King penguins on the remote Possession Island have come to tolerate the presence and noise of their tourist visitors, though scientists capturing them still get their hearts racing.Getting used to tourists may be a good thing for the penguins, since the penguins stay calm.
“The penguin won’t mount a stress response and that’s good because the stress response is energy costly. That’s energy they can’t invest other places,” for example, in raising their chicks, study researcher Vincent Viblanc, of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland
If they did get stressed, the penguins might abandon their chicks, he said, so, “habituation may be beneficial from a tourism point of view.”
Viblanc’s study of the penguins, reported today, July 11, in the journal BMC Ecology, studied compared penguins from one area of the subantarctic colony, which roost right next to the shipping port on the island to those from a more remote site, where their interactions with humans are few and far between.
There were three possible stressors that the researchers exposed the penguins to: A human standing 10 meters in front of them, a human banging two metal rods together out of sight of the penguins (similar to the noises of ships unloading) and a human capturing the penguin for three minutes. Their heart rates, which are indicative of acute stress, were monitored with sensors attached to their backs.Obviously, being held captive was the most stressful action for the penguins. Their heart rates jumped in both groups, though their heart rates returned to normal quicker in the human habituated penguins.
The penguins were less stressed by the human presence and by the noises, though there was still a difference between those frequently meeting up with tourists and those that lived far from human disturbances.
“In areas of chronic human disturbances, the penguins aren’t responding as strongly as those birds in areas with no such disturbances,” Viblanc said. “What this suggests is that penguins habituated to human approaches and sounds.”
Previous studies have shown that not all species of penguins and other animals get used to humans the way these penguins seem to, and others show animals become extra sensitive to human presence. It is important for researchers to take these species differences into account when analysing data for different species.
“It doesn’t mean that people can go and walk up to penguins and start manipulating them just because penguins can get habituated to some stressors,” he said. “Tourism has to be closely monitored. And what’s important is that we set guidelines.”
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