Of Ponies and Penguins

I was sitting in an office at Crary Lab in McMurdo Station waiting impatiently for eight o’clock to come around. That’s the time that helicopter operations coordinator, Liz Kauffman, usually puts out the helo schedule. I wanted to see if researcher Penney Miller and I were going to Pony Lake the next day. Pony Lake is located near Cape Royds and, like McMurdo Station, is on Ross Island. The lake was named after the Manchurian ponies that Ernest Shackelton brought to Antarctica during his 1907-1909 Nimrod expedition in which he attempted to reach the South Pole. The ponies were the first to set foot on the continent and were stabled at a hut constructed near the lake. Penney, who is a professor at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana, wanted to collect some last lake samples from Pony. I was going to help out. Penney along with my advisor Diane McKnight and others is studying Pony Lake because it has an extremely high concentration of organic matter. The main reason for this is that the lake is located next to an Adelie penguin colony, which is a place where hundreds if not thousands of penguins nest.


In 1908 Ernest Shackleton and three companions – Eric Marshall, Jameson Adams, and Frank Wild – attempted to reach the south geographic pole. They launched their expedition from the Cape Royds hut near Pony Lake. Just 90 miles from the pole, Shackleton, the leader of the group, had to make an agonizing decision –

(1) continue with his men and become the first to reach the south pole but with a high risk that their dwindling supplies would run out and they would starve to death on their return journey


(2) turn back at this point while supplies
would likely last.

What would you do?

Answer >>


Pony Lake
Pony Lake

Sampling water
Penney sampling lake water

Adelies are one of only two types of penguins that live on the Antarctic mainland. They are named after the wife of one of the early (1830s) Antarctic explorers, Frenchman Dumont d’Urville. With the adults rarely weighing in at more than 11 pounds and being only around 18" tall, Adelies are one of the smaller penguins. They migrate to colonies in October, returning year after year if possible to their birth grounds. The Adelies lay their eggs on rocky, ice-free beaches in November, and chicks hatch in December. At the time of our visit, the chicks were around six to seven weeks old.

In order to protect the penguins, environmental laws prevent people except penguin researchers from going into the colony. But Penney, our helicopter pilot Paul Murphy, and myself were still able to observe the penguins from a distance and capture some of the action with a zoom-in camera lens. David Ainley who’s been studying the Adelies since the late 1960s provided some insight into what is going on at the colony. Check out these photos!

- Karen

Click on the photos to see a larger view.


Adelie females typically lay two eggs. The parents take turns incubating them over a five week period. When the chicks are born they are covered only in down feathers.

These feathers have excellent thermal properties that help keep the chicks warm. Down has the texture of polar fleece and gives the chicks in these photos their fluffy appearance.



AdeliesChicks and parents identify each other both through the position of the nest and through calls, explains Ainley. Calling to its chick is what the adult penguin in this photo with its neck stretched out is doing. Also in this photo are two chicks chasing some adults in the hopes of getting food. The chasing serves to weed out weak and unhealthy chicks. In addition, it helps parents distribute food more evenly says Ainley, because a chick that is hungrier will likely chase more vigorously than a chick that is less hungry. The enthusiastic chases of the young penguins were pretty comical to watch and sometimes we saw the chicks apparently trip and fall down in their excitement. But they just got right back up and kept going!


AdeliesThe chicks in the lower left and upper right of this photo have caught up with a parent, and the adults are feeding the chicks. An adult does this by regurgitating food into the chick’s gaping bill. The food consists mainly of fish and krill that the adults have consumed while at sea.

Again, the two chicks in the middle of the photo are chasing some adults.




When the chicks are born, one parent stays with them at all times to keep them warm and prevent skuas, which are large gull-like birds, from stealing and eating the chicks. The other parent goes out to sea to find food. When the chicks reach three to four weeks of age though, this guard phase ends and what’s known as a crèche phase begins. The chicks are growing rapidly and require more food. Now both parents must go to sea at the same time and hunt. The unattended chicks gather into groups or crèches, like the one in this photo, for protection against skuas and the elements.


If you look closely, you can see that some of the chicks have started to molt or shed their brown/charcoal down feathers to reveal the sleek, black and white waterproof feathers of an adult. They need to molt completely before they will be ready to swim and dive Ainley notes.

Ice breakersExtra sea ice has been making life rough for the Cape Royds Adelies. Giant icebergs calved off the Ross Ice Shelf in 2000, and the icebergs have prevented winds from blowing out the sea ice. This has meant that parents have had to walk some 80 km one way to open water and has reduced the frequency with which parents have been able to feed their young.

A few years ago there were 4000 pairs of Adelies breeding at Cape Royds, says Ainley. This year that number has been cut to 2400 pairs. Sometimes ice breaker ships unintentionally give the Adelies a brief respite though. These ships are specially equipped to break through sea ice and create paths of open water – like the one in this photo – so that other resupply ships can reach McMurdo Station.



AdeliesThese parents are going to get food for their chicks, says Ainley. But they won’t be doing this for much longer. In one to two weeks, by mid-to-late February, they and the just fledged chicks with a brand new set of adult feathers will start their winter migration to more northern waters. For the young fledglings, this will be their first experience diving in the Antarctic Ocean and their first journey away from their colony home.




• Shackleton, Ernest. The Heart of the Antarctic – The Farthest South Expedition: 1907-1909. Penguin Putnam: New York, NY, 2000.

• Stone, Emily. Ice Conditions Send Penguins Packing. The Antarctic Sun, January 29, 2006.


• Lonely Planet Antarctica Guide – 2003.