Montana State University

Penguin popularity pleases MSU grad students who lived among them

March 22, 2007 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


This gentoo penguin represents one of three penguin species that lives on King George Island in Antarctica. (Photo courtesy of Dave McWethy).   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN -- Two Montana State University graduate students who lived among the penguins of Antarctica are happy that the birds have become so popular.

Movies, commercials and even home furnishings celebrate the penguins that Matt Becker and Dave McWethy hiked across glaciers and canoed across frigid bays to study. The doctoral students watched penguins bow under 100 mph winds and felt the slap of flippers against their legs. They ached for penguin parents who laid eggs in a nest of pebbles, warded off sea birds, watched their babies hatch, made long daily commutes for seafood and then lost their young to leopard seals.

"I think it's great, the intense interest," said Becker of Bozeman ."The penguins are certainly worthy."

Becker and Dave McWethy, a Minnesota native, spent five months at a time helping former MSU researchers Wayne and Sue Trivelpiece study Adelie, chinstrap and gentoo penguins on King George Island off the Antarctic Peninsula. McWethy joined the couple during the winter of 2003/04. Becker was there during the winters of 1996/97 and 1997/98. Winter in Montana is summer in Antarctica.

Still enthusiastic about their experiences, McWethy and Becker spoke March 22 at the Bozeman Public Library. As they looked through their photos ahead of time, the grad students said almost everything about their trips was an adventure. They reached King George Island by flying to the tip of Patagonia in South America, then boarding a ship and sailing three days and 700 miles across Drake Passage toward the Antarctic Peninsula. A mile or two from shore, they loaded their gear, five months worth of food and themselves into motorized, inflatable boats called Zodiacs. When they arrived on the beach at Camp Copacabana, thousands of penguins and seabirds greeted them with a raucous cacophony that never let up.

"It's amazing the amount of wildlife on this peninsula," added McWethy, noting the seals and whales he saw on or near King George Island.

Once on shore, the students shoveled snowdrifts off the roof of the hut they shared with the Trivelpieces. They melted snow for drinking water, started a windmill-powered generator, stashed their supplies and prepared to study penguins. They monitored penguins throughout the breeding season, surveyed colonies for nests and chicks, conducted weight studies and banded several thousand new chicks every year to determine how successful the penguins were at finding a mate, laying eggs, hatching and ultimately raising chicks.

"These birds are all muscle," McWethy said. "They are like a torpedo of muscle."

The Trivelpieces started studying penguins in the early 1970s, the students said. The couple began by focusing on how three very similar species of penguins coexist in the same area and found that they use very different breeding and feeding strategies. Their work has broadened since then and become an ecological study of penguins, their main food (krill), sea ice, and the effect of climate change on all of those.

McWethy and Becker still keep in touch with the Trivelpieces and dream about returning to Antarctica. In the meantime, Becker is studying predator/prey dynamics in Yellowstone National Park. McWethy is analyzing songbird diversity in the Pacific Northwest. The Trivelpieces are now based at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in LaJolla, Calif.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu