Scripps researchers study emperor penguins in remote Antarctic - San Diego, California News Station - KFMB Channel 8 - cbs8.com

Scripps researchers study emperor penguins in remote Antarctic

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SAN DIEGO (CBS 8) - Emperor penguins are iconic birds of the Antarctic, yet a portion of their existence remains a mystery. Researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCSD are attempting to unravel the unknown.

Renowned researcher Jerry Kooyman has spent nearly 30 years studying emperor penguins. Last February he seized a rare opportunity to journey to the unknown to gather new data.

"We traveled to the ends of the Earth, essentially," Jerry said.

At age 78, kooyman led an expedition from San Diego to remote regions of the Antarctic to study the flightless birds after molting, a period that has never before been documented.

"There was a real gap in what their cycle is and that is what these birds do after they leave the colony and after they raise their chicks," Jerry said. "We had to get to this remote area and the only way you can do that this late season is on an ice breaker."

It's a region so unchartered, it's nicknamed "The Phantom Coast."

"If we had problems with the ship in this area at that time we could expect the soonest there would be any kind of rescue to us would be three weeks," Jerry said. "I was having too much fun to be afraid. At my age, you know, what do you got to lose?"

The crew eventually located a colony of birds. Their mission was to attach satellite transmitters on the emperors to track the birds' travel patterns during this mysterious period of their lives.

"The transmitters are attached by a combination of glue on feathers and stainless steel cable ties. We did all of them in about three days because we found a site where there was a concentration of birds and they were really friendly.

"These transmitters are pretty sophisticated. They not only transmit to a satellite but they transmit data as well, so we could get traveling data, dive data and so on," Jerry said.

Back home, Kooyman is analyzing the data. Researchers are hoping the birds will provide vital information on their habitat, including receding sea ice and climate warming.

This is the most iconic animal in the Antarctic, and anything we know about them is just new and exciting," Jerry said.

Kooyman told us they are still monitoring the transmitters. Since emperors are dependent on sea ice, their journey is key to understanding the ecosystem of the Antarctic.

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