'Naked' penguins have scientists perplexed
A worker puts a wetsuit on a featherless penguin to keep it warm earlier this week at the Jurong Bird Park in Singapore.
April 8th, 2011
03:40 PM ET

'Naked' penguins have scientists perplexed

A mysterious ailment is causing penguins to lose their feathers, according to researchers at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

The condition, called feather-loss disorder, has been seen in penguin chicks in both sides of the Atlantic Ocean the past few years and is featured in a recent edition of the journal "Waterbirds," the conservation society said in a press release.

While scientists don't know what could cause a penguin to go "naked," possible culprits include genetics, nutrient imbalances, thyroid disorders or pathogens.

“We need to conduct further study to determine the cause of the disorder and if this is in fact spreading to other penguin species,” Dee Boersma, who has studied Magellanic penguins, said in the release.

Feather loss in pet birds has long been a common ailment seen by pet stores and private owners, but researchers studying the penguins in the Atlantic said this is something different.

“The recent emergence of feather-loss disorder in wild bird populations suggests that the disorder is something new,” Mariana Varese, acting director of the society’s Latin America and Caribbean program, is quoted as saying in the release. “More study of this malady can help identify the root cause, which in turn will help illuminate possible solutions,” she said.

While the illness does not appear to be fatal, the sick birds, unlike their feathered counterparts, linger in the sun instead of seeking refuge from the midday heat.  That behavior has led to several deaths, according to the release.

Disease is not the only recent peril that Atlantic penguins have faced.

A few weeks ago, volunteers from Nightingale Island, a British territory that is part of the Tristan da Cunha archipelago, mobilized to save tens of thousands of Northern Rockhopper penguins threatened by an oil spill.

It has been a surreal year in animal deaths. In January, tens of thousands of birds and fish were found dead in countries around the world.

Recently dolphins, some with oil inside them, have turned up dead in the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists don’t know why.

Sensitivity surrounding marine life in the area is particularly high after the BP oil disaster that sent millions of barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico nearly a year ago.

"Even though they have oil on them, it may not be the cause of death," Blair Mase, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's marine mammal investigations coordinator, told CNN. "We want to look at the gamut of all the possibilities."

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soundoff (273 Responses)
  1. Richard

    If you really read the article, at one point it says the oil is "in" the dolphins and at another it states the oil is "on" the dolphins. It could be both, but there is a big difference.

    April 9, 2011 at 9:52 am | Report abuse |
  2. Trevor

    Math was incorrect in comparing the pee in the swimming pool vs the oil spill in the ocean. Actual percentage for the oil spill answer is in NEGATIVE exponents 5.2 x-13th = .00000000000052%. quite a difference to say the least. I too wish the spill accident had not happened, but the impact to the ocean as a whole is very, very small.

    April 9, 2011 at 9:54 am | Report abuse |
    • Benny

      Again, sorry. See "Dave Lively" above. Was using a cheap desktop calculator and didn't "go out" far enough.

      April 9, 2011 at 10:06 am | Report abuse |
    • anonymous

      "the impact to the ocean as a whole is very, very small" you say? I'd like to flood your kids bedroom with oil and when they get sick I will say that the oil's impact was very very small.

      April 9, 2011 at 10:59 am | Report abuse |
  3. JC

    @Benny: don't be an idiot. He didn't say that the damage was equal, he simply restated a known law that particles move from areas of greater concentration to areas of lesser concentration, until equilibrium is achieved. It has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with science and, while I find your math figures moderately compelling, your practical application of them is remedial.

    @others: We know less about the deep oceans and currents than we do about the surface of the moon. We do know that some of the currents we can trace do not follow the logic of northern and southern hemispheres. It is possible that some currents would be capable of moving contaminants long distances, but it would likely take a long time, and the concentrations would probably depend on the temperature of the current. That almost certainly rules out the gulf oil spill as a culprit in wild penguin abnormalities. My guess would be that increasing water temperatures are allowing something to grow/live which would otherwise be an insignificant threat.

    April 9, 2011 at 10:12 am | Report abuse |
    • anonymous

      Go outside and chug some BP oil. After you become deathly ill I will blame it on a sunburn!

