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Mysterious naked penguin chicks turning up on either side of the Atlantic are worrying biologists, who are stumped over what’s causing the birds to lose their feathers. Since 2006, an increasing number of Magellanic penguin chicks completely without feathers have been observed in colonies Punta Tombo, Argentina, and Cape Town, South Africa. Scientists are not only puzzled as to what’s causing the condition, but they’re also worried it could spread to other penguin species. It’s very bizarre, and certainly it’s a worry, said Dee Boersma, a biology professor at the University of Washington and head of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s penguin project. Magellanic penguins are temperate birds, so they can survive without feathers, she said. But what happens if it transfers to another species of penguin further south? That would be really bad news. Boersma, along with her colleagues in Argentina and at the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, recently published the results of a multi-year study of the phenomenon in the journal Waterbirds.
The condition was first observed in 2006 in African penguins at a Cape Town rehabilitation centre. But it wasn’t until Boersma and some graduate students studying colonies in 2007 in Punta Tombo, where nearly a million Magellanic penguins arrive every year to breed, that the phenomenon came under close scientific scrutiny. Between 2007 and 2010, featherless chicks turned up at four different study sites along Argentina’s coastline. Oddly, the featherless chicks aren’t born bald. When the chicks hatch, they have their feathers, Boersma told the Star. It’s when that coat of down wears off that they become featherless. She says the suspected cause is a virus, but nothing has been proven. We don’t really know. Viruses are hard to find, Boersma said, adding that samples have been taken from the penguins for testing. What is known is that being featherless doesn’t always result in a death sentence. The researchers found that featherless chicks were smaller in size and weight than the normal penguins, and usually grew more slowly. But they didn’t always die.
They’re paying such a high cost for maintenance, said Boersma. You’ve got to shiver a lot to stay warm. While the condition is relatively rare — Boersma and her team found 12 featherless chicks this year — she says time is of the essence to find the cause of the disorder before it starts to spread. We’ve got to be better stewards of the world we live in if we want to share it with penguins.