For decades, scientists mark animals in the wild in order to recognize and thus be able to observe the same individuals for a long time. They believe that they find out something about the nature by watching marked animals, but of course they learn only something about the marked nature which is disturbed by the research, by marking and observation, itself. That the findings that one gets in this way have something to do with nature itself is at least a bold conclusion.
In order to watch penguins, their migratory behaviour and their breeding habits, scientists tie ribbons around the bird’s wings. These bands must be so stuck on the wing, that they are not lost for years. They have the advantage that they can be observed from a distance, so the animals do not have to recapture for identification.
From the now very extensive data, researchers have drawn far-reaching conclusions – including of course the response of the penguins on global warming. It was believed to have found out that the penguins react to the climate change more sensitive then other species, which could lead to a change in the entire southern polar ecosystem, because the penguins as predators play an important role in these systems.
In a ten-year study, Claire Saraux and her colleagues (Nature, 469, Page 203, 13/01/2011) now found that the penguins marked with ribbons behave clearly different from other penguins. They did this by using additionally a further method of identification: they provided the birds with transponders. Marathon runners know the procedure: They bind a transponder on the shoe and run at the start and finish on a mat that reads the transponder code, identifies the runners well – and just this is possible to identify the birds. However, the transponders are not tied to the foot (then you could stay with the wing-bands) but implanted under the skin. Transponders have the disadvantage that they can be read only by close contact, so the birds must be captured again.
The scientists have provided half of the group with wing bands, but not the other half. The results after ten years of observation were astonishing: The Penguins with ribbons had breaded chicks by 39% less than the comparison group, and their survival rate was worse by 16%.
If you consider that the research will provide helpful information for the protection of species and for the understanding of the consequences of climate change, Goethe’s Faust inevitably comes to mind, who wanted to fight against the pest with inadequate tools and who finally admits:
With our infernal mixture thus, ere long,
These hills and peaceful vales among,
We rag’d more fiercely than the pest.
Considering possible reasons for these differences in the fitness of the different groups the research group stated the hypotheses that especially the penguins, which are marked with ribbons, could have problems with climate change. Scenarios to assess the consequences of global warming for the Antarctic ecosystem must in any case be reconsidered.
The current release of the study by Saraux Members can of course be taken as proof that the long-term science corrects its own mistakes. The question is whether these corrections for policy-relevant research topics such as climate change reach the public and policy makers.
And finally: Even the penguins were marked with transponders are not “normal” penguins anymore. They are caught and had to be operated on, they carry a foreign object under the skin, they must, for recognition, be captured again and again. What kind and quality of knowledge we really gain in this way?
Scientists want to explore the nature, but nature as it is, is beyond the investigation. Scientific results shall be precise and reproducible, but the untouched nature, as we meet it as wilderness, is not precise and reproducible. Therefore, the natural sciences “capture” the wild – either by bringing them to the laboratory or by engaging themselves in the wilderness, and cultivate it.
Saraux C, Le Bohec C, Durant JM, Viblanc VA, Gauthier-Clerc M, Beaune D, Park YH, Yoccoz NG, Stenseth NC, & Le Maho Y (2011). Reliability of flipper-banded penguins as indicators of climate change. Nature, 469 (7329), 203-6 PMID: 21228875