Dr. Dee Boersma, a professor at the University of Washington, USA, has been studying Magellanic penguins for 40 years with support from WCS. Her sustained effort has produced an enormous amount of information on the behavior and conservation of this species, essential for tourism in Punta Tombo in Argentina, and many biologists have been trained under her guidance. Today Magellanic penguins are better protected than four decades ago, and much of the credit goes to Dr. Boersma.

40 Years of Work in Punta Tombo

“The wildlife in this place is amazing! There are penguins, guanacos, cormorants, rheas, sea lions…”, Dee Boersma exclaims enthusiastically in Punta Tombo, Chubut. The first time Dee visited this area was in December 1982, invited by Bill Conway, then General Director of WCS. Four decades and hundreds of visits later, her fascination with Punta Tombo and its wildlife remains unchanged.

“I have studied the natural history of penguins at Punta Tombo for 40 years. We have identified penguins that are over 30 years old, we have found that many birds are bachelors that have never found a partner, and we even recorded a few 'divorces' of penguins that found new partners,” said Dr. Boersma recalling some of her research.

Monitoring programs sustained over time are essential to detect changes in populations and interpret the factors that cause them, such as climate change and pressures generated by human activities. Although it might seem that penguins always existed here, the first nesting pairs were documented at Punta Tombo in 1924. Their population increased rapidly until the 1960s. However now we are seeing a decline due to a shift to colonies on Península Valdés, more than 200km north of Tombo. This extraordinary movement is the product of a northward redistribution of the food on which they depend at sea, in particular Argentine anchovy perhaps caused, at least in part, by climate change.

A Legacy

Dr. Boersma acknowledges that such an extensive period of research was only possible thanks to the cooperation and help of many people and institutions, including the Province of Chubut, the La Regina Family, owners of Estancia La Perla, and especially William Conway and Guillermo Harris of WCS, who supported her research work over the past four decades. Some of the results of fieldwork carried out by Dee and her team at Punta Tombo include the following:

  • Breeding success and tracking data for more than 50,000 penguins identified with numbered bands on their flippers, and thousands more equipped with small web-tags.
  • Data on Magellanic penguin diet at Punta Tombo showing the importance of anchovy for this population.
  • Food consumption data per trip to sea made by penguins equipped with radio transponders, and the use of automatic weighing scales, information that shows that food at sea is often scarce.
  • Monitoring of the penguin population of Punta Tombo and Punta Clara through annual censuses since 1982.
  • Monitoring of oil pollution at sea using beach surveys to count oiled penguins every five years on the coast of Chubut since 1990. Happily, this research shows a marked decrease in oil pollution since the 1980s.
  • Information on penguin foraging areas at sea during different stages of reproduction (arrival and laying, incubation, chick feeding.) Information that explains the displacement of part of the breeding population northwards to Peninsula Valdés.
  • Information complete with maps, obtained using satellite tracking devices, that show the winter migration of Magellanic penguins to southern Brazil. Some birds swim more than 4,000 kilometers round trip.
  • Recommendations for tourism in Punta Tombo based on studies that show that the impact of people on penguins is low as long as the former do not stray from fixed trails, better still if these are elevated, and that visits avoid hours close to dawn and sunset.
  • Assistance provided to the province of Chubut prohibiting vehicle access to high nesting density areas of ​​the colony and that instead people walk in, thus reducing impact on birds and improving visitor experience.
  • Construction of raised trails in the colony to prevent the growing number of tourists from cutting off the access to the sea by birds that come and go from their nests.
  • And the training of numerous professionals who did their PhDs with Dr. Boersma and took the first steps of their careers under her wing, or rather, "penguin flipper", including Pablo Yorio, Esteban Frere, Patricia Gandini, Pablo García Borboroglu, Luciana Pozzi, and many more.

WCS commends Dr. Boersma on the enormous amount of valuable information her research on Magellanic penguins has generated over the past 40 years.