Human Contact Stresses Out King Penguins, But They're Getting Used To It

By Chelsea Whyte on July 12, 2012 12:57 AM EDT

penguins
These Aptenodytes patagonicus penguins adapt easily to human presence, even if it still stresses them out. (Photo: V.Viblanc/IPEV)

With movies like March of the Penguins and Happy Feet, it's no wonder that more and more people want to mingle with penguins in real life. And while the Antarctic animals adapt well to human presence, a new study finds that simply being exposed to humans can stress the birds out.

A team of researchers from the University of Strasbourg, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, and the University of Lausanne, compared the stress response of 15 king penguins breeding in areas disturbed daily by humans and 18 penguins breeding in undisturbed areas. All of these papa penguins were brooding a chick aged from two days to one month.

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They found that three stressors raised the heart rates of the birds: noises from machines, tourists and researchers approaching the birds, and the highest stressor of all, capture. The penguins were remarkably adaptable and those living in areas with high human disturbance had grown used to the noise and were less stressed by sounds and approaching humans.

"Our findings report a case of physiological adjustment to human presence in a long-studied king penguin colony, and emphasize the importance of considering potential effects of human presence in ecological studies," said lead author Vincent Viblanc.

They also found that compared with penguins from undisturbed areas, penguins from areas of high human disturbance were less stressed by noise and approaching humans, but following capture, their maximum relative heart rate increased 42 percent although they then recovered faster.

Penguins getting used to people could be beneficial to scientific research and tourist management, the researchers said, according to The Daily Mail.

"To some extent, all human activities appeared to affect penguins, as we always recorded a heart rate stress response to the various stressors we exposed the birds to," Viblanc told Discovery News, adding that "our results do not mean that tourism should be prevented."

"Strict guidelines and rules for observing the animals from a distance, using binoculars for instance, with minimal noise should be implemented and abided by," he said.

© 2012 iScience Times All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

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