Masters research at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute: Heat tolerance in the African Penguin in the face of climate change

22 Oct 2012 - 15:30

Closing date: 1 December 2012

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African Penguin (Photo: Peter Ryan)We invite applications for the above full-time study opportunity at the FitzPatrick Institute, a world-renowned, national Centre of Excellence (CoE) in ornithological research with a strong emphasis on postgraduate studies.

Penguins have evolved morphological and physiological mechanisms to reduce heat loss when swimming in cold water, but these adaptations can be disadvantageous for low-latitude Spheniscus penguins breeding in hot, terrestrial habitats. Historically, most African penguins (S. demersus) bred in burrows dug in guano. However, guano scraping removed this habitat for penguins, forcing them to breed in surface nests, exposed to extreme weather events and predators. Penguins are sensitive to heat stress during extremely high temperatures. If these conditions persist, some birds leave their nests unattended to go into the sea to cool down, which is often fatal for broods in exposed surface nests (predated by gulls). Similarly, during extremely cold, wet conditions, many surface nests in poorly-drained areas flood, leading to chick and egg loss through hypothermia. Since climate change increases the frequency of extreme weather events, the situation is worsening for this endangered species. Previous studies (e.g. Frost et al. 1976) and our pilot data indicate that these effects can be ameliorated to some extent by the use of artificial nests or nest-covers. But whether these structures can fully replace natural burrows and/or whether any type of burrow will provide sufficient protection in the face of climate change remains to be tested.

In this project, we plan to (1) establish the thermoneutral zone and upper critical temperature of adult African penguins and their large chicks, (2) understand the behavioural responses of penguins to increased temperatures on their colonies according to their breeding status, (3) estimate inter-colony and nest type differences to temperature exposure, (4) determine how extreme weather events of different types (heat waves, storms) can affect African Penguin breeding success and (5) evaluate the effectiveness of mitigation solutions such as artificial nests. The results of this study will help to predict how African Penguin populations may be affected by future climate changes, as well as informing management actions to limit such impacts.

The candidate will be based at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute (UCT), under the supervision of Dr Lorien Pichegru (UCT), Dr Jonathan Green (University of Liverpool) and Prof. Peter Ryan (UCT).
Applicants should be South African with an Honours degree in Zoology. The successful applicant will be awarded an MSc bursary of R75 000 per year through the Percy FitzPatrick Institute’s CoE. To apply, please send a CV (including your academic record & names and contact details of two referees) and a short motivation for why you wish to undertake this research to Dr Lorien Pichegru (

Further information including proposed research methodology and recommended references can be downloaded here: project description.