July 2, 1999 Having houseguests can be a strain but new research shows that penguins can quickly adapt to the stress of ecotourism. Experimental evidence that wild penguins get used to people visiting their breeding colony was presented by Brian Walker of the University of Washington in Seattle at the June 1999 Society for Conservation Biology meeting.
Ecotourism is the fastest-growing industry in the world today and is worth about $300 billion annually, says Walker. Each year more than 45,000 people flock to the world's largest Magellanic Penguin breeding colony in Punta Tombo, Argentina. Tourists walk along a trail that goes right into the colony and comes within inches of nests.
To see how people affect the penguins, Walker and his colleagues walked, talked and sang near penguins that nested along the tourist trail (and so were used to people) and near penguins that nested in a remote area (and so were not used to people).
The researchers compared the stress levels of the two groups of penguins with two measures. The first measure was the rate of head-turning, a behavior that penguins display when agitated by, for instance, the approach of a fox or other predator. The second measure of stress was the blood level of corticosterone, a steroid hormone that rises with stress and can kill animals if it gets too high.
Walker and his colleagues found that after 15 minutes of exposure to people, the penguins along the tourist trail were far less stressed than those in the remote area. "Tourist trail" penguins displayed only a fifth as many head turns as "remote" penguins (40 vs. about 200 head turns). Moreover, "tourist trail" penguins' corticosterone levels were only a third as high as those of "remote" penguins. This shows that "tourist trail" penguins have gotten used to people.
How long does it take penguins to get used to people? After 10 days of having people around, the "remote" penguins' rate of head-turning was as low as that of the "tourist trail" penguins. However, while the "remote" penguins' corticosterone levels also dropped during this time period, they still remained higher than "tourist trail" levels.
"Our data suggest that penguins and people can get along," says Walker. "The current level of ecotourism is not a significant cost to these breeding birds."
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