December 4, 2020

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

I must apologise for posting another penguin-themed blog post. However the latest plight of the endangered northern rockhopper penguin has been somewhat overshadowed by the events in Libya and Japan and so I thought they deserved this small piece of attention.

On March 16th the MS Olivia ran aground on Nightingale Island which lies to the south of Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic. The ship began to break up, leaking more than 725 metric tons of fuel oil into the surrounding ocean. The resulting oil slick is at least 13km wide. Nightingale Island is home to nearly 50% of the entire world population of northern rockhopper penguin. With the population already having decreased by 90% since the 1950’s, the encroaching oil could deal a devastating blow to rockhopper’s chance of survival.

When sea birds come into contact with oil, their waterproofing and ability to insulate is destroyed leaving them at risk to hyperthermia.  When they try to clean the oil from their feathers, they risk death from ingesting toxins. With up to 20,000 rockhoppers already covered in oil, the effects of the spill on this rare and endangered species will probably be devastating.

The penguins cannot be brought to the mainland of Tristan da Cunha because of concerns over disease transmission, which could have equally devastating effects on the population. As well as oil and disease, the rockhoppers face another potential threat. The MS Olivia was carrying 60,000 tons of soybeans, which in all probability meant rats were living on board. Nightingale Island is currently rat free and the introduction of this egg-eating species into the rockhopper’s sanctuary would leave them vulnerable to the same fate as the dodo.

Rescue and clean-up missions are underway, which will hopefully minimise the impact. I have taken this as another sign that the world is ending as the earthquakes/floods/tsunamis/political upheavals and now oil spill all seem like the lead up to the apocalypse in 2012. This is probably just because it is the end of term, and so I am very tired and extremely delirious. But even if the world is ending, make sure you spare a thought for the rockhoppers!