      April 9, 2011 at 10:57 am | Report abuse |
    • ThreeBlindMice

      Hey Moe – Hey Larry -Calling doctor Howard doctor Finne doctor Howard – humans are the only species that does not listen to the planet

      April 9, 2011 at 6:55 pm | Report abuse |
  4. bott78

    maybe global warming has allowed for more of these featherless birds to survive the less harsh winters, which in turn hightens the likelihood of scientists witnessing them. and maybe those birds that can shed their feathers are more likely to survive in a world where temps are rising. natural selection.

    April 9, 2011 at 10:12 am | Report abuse |
    • anonymous

      No, its BP's oil spill that did this.

      April 9, 2011 at 10:54 am | Report abuse |
  5. kyrra

    Poor penguins, they must really be cold. I hope that this won't become a big problem, it'd be a shame for penguins to begin to be endangered, if they aren't already.

    April 9, 2011 at 10:25 am | Report abuse |
  6. Mickey

    Nature is falling apart, because humanity is blocking it from me, to it's own detriment... It's a rat race and people are at war for experience and ignorance. I have never met a penguin, but it's essential that I do... However... I know this.. Yet, if it means nothing to the world... So be it.

    April 9, 2011 at 10:29 am | Report abuse |
  7. anonymous

    It's time to bring the pain back to BP by ANY means necessary!

    April 9, 2011 at 10:53 am | Report abuse |
  8. btwins

    I think if you look at the things happening around the world, birds falling from the sky, fish dying, earthquakes and on and on. It is clear something very bad is comming, call it last days or whatever.

    April 9, 2011 at 11:00 am | Report abuse |
  9. Melissa

    Really!? Scientists don't know why dolphins may be appearing with oil in their systems and then dying. Gee, I wonder why! Are you serious right now? An apple a day keeps the doctor away, not a quart of oil!

    April 9, 2011 at 11:03 am | Report abuse |
  10. RunForTheHills

    It's obviously George Bush's fault. It's also global warming, SUVs, Nuclear energy, and capitalism. These things cause all the world's problems. If people would just get on board and realize that an organic, natural, chemical-free communal lifestyle is the best option for humanity, we could solve all of the world's problems overnight.

    April 9, 2011 at 11:04 am | Report abuse |
  11. april

    "Scientists don't know why." ! ! ! bahahahahaha!! That had me laughing so hard it hurt! can't... stop... laughing!!!

    April 9, 2011 at 11:06 am | Report abuse |
  12. Corrine

    POLAR SHIFT is what we need to worry about,not global warming.It is known that it occurs in 26,000 year cycles which we are at right now.We have mined out huge holes while landfilling other locations as well as putting up heavy monuments of buildings and massive dams displacing the whole balance of the Earth's spin.Why are the scientist's silent on this subject?

    April 9, 2011 at 11:16 am | Report abuse |
  13. MattGMD

    HAARP might be causing some of the anomalies related to all the wildlife deaths lately.

    April 9, 2011 at 11:17 am | Report abuse |
  14. Linda

    Geeze......you ppl need a chatroom to talk in.........

    I;m sure you do , but I know already. I won't be posting any more. This whole blogging meeting ppl and ALL the HEADGAMES are NOT for me , who ever has been playing them , don't care. GOOD BYEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE

    banasy!ma sista!! hows every lil thing ?raven! Doing finer than frog hair, hun! Ever seen a frog hair? No?

    That's because it's so fine. How are you, sista?

    April 9, 2011 at 11:25 am | Report abuse |
  15. It might not be the oil actually...

    In this case the dolphins could have fed on fish that could in turn have fed on a toxic algal bloom. There are a lot of natural toxins in the ocean that once concentrated in one part of the food chain can kill much. In NZ there was a report of harmless sea slugs that washed up on the beach and dogs walking the beach with their owners were dying after licking the slugs. The slugs had absorbed the same toxin found in blue ring octopus. Lastly, the dolphins in this case could have had a mass die off due to a behavioral episode. So while it is probably the oil – it could be other things as well.

    April 9, 2011 at 11:37 am | Report abuse |
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