in just four days, penguin families had occupied 98% of the nests.
With well over a thousand nests already in five of the penguin colonies we've been anxiously awaiting breeding season to see the results of all the work. While the global pandemic has reduced the amount of nest monitoring possible, for those areas that are being checked we're seeing very high usage rates and a significant number of penguin chicks.