Planet Earth

Patagonian Penguins Wash up on Brazilian Beaches; Get a Ride Home

80beatsBy Eliza StricklandOct 6, 2008 5:46 PM

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This summer, hundreds of Magellanic penguins washed ashore on Brazilian beaches, almost 2,000 miles away from their home in Patagonia. While a few penguins are typically discovered on Brazil's coast each summer, scientists have been perplexed and worried over the mysteriously high number of drifters this year, and say they still don't have an answer to what brought the birds so far north. In response to the crisis, an animal rescue group staged a dramatic air lift to bring the birds back home.

Like some maritime dust-bowl migration, more than 1,000 of these penguins have floated ashore in Brazil, nearly as far north as the equator. By the time their webbed feet touch sand, many are gaunt and exhausted, often having lost three-quarters of their body weight. Even more have died. "This year is completely anomalous," said Lauro Barcellos, 51, an oceanographer who founded a rehabilitation center for penguins in southern Brazil. ". . . I've worked in this field for 35 years, and I have never seen anything like this" [Washington Post].

The bizarre penguin influx called for an equally strange rescue operation, in which the non-profit group International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) partnered with the Brazilian military to transport the migrants back to their home turf. This weekend, the animal rescuers loaded 399 of the penguins onto a cargo plane and flew them to Pelatos, a city at the southern tip of Brazil. A video from IFAW showed volunteers lifting the penguins from crates onto the beach; the birds waddled straight toward the water while a crowd of onlookers clapped and cheered. While some researchers have suggested that the penguins were brought astray because global warming has altered the ocean currents in the South Atlantic, scientists haven't yet reached a consensus on the cause of the penguins' trip.

Some experts have said that penguin migration is closely linked to their need for food, and that the unusual journey the penguins are making suggests something has gone wrong with their normal fish supply. Experts say it is not clear whether this is due to changes in water temperatures and ocean currents or man-made pollution [BBC News].

Image: courtesy of IFAW

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