Use of Metal Bands to Track Penguins Sparks Debate Among Scientists

by Nancy Garduño, age 14

Penguin researchers have long debated the accuracy of the flipper bands used to track penguins and study their migration patterns. A recent study now raises ethical questions about the use of these bands.

For 50 years, bands have been attached to penguins’ flippers to help scientists track the animals’ movements over time. These metal tracking bands are made from either aluminum or stainless steel. They weigh just under an ounce and are a bit wider than an inch.

Nevertheless, these small bands increase drag on penguins while swimming, weighing them down so they must work harder to stay afloat. This dragging effect often leaves an external mark. These banded seabirds looked worn-out and exhausted, appearing older than their actual age. 

These findings complicate previous research about global warming’s effect on penguins. A previous study found that non-banded penguins had a longer survival rate than banded penguins by up to 20 years on average.

Researchers followed 50 non-banded adult penguins and 50 banded adult penguins for ten years. Thirty-six percent of non-banded adult penguins survived, compared to only 20 percent of banded adult penguins. In another study, non-banded penguins had 80 chicks, while banded seabirds produced only 47 chicks. 

This new information has ignited controversy in the scientific community. “If we stopped marking [penguins with bands], we would not have any way of measuring how birds are being affected by the climate, or anything else,” said Rory P. Wilson, a zoologist at Swansea University in Britain. Wilson has studied penguins for 30 years. 

One solution to the banding problem might be to use microchips, which weigh significantly less than a flipper band and allow penguins to move more freely. Still, scientists are uncertain about whether they should continue to band penguins, and the validity of research studies that use these bands.

[Sources: Wisconsin State Journal; The New York Times]