Penguins that are tagged with flipper bands as part of long-term scientific studies may have a lower chance of survival and a reduced ability to raise chicks, a new study suggests.
Tagging, or banding, the flippers with a stainless steel band is standard practice for carrying out scientific research on penguins. It is a technique which allows researchers to identify individual penguins in colonies, which can often number around 50,000 birds.
However, conflicting reports over how the bands may affect penguin behaviour has led a group of French researchers to conduct a ten-year study on the effect of banding on king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) in the Antarctic.
Banded birds were seen to produce 39 percent fewer chicks and have a 16 percent lower survival rate than non-banded birds, providing the most conclusive evidence to date that flipper banding may be harmful to penguins. The banded penguins arrived at the breeding site significantly later and made much longer foraging trips than their non-banded counterparts, indicating that the flipper tags affected every major life-history trait. Flipper banded penguins also differed in their response to climate variation.
Concerns over the impacts of climate change on the marine ecosystem has led to an increased number of studies on penguins in the Antarctic, with the birds considered to be excellent indicators of how the changing climate may in turn affect other species.
The new results however, published in the journal Nature, call into question the long-established technique of flipper banding for studying penguins, with huge implications for both the ethics of animal tagging, and for the validity of results from previous studies that were based on flipper band data.
The researchers that carried out the study say that continuing to use the tags would be unethical, and that implantable transponders could be used as an alternative tool for long-term scientific studies on penguin behaviour, although these too present a number of challenges.
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Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author