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Why Are Penguins Losing Their Feathers?

A new condition is causing many penguin chicks to lose their feathers, with some victims dying as a result of the mysterious problem.

(A Magellanic penguin chick with feather-loss disorder at San Lorenzo, Argentina; Credit: Nola Parsons)

A new condition is causing many penguin chicks to lose their feathers, with some victims dying as a result of the mysterious problem, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The condition, called "feather-loss disorder," appears to have emerged recently and is now affecting penguin colonies on both sides of the South Atlantic.

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

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"Feather-loss disorders are uncommon in most bird species, and we need to conduct further study to determine the cause of the disorder and if this is in fact spreading to other penguin species," Dee Boersma was quoted as saying in a WCS press release. Boersma has conducted studies on Magellanic penguins for more than three decades.

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

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

So far, Boersma and her colleagues offer the following as possible causes for feather-loss disorder: pathogens, thyroid disorders, nutrient imbalances or genetics.

Feather-loss disorder in penguins was first noticed in 2006. Researchers at the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds detected that 59 percent of the African penguin chicks at their facility lost their feathers. That number jumped to 97 percent in the following year. In addition to losing their feathers, victims also grew at much slower rates than penguins without the problem.

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In 2007, on the other side of the South Atlantic, another team of researchers from the WCS and the University of Michigan observed the same feather loss in wild Magellanic penguin chicks. The poor victims, desperate for warmth, stayed out in the hot midday sun while other healthier chicks sought shade.

(A researcher holding a featherless Magellanic penguin chick; Credit: Jeffrey Smith)

Featherless chicks tend to be smaller in size and weight probably due, in part, to so much extra energy needing to be expended on thermoregulation. Many chicks affected with the disorder die.

"More study of this malady can help identify the root cause, which in turn will help illuminate possible solutions," said Mariana Varese, acting director of WCS' Latin America and Caribbean Program.

A research paper on the disorder appears in a recent edition of the journal Waterbirds. Below, you can view a talk given by Boersma on other issues related to penguins and her work.