Disclaimer: I know nothing about penguins. But I know a thing or two about equipment.

My husband called me from his car to alert me to a story on NPR he thought I needed to hear. I think his exact words were, “So, I’m listening to the radio, and there’s a penguin expert complaining about a new scientific study, and she sounds exactly like you. And she sounds really pissed.”


He was right, though. Her comments in response to the penguin study, the results of which are published in the current issue of the journal Nature, sounded eerily like my comments in response to a number of “shock collar” studies I’ve read. And, in another striking parallel, her tone did come across as rather annoyed.

The study, conducted by a team from the University of Strasbourg in France, claims to answer conclusively the question of whether the flipper bands used by scientists to track penguins in fact significantly compromise their chance of survival. From the radio transcript:

The French team put traditional metal bands on 50 King penguins that live near Antarctica. Fifty others had much smaller radio-frequency transponders. Ten years later, the survival rate for banded birds was 16 percent below the unbanded birds.

Yvon Le Maho, the chief biologist, says at first there was little effect. Then during the first 4.5 years, survival rates for the banded birds dropped about 30 percent below the unbanded birds.

“In other words, only the superathletes are surviving,” Le Maho says.

The numbers were even worse for breeding, banded birds producing 39% fewer chicks.

Le Maho found that banded birds took longer to forage for food in the ocean and they were slower to get to breeding sites in the spring. That meant adults had less time to raise their chicks before heading off for lengthy foraging trips in the winter.

“At some time, they have to leave while their chick is too young and too poor in [reserves of] body fuels to withstand the winter,” Le Maho says.

According to ukwired, the “[French scientists] say continuing to use the tags would in most situations be unethical.” This despite other studies that show such bands to have minimal effect.

“There was a debate about whether bands have an effect or not – and you could find studies and some would say ‘yes’ and some would say ‘no’,” said Claire Saraux from the University of Strasbourg and the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS).

“So our idea was to try to make sure – instead of doing one-year studies, to try to find out what’s going on over 10 years,” she told BBC News.

This study… eclipses everything else”

Case closed, non?

But what about that lady on the radio that sounded like me? Dee Boersma is described as one of the world’s leading penguin experts, and it turns out she has a different opinion. From the NPR transcript:

The French study, she says, “shows that the bands that they used on King penguins harmed the King penguins — I have no doubt about that. But all bands are not created equal. It depends on what material that they are made of, it depends on how they are shaped, it depends on how they are fitted to the individual penguin. It depends on what penguin species it is.”

Mais, non?!

You mean to tell me that all nifty flipper bands are not in fact the same? That the “traditional” bands used in the French study may not fairly represent all such bands? That maybe an aluminum band is mare harmful than a plastic one? That how the bands are applied in the field actually has some relevance? Sacreblue!

But listen for yourself:


(and if that embed doesn’t work, follow the below link)

Flipper Bands Can Harm King Penguin Population

Oh, and just one more note on the above penguin study. It seems that if we take its results at face value, it may undermine previous studies on the effects of climate change, which have used the survival rate of tracked penguins as an important barometer.

What’s my point? It is that science, at least as practiced by mere humans, is often fallible, and rarely Godlike.

That said, it does seem logical that putting even a minute drag on one of a penguin’s flippers would have some ill-effects over the course of its lifetime, which I understand can be up to 20 years or more. And I agree that this is a problem, both for the penguins themselves, as well as for our ability to take meaningful data from our study of them.

The question is regarding the true scope of this latest study. Its authors claim it is “conclusive,” and that it “eclipses” all previous studies. But is demonstrating scientifically that something can do harm equivalent to demonstrating that it will do harm in a majority of cases? I would say no.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2011.