(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.
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